Thursday, November 24, 2005

What is Education For?

At this time in the history of education, there is enormous pressure on teachers and students to achieve standards and pass tests as the main indication that learning is taking place successfully in classrooms. In my opinion, testing certainly has its place and usefulness in education. But in the last years before I retired in July, 2004, I experienced the "standards and testing frenzy" that has teachers and students stressed, angry, and to say the least, puzzled. Isn't teaching and learning supposed to be a serious yet joyful experience?

Well, in April, 1963, Eli Siegel was answering the main question that I believe is churning in educators and in students today whether they know it or not--What is Education For?, and he does so in a way that is philosophic, meaningful, practical, bringing a desperately needed breathe of fresh air to how education should be seen. Mr. Siegel was then being interviewed by Peter Gorlin on WKCR radio and a short portion of that interview, published at the time by Definition Press, I am happy to recount for you now.

Mr. Gorlin. In many of your works, you have mentioned the relationship between Aesthetic Realism and education. Well--just what do you mean?

Mr. Siegel. The purpose of education is to have a person have an adequate sense of the world that he is of. Aesthetic Realism says that if the arts and the sciences are studies in opposites, then it would be well if education included Aesthetic Realism.

We have in Aesthetic Realism, as I see it, a method for that synthesis of the arts and sciences that all the educators in convention talk about: how can we bring together the value studies with the fact studies? how can we bring together the study of chemistry with the study of the values of the Renaissance? how can we bring together the study of the value of the Victory at Samothrace with the study of the nature of stone or marble or granite? how can we bring together church history with a full appreciation of a Monet painting of a saintly edifice?

Education has two purposes: One, to be fair to the world as it is, might be, was; and the other, to bring out all that we can be. Aesthetic Realism says that bringing out all that we can be is the same as being fair to the world that is, was, and might be.

So Aesthetic Realism is an educational method. And the first thing that it asks is: What is there is common in biology, and in history, and in the study of music, and in psychology, and in religion, and in cookery, and in the study of the history of sport, and in the study of fabrics, and in the study of chemistry, and the study of geology, and in the study of the dance? Is there something in common?

The one thing that is in common is, the opposites, because in every art and every science, there is the something that is and something that changes. In every art and in every science, there is Something One and Something Many. In every art and every science, there is the presence of the subjective and the objective. In every art and in every science, there is the presence of fact and value.

What I have mentioned are opposites. They each have an individual meaning. In biology, for example, there is life, but the life of an insect is quite clearly different from the life of a cow or the life of a philosopher. We have, then sameness and difference. Biology is the study of all life, and there is something akin in life, whether it is present in a butterfly, present in a fish, or present in a king, as Hamlet might say. The study of sameness and difference is the study of things where they begin.

Mr. Siegel stated years later that: "the purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it." And the means to knowing and liking the world is explained in this principle by him: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Throughout my thirty year career using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method,and teaching it to educators, this principle has provided a basis for my showing 1) that there is a structure of opposites making for beauty in every subject of the curriculum, in particular science; 2) that the beauty found in the subject shows that the world, with all its injustice, is made well and can therefore be honestly liked and respected; and 3) through the opposites the different subjects studied are related to each other and to the every day lives of students attending my classes. Studying how opposites are made one in the structure of the cell membrane, in the human heart, in plant transport, in the structure of a leaf, and so much more, made learning and teaching for ME a deep, exciting experience as I saw in a daily way evidence that there IS beauty in the very structure of how reality is made. As students use study of a subject to know and like the world, they learn AND they pass their standardized tests with ease. What is education for?--knowing and honestly liking the world we were born into as a means of liking ourselves!