Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Aesthetics of Science Education



The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel is the solution to the national emergency in education. For more than 30 years, I have used it as the basis of my teaching students from every borough of New York City, and what I have seen happen to their ability to learn is tremendous.

Eli Siegel explained the purpose of education: “to like the world through knowing it.” When students see in the facts about a subject that the same world that can pain and confuse them is made in a way they can honestly respect, they learn eagerly. I have seen students who were furious and on the verge of dropping out, give the world a second chance. They retain what they learn, they pass the course and they become kinder.

LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, where I taught (1991-2004), is a school for students interested in the arts. Like young people throughout America, they are affected horribly by our economic system. The prospect of a well-paying job is bleak. Many can’t afford to attend even local colleges because the tuition is too high and books are expensive. Yvette James,* for example, spent the year selling cupcakes so she could get a dress for graduation. And when I asked Karen Dobbs why she was absent so often, she told me her father had lost his job and her family was forced to move in with an aunt.

Environmental Science & OurselvesI’ll speak today about one lesson, on symbiosis, which I taught in my environmental science classes. The basis of it and all my teaching is this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”  The lesson I’ll tell of brought out my students’ desire and ability to learn because they saw evidence that the world has structure that can be honestly liked: it is a oneness of dependence and independence, sameness and difference. The textbook “Biology: The Dynamics of Life,” describes symbiosis as a dramatic situation in which organisms of different species are interdependent on each other for protection, food, or energy.

I asked the class, “What do you think are the possible effects that two organisms can have on each other?” “Positive, negative, or no effect,” Myrna answered. In the case where two organisms of different species have a positive effect on each other, benefit from their interdependence," I explained, "it is called mutualism." And when I asked for an example, Tony spoke about a National Geographic video we’d seen on the tropical rainforest. “How about the ants and the tree,” he said: “they helped each other.”

The swollen thorn acacia tree, which grows in the Costa Rican rainforest, is inhabited by a species of ants, and the tree and the ants completely support each other. The acacia has edible leaves, which make it prey to plant-eating insects. But the ants come to the rescue! Any insect that lands on the leaves is visited by the ants, who nip at it until it flees.

In turn, the acacia tree takes care of the ants. At the base of the swollen thorns, are nectaries that secrete a sugary, rich solution that the ants get nourishment from.  It also provides protein rich, oval shaped structures on the leaves of some branches, which the ants remove and carry as food to their developing larvae. These larvae are housed in huge thorns on the limbs of the tree. “It’s great,” said Manny.

“What opposites are made one in mutualism?” I asked. “Well, they’re both helping each other and getting something too,” Candace called out. Each is an independent organism, trying to survive. To have the ability to help another is an aspect of independence; to need something from that other is dependence.

Then I asked Lydia about the same opposites in us. “How long can you live without oxygen?” “Just a few minutes,” she said. “So we’re completely dependent on oxygen for life. But,” I continued, “does the fact that the world supplies the oxygen we need, enslave us or make us free?” “I think it makes us free,” she said, smiling.

That I could see needing the world as the same as freedom, I owe to my Aesthetic Realism education in individual consultations and later in classes taught by Mr. Siegel. As to how I saw needing people, he asked me: “Do you have a desire to defy anything that comes from someone else?” “Yes, I do,” I answered. And he asked: “Is there any person in this world who couldn’t be useful to you?” No-every person provides a chance, at least, to know more. I began to think about dependence and independence in a new way.

These opposites trouble everyone, and very much high school students. They want to run their own lives, and resent having to answer to anybody, including parents. They also want to feel that they need other people--for friendships, encouragement. Through learning about mutualism, we were also learning how to have these opposites in a better relation in our own lives.

Good Will in Nature?We talked about another pair of opposites: sameness and difference. “What do you notice,” I asked, “about the organisms that are involved in this relation?” “They’re very different from each other,” said Jennifer. We discussed how each, though different, has a similar purpose—to survive—and does so by taking care of the other organism, making it stronger.

