Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Succeeds: Students Learn, Prejudice is Defeated!

The following is a portion of a paper on education I was pleased to give several years ago at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.
This article was also published in the Fall, 2004 issue of the PSTA Exchange.

For more than 27 years I have used the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and I know that it can end prejudice--in students and teachers! It enables students to love learning, and to be kind, because Eli Siegel explained the purpose of education: "to like the world through knowing it." And he described the greatest interference to learning and the cause of all prejudice: contempt, which he defined as: "The addition to self through the lessening of something else."

When I began teaching in a Bronx high school in 1971, I would have denied that I was prejudiced. But the truth was, I unknowingly looked to find things in students that would ratify my anger with the world different from myself. This showed, I very much regret to say, in how I saw students of ethnic backgrounds different from mine. I mocked the accents of my Latino students and told myself that the African-American students were unmotivated. I was horribly superior to all my students and patronized them.

I loathe this ugly, contemptuous, inaccurate way of seeing, and am tremendously thankful that through my Aesthetic Realism education I have changed! As I learned in Aesthetic Realism consultations about the fight in me, as it is in every person, between the desire to respect the world and people and my desire to have contempt, I saw more truly what represented me. And I am very grateful that now as I look at my students, I see them as having rich meaning, dignity, depth of mind. And I want to bring the very best out of them--and also learn from them.

I tell now what happened in two Regents biology classes I taught at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. The young people I teach come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. They are horribly affected by our unjust economy. Many live in some of the most unsafe areas of New York, and some hear gunshots daily. Many have part-time jobs after school and on weekends to help their families.

When I first met these 9th and 10th graders, I saw that students of the same ethnic background tended to stay close to each other and separate from those of other backgrounds. Often, when one student asked a question, others would talk together and not listen. They simply did not feel the thoughts of another were worthy of interest and respect. Many of these young people had met racial prejudice, and they understandably but wrongly used the injustice to feel, "This is a messy world, and I have a right to hate everything--from the person sitting next to me whose skin color is different, to the boring subjects I'm supposed to learn!" Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, this feeling changed! I was able to show them through the facts of science that the world has a thrilling, sensible structure, from which we can learn about ourselves. I told the class, "The basis of these lessons is this great principle of Aesthetic Realism, stated by Eli Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

I. The Cell Membrane is Not Prejudiced

As we looked at an illustration in our text, I asked the class, "Can you see what the major function of the cell membrane is?"  Tonya said, "It separates the cell from what's around it."  James added, "Things the cell needs, like water and oxygen, are transported through the membrane."  Right away we saw the opposites: every cell membrane both separates and joins, is impermeable and also permeable, in a beautiful and efficient way.  The fact that this takes place everywhere is every person's body, in a structure that is so fundamental yet so minute, is awesome.

In this class we were studying phospholipids, of which the double wall of the membrane is made.  I drew one on the board and told the class,  "A phospholipid is a molecule which has a head made of a phosphate group, and two fatty acid tails.  The head is hydrophilic, which means it is water-loving. The two fatty acid tails, however, are hydrophobic, or water-fearing."

There is a watery environment outside the cell membrane as well as inside the cell; and every cell membrane is made up of two layers of phospholipids.  Through a diagram in "Biology: Living Systems" by Oram and Hummer, we saw that the cell membrane is formed when, in the presence of water, the phospholipids spontaneously align themselves with the water-loving heads facing the water both inside and outside the cell, and the water-fearing tails facing away from the water.

"What makes it stay like that?" Shantel asked.  My students found the reason amazing.  "The dynamic force keeping the phosopholipids in place," I said, "arises from the oneness of attraction and repulsion.  The water-loving phosphate heads are attracted to the water molecules, while at the same time the hydrophobic fatty acid tails are repulsed by them."

"As we look at this cell membrane," I continued, "are we seeing the opposites of for and against working together beautifully, making for its stability?"  And this takes place in the cells of all living beings!  Then I asked, "Is it taking place in the person sitting next to you right now, who may be from a different culture?"  I saw students look at each other with a sense of wonder.

"When you see the aesthetic structure of the world," Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education of Aesthetic Realism has explained,"you respect the world, and you don't feel you've got to get revenge on it.  You cannot have a prejudice against a person when you see the aesthetic structure of the world in him or her."

II. Can We Include and Exclude Beautifully?

Proteins in the phospholipids play a central role in the ability of the membrane to allow certain materials to pass into and out of the cell.  Different proteins, assisted by enzymes, will include and exclude--keep out something a blood cell doesn't need that will be allowed entry into a nerve cell.

Seeing these opposites made one in the cell membrane led to a discussion about how we, in our attitude to things, include and exclude, are for and against.  Is it on a respectful basis or a contemptuous one? "  Do you think the way we exclude the thoughts and feelings of people different from ourselves is as kind and sensible as what happens with the cell membrane?" I have asked.  And "Do you think if a person doesn't like the world, he or she can become impenetrable and hard?"

By the end of the semester the students were definitely kinder to each other.  As students saw day by day that they share a structure of opposites--beginning in their very cells--they had more respect for each other and the world.  And through the opposites, they had a real grasp of the subject. 93 percent of these students passed the course.

For more information about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and workshops given for educators you can visit the Foundation's website at: