Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and the Desire to Know by Rosemary Plumstead

When I began studying Aesthetic Realism in 1974, I was asked for the first time in my life to think consciously about this question: what does it mean to know?  This is one of the most fortunate occurances of my life because I was given the rare opportunity to reconsider how much of the world I had wanted to know and how deeply.  Through my Aesthetic Realism education my attitude to the whole world has changed, including how I see knowledge.  "The purpose of all education," Eli Siegel stated, "is to like the world through knowing it."  As I have wanted to know the world more my mind has gone from something like a dark room to one with true sunlight in it.  I, for the most part, used what I knew to be important rather than fair to the world.  In my mind, knowing a subject was being able to feel I was in control of it and through it, the world.  How different this is from the purpose I came to have as a teacher using the Aesthetic Realism method.

I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that what it means to know the world is to see it aesthetically, as a oneness of opposites.  The basis of my lessons is in this principle by Eli Siegel:

"The world, art, and self explain each other:
each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

Through seeing how the world and ourselves are a oneness of the opposites of fact and meaning, sameness and difference, specificity and relation, my students and I have been able to know more about the world and to find likeable meaning in it.

I. Opposites in a Molecule and Yourself

In a general science lesson I taught to 9th grade students, they were learning how to like the structure of the world through the way opposites are made one in a simple water molecule.  And they were also learning how the opposites in a water molecule can teach them about some of the most troubling questions of their lives.

We began my looking at one atom of hydrogen. In the textbook, Chemistry: A Humanistic Approach, by Lidia Vallarino and James Quagliano, there is this description:

Hydrogen is present in enormous quantities in the Sun and in
other stars. On Earth, hydrogen is one of two components of
water. Thus, it is present everywhere there is water--in the
oceans, lakes, rivers, and clouds. There is also water in the sap
of plants and in the bodies of animals. Thus, all of these things
contain hydrogen as a major component.

Hydrogen is the simplest and also the lightest of all the elements.  It consists of only one positively charged particle called a proton, which is located in the nucleus and seems more at rest, and one negatively charged particle called an electron, which is in constant motion circling around the nucleus.  Every hydrogen atom puts together the opposites of positive and negative, heaviness and lightness, simplicity and complexity, rest and motion.

These same opposites pain young people very much.  For example, the same girl who is exuberantly in motion, talking with her friends during the change of class, can, twenty minutes later, fall sound asleep during a lesson.  I asked Myra Douglas, "Do you feel that when you're at rest, reading a book, you're the same person as when you're in motion?"  Myra said, "No, I don't."  As Myra and the other students saw that every hydrogen atom present in the sun, stars and themselves puts together the opposites of rest and motion at the same time, they began to see that there is a kinship between themselves and the outside world.

We also saw that as abundant as hydrogen is, it cannot exist in the earth's atmosphere by itself, that is, as a free element.  Hydrogen must form a bond with atoms different from itself; and if that is not possible, it will bond to another hydrogen atom.  This is a study in independence and need, separation and junction.

We looked at a diagram of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom separated from each other.  In this state, I explained, each atom--hydrogen and oxygen--is highly reactive.  That is, they are agitated because they are incomplete.  Each atom has electrons the other atom needs in order to complete an electron ring and therefore become stable.  They get this stability through what is called electron sharing.  The separate atoms JOIN and form what is called a covalent bond.

I told the class, "In order for hydrogen to become the life-sustaining substance, water, it must be joined with and completed by oxygen.  If this junction did NOT take place, there would be no water, and without water, there would be no life."  This fact moved my students very much.

They were also thrilled to see that as each atom GETS stability through bonding, it also GIVES stability. What does this say about our lives? In Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel writes:

"A person is separate from all other things and together with all
other things. To understnad opposites in a self, the meaning of
together and separate must be seen...The probleem that faces a
self is how to make its separateness at one with its togetherness.
This is the problem which is underneath all others.  It can make
for agony and it can make for triumph; it can make for painful
jumpiness or mobile composure. "

We saw that every atom in a water molecule solves the problem Mr. Siegel describes--"how to make its separateness at one with its togetherness."  Not being able to put these opposites together torments young people.

I asked my class, "Can you think of any time when you're completely separated from the world?" One student said, "Yes, when you're asleep."  Another students said, "no, because you're breathing." And another student added, "You're also dreaming."  Seeing this pleased them very much and I saw that it gave them a sense of composure to know that always they are in relation to the outside world.

II. The Study of the Opposites Combats Contempt

I am so grateful that in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1975, Eli Siegel wrote ten statements about education. In point three, there are these sentences:

"We want to know the world better and welcome it and we want to
put it aside and forget about it. This desire to welcome the world
and put it aside can get one very angry."

Students can feel that the world is a confusing, painful place and things are just too much for them. Many have parents who are out of work and face eviction from their homes.  The rising cost of tuition is making it impossible for students to attend college and they feel they have to settle for lives that are less than they what they truly hope for.  Without knowing it, young people are in a terrible fight between wanting "to put aside the world," and wanting to welcome it.  Learning how to like the world through the subject counters the despair that can be in students and enables them to be more critical of injustice in the world.

I pointed to the molecule of water drawn on the blackboard, and we were excited to see that two gases, hydrogen and oxygen, together make a liquid, water, through how they join and work together, and it is beautiful.  "Does this show," I asked, "that it is possible for us to be joined to the world in a way that makes us stronger and also free?"  They thought, "Yes."

This lesson and others like it throughout the term well affected my students' lives.  Their minds worked with greater depth and clarity as they saw how opposites are one in the structure of the atom, or the periodic table, and that these same opposites are present in their mothers and in themselves. They pass standardized tests with greater confidence and ease.

At the end of the term, Marian Fuller, who earlier described how she liked to be by herself in her room, wrote: "I learned that I can never be separated from the world.  I will always be in and of the world through taking in oxygen."  Another young woman who in September said that the thing she liked to do most, including in my class, was to sleep, no longer feels this. Students who were angry get along better with each other and are so much happier.

It means my life to me that I feel my effect on my students is strengthening.  Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method every teacher can have this wonderful feeling every day!