I told them this definition of good will by Eli Siegel: “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” “Do you think that something like good will is going on between two beings in mutualism?” “Yes,” they answered. “There are thousands of instances in which this occurs,” I said. Mikhail told how lichen, which lives on bare rock, is formed by a relation of alga and fungus which support each other. Jose thought of how plants provide oxygen for us while we provide carbon dioxide for them. We had a deep discussion in one class about whether the relation between a blind person and a seeing eye dog was an example of mutualism. We thought so.

I asked the class, “How different do you think the world would be if people took good will seriously?” “Very different,” commented Manny thoughtfully. Through the opposites my students were learning science and at the same time, becoming deeper, more compassionate people.

Commensalism & Parasitism TooIn the relation called commensalism, the opposites of sameness and difference, dependence and independence are present differently. In commensalism, the textbook said, one organism benefits and the other is seemingly unchanged. However, we need to ask questions about this.  For example, when a barnacle attaches to a whale, it gets to travel over lots of territory in which to feed, and this has a good effect on the barnacle. Whales are highly intelligent, and if a whale wanted to--it, or another whale--could possibly rid itself of barnacles.  Perhaps the whale even has a sense of pride that it can be a means of such a delicate being surviving and flourishing.

Clearly, this is a thrilling and humorous relation, of sameness and difference between these two beings: both live in the water and eat organisms found there, but a whale weighs as much as 58 tons.  Humpback whales migrate from Alaska to their winter home in Hawaii--over 6,000 miles--while the barnacles weigh only a few ounces and as adults are unable to move on their own.  This relation pleased my students very much. 

There was a great deal of stir in the class as we looked at the last type of relationship, parasitism. In it, difference and sameness, dependence and independence are at war. In parasitism, one organism gets stronger by feeding off and weakening another. In most cases, the parasite damages or causes disease in the host, and it can even cause death.

My students were most interested in the tapeworm, which secures itself to the inner walls of an animal or human intestine and absorbs its food. They looked at slides of a tapeworm, and saw how it works--its four discs on its tiny square head which grasp the lining of the intestine and suck nutrition from it; how it grows segment by segment to reach twelve to twenty feet or more in length.  Ronnie said, “It’s so nasty!” Every now and then I’d hear “yuk” from somewhere in the room. But they were gripped. We were all seeing this tremendously important fact: even something evil can be a subject of knowledge. We were seeing what Mr. Siegel explained: “Reality, says science, is at least good to know.”

“What can we learn about ourselves from these symbiotic relationships?” I asked. “I think people can be like parasites sometimes,” commented Alicia. “In business they can want to get ahead and it doesn’t matter who they step on.” “But do you think there are ordinary ways that we take the life out of things around us?” I asked. “By making fun of someone,” Terry remarked. “Not caring about someone’s feelings,” Jeremy replied. These are instances of contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

“Can these organisms teach us something about how we want to be?” I asked. “Do we want to be strong by respecting what’s different from us, including people, by hoping they are as good as they can be; or do we want to get a false sense of strength through making less of people? The cruelty and violence that make the streets of New York and the halls in many schools dangerous,” I said, “come from contempt”—from the feeling we’ll be more if we lessen someone else.”

When I asked, “Of the three relationships we studied, which one would you be proud to have?,” Ronnie said, “Mutualism”—to the agreement of others.

This lesson affected my students tremendously.  Increasingly they learned with ease and pleasure--were kinder to each other.  Ninety percent of these students passed the course. On Open School Night one mother waited a half an hour to tell me, “My son loves science for the first time, and he’s passing. Thank you so much.” The students have more respect for each other, and for life as such. Julian Thomas wrote: “I used to shoot birds with my BB gun, but since this class I saw they have feelings. I don’t do it anymore.” And Reginald Moore wrote that he thought if all students could learn through the Aesthetic Realism method, “our community would get along better. There would be a stupendous change in society, tremendous improvement.” I am proud to agree with Reginald.

Rosemary Plumstead is a consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and has presented workshops for science educators at many professional conferences. This paper was part of a public seminar given at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. For more information about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, you can visit the Foundation’s website at:

*The student’s names have been changed.