Friday, March 05, 2010

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Anger Changes to Respect for Knowledge and People

This paper was originally part of a public seminar given at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in Manhattan in the spring of 2002. Participating were New York City teachers who presented, with evidence from their own classrooms, the enormous success of the Aesthetic Realism Method in teaching diverse subjects. It was published in The Science Teachers Bulletin in the Fall of 2007. I am personally grateful to the editor of this Journal, Kari Murad, for her encouragement and good will in publishing my work.

Aesthetic Realism was founded in 1941 by the American poet and educator, Eli Siegel. These crucial principles, stated by Mr. Siegel, are the basis of this teaching method: (1) "The purpose of education is to like the world" (Self and World). (2) Contempt: "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it" - is the greatest interference to learning and the fundamental cause of all injustice. (3) "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites"; this magnificent principle is the means to understand every subject-reading, writing, mathematics, history, science -- to see its beauty, and relate it to student's lives.

The Aesthetics of the Human Immune System

For more than three decades I saw each day how beautifully the Aesthetic Realism teaching method succeeds, and how deeply it changes anger in students to respect for knowledge and people! I say this with even greater conviction after teaching young people at LaGuardia High School (I have since retired) in Manhattan during months that followed the horrific attack on the World Trade Center.

We were in school less than a week when word came that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. In the days that followed, despite their shock and understandable fear, my students came to school every day, including three who lost a family member in the attack. This was so, even though students had to travel on trains that were often delayed or detoured due to police activity.

Meanwhile, as the weeks went on, many of them also showed they were both furious at a world they saw as senseless and against them. A feeling of resignation set in, "It all comes to nothing so why should I knock myself out?" Some stopped doing homework and didn't study for exams. Farah said, "Why should I study, I probably won't live to see college." Tom Allen, who lived across the street from ground zero and had to leave his home, sat with a glazed look in his eyes. He wasn't doing homework and was failing tests. Kim Smith sat at her desk looking angry all the time. After failing a test, she'd say to me with desparation, "I study but I don't get this stuff." Jorge Ceballos often cut class and didn't speak when he came. Alexi was suspicious and angry at the way he said his classmates were looking at him, and would yell at them across the room.

As I looked at these young people and saw how minute by minute they were making up their minds about whether the world deserved their respect or whether they should be angry at everything or indifferent, I knew it was urgent for them to see, through the facts of biology, what I have come to see through my study of Aesthetic Realism: that the same world that can be chaotic and even terrifying has a permanent, sensible structure of opposites that is related to oneself.

I. The Immune System Is an Efficient and Beautiful Relation of "For and Against" and "General and Specific"!

In early December, I gave four lessons about this complex and wonderful aspect of the human body. I began by asking, "What do you know about the work of the immune system?" Several students raised their hands. Anita said, "It keeps us from getting sick all the time." "That is true," I said, and told the class, "The human immune system puts together wonderfully the opposites of general and specific, and for and against. It equips our bodies, to fight, with tremendous constancy, faithfulness, and even great ferocity, anything that threatens our survival - by sending a general force of white blood cells to defend a site - a burn, a splinter, even a paper cut; and it also sends cells that seek out and destroy specific microorganisms and disease-causing agents that might gain entry into our body." We first studied the general response.

I asked, "Which of our organs do you think is the body's first line of defense?" They weren't sure. Then, Takia, asked, "Is it our skin?" "Right," I said. "And how does our skin provide that defense?" "As long as you don't have a cut," Tom Allen noted, "bacteria can't get into the body." I was glad to see Tom interested in this, and not having that far away look for once. I said, "Let's think about how completely and effectively our skin covers us. It is amazingly impervious to microscopic organisms, which means it's beautifully against things that might harm us and for what strengthens us.

I asked, "If we do get a cut, and the first line of defense - the skin - is injured, what happens around the site of the injury?" Tom raised his hand again, saying, "It gets red." "It might get swollen," Jose added. This, I told them, is called the inflammatory response, which is an indication that our immune system is working to defend us.

This brought us to key players in the immune system within our bodies: the courageous white blood cells! I told the class "Our white blood cells are the work force of the immune system And first on the scene are the ones representing the general force." There are two of these cells that respond rapidly to any threat, and are both present in an inflammatory response, 1. the neutrophils and 2. the macrophages. We read from an article by Stephen S. Hall, "Innate Defenses That Hold the Fort."

The first cells to show up at the site of inflammation are the neutrophils. A microbe or a splinter, it makes no difference--if it's foreign, it attracts the immediate notice of these nonspecific cells. Like sandbaggers at a cresting river, neutrophils...try to contain the impending damage by walling off the infective agent before it floods into adjoining tissues. (P. 21)

I asked the class, "How does the work of the neutrophils put together for and against? Rashida, very excited, said, "They're trying to protect us from further invasion by isolating the problem." And we learned that as neutrophils work to contain the threat, they also send out a general distress signal to the body for help.

Next, we read about the macrophages--also quick to arrive at the injured site. And what do they do? "The macrophages start chewing up bacteria and keeping them under control." (P. 21) I noted that macrophage means literally, "big eater."

The students thought this was amazing. I asked: "Do you think there's a difference between the inflammatory response of the immune system, and how WE can get inflamed--swollen with anger?" They were surprised. Then, Alexi, who had often yelled at other students, said self-critically: "I get made first and ask questions later." Karen Osgood said, with a mingling of agitation and uncertainty: "There's this girl in one of my classes that makes me furious and I can't help it. I know I shouldn't be so angry but she says things to aggravate me and it makes me wild." "Is there anything you can learn about yourself," I asked, "from the way the neutrophils respond to a hurt?" "Well, they try NOT to let it spill over into the whole body," she said. "That's different from what I do, I let my anger affect everything."

II. The Body Has a Desire to Know; Or, The Specific Immune Response

We then studied how the immune system fights very specific invaders called antigens. An antigen is any substance that can cause a response of the immune system. It could be a virus, a bacterium, or even cat dander, to which a person might have an allergic reaction. I'll note here that allergy is one of the ways the immune system goes wrong, by being against a material coming from the world, which is really NOT an enemy. That's like the way we can want to turn something or someone into an enemy who actually isn't. But in this lesson we were studying the immune system at its best, which is really most of the time.

It's important, too, that this lesson on how the immune system protects the body, was in a context of many other lessons, in which my students had seen how much the outside world is FOR our bodies--including through the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the sunlight that, after traveling 93 million miles, reaches our skin and produces much needed Vitamin D. Our bodies, in fact, depend on the world for their very existence.

We learned that in the specific immune response there are two types of very specialized cells: T cells which are produce in the Thymus gland and B cells which are produced in the bone marrow.

A. The T Cell: As we saw, when an antigen enters the body, the energetic macrophages engulf it and break it down into very small bits. "The purpose of breaking down the antigen," I said to the class, "is ultimately for the immune system to be able to know it better. So, while the macrophages are clearly against the antigen, is the body in a deep way also for it, honoring it, through wanting to know it?" This is what they do: After engulging and breaking the antigen down, the macrophage displays a minute piece on its outer surface and actually shows it to a helper T cell. The helper T cell is also a white blood cell that acts as an intermediary in calling out the more specialized B and T cells. We were seeing how exact the body is trying to be in its response to a possible invader.

Part of this desire to be exact is the following: On the surface of every person's cells there is a marker like a fingerprint, that clearly identifies your cells as just yours! For reasons that are still not wholly known, it seems that the ONLY way the helper T cell will respond to the macrophage and begin to do its important work is, if along with a fragment of the invading antigen, the macrophage also displays right next to it, your body cell marker which clearly identifies the macrophage as belonging to your body. So the SELF and NOT-SELF must be presented to the helper T cells together.

This thrilled my students. Tom, whose pleasure in learning biology was growing, added, "That is wild." I asked the class, "Do you think the immune system is showing that it takes a threat seriously, but is also has a desire to KNOW?" "Yes," they said. "What mistakes do you think we make about the opposites of thought and activity?" Jorge said, "You can act too fast and not think." Jorge, who earlier had not wanted to talk in class, was excited to see within the cells of our bodies, a relation of thought and activity that looked strong to him. I asked the class, "Do you think what we want and what our dear country needs to have now, is what the immune system has: a beautiful relation of activity AND thought, response to a threat AND a desire to
know?" They wanted very much to talk about this. Daniel said strongly, "If we don't want to understand why people in other countries are angry with us, we'll make even more mistakes, and more poeple will die. Mariah added, "We need to find who is responsible for all the people who died on September 11th, but we shouldn't just bomb the whole country and assume everyone is a terrorist."

B. The B Cell: The B cells are responsible for destroying antigens that are found OUTSIDE cells, for example, in the blood. They accomplish this by producing antibodies that are genetically programmed to attack very specific antigens, at a staggering rate of up to 10 million antibodies an hour. My students loved seeing how, as the B cells take care of the immediate threat, they (the B cells) also have the wisdom and efficiency to produce long-term memory cells so that the next time the antigen shows up, the B cells response is: "I know you--I've seen you before?"--and they act with swiftness and accuracy. This is how we become immune, say, to chickenpox or some other childhood disease after having had it. And within days of releasing antibodies, sometimes with the help of antibiotics, our B cells conquer the invader and make us well!

III. The Immune System Can Teach Us How to Be For and Against the World in a Way We Are Proud Of!

We read the following from our textbook: No medicine known to man can find a virus-infected cell with as much precision, doggedness, mortal intent, and long-term memory as a killer T cell.

The killer T cells literally perforate and blow up cells with viruses lurking in them. They destroy cancer cells as well. We discussed the meaning of each of these words--precision, doggedness, mortal intent, long-term memory. There is ferocity here, but with precision and a hope for exactitude. It is a beautiful relation of for and against that we should be so grateful for and my students saw that.

Ultimately, the battle ends when the mission has been accomplished: the viruses destroyed, our bodies restored to health. That's when the suppressor T cells call off the attack and tell the killer T cells to cease. I asked the class, "Have you ever been angry with someone who later apologized to you, but you didn't want to stop being angry?" Several students said resoundingly, "Yes! I asked, "Suppose the killer T cells said, "I don't want to call off the attack: I'm not finished being ferocious--would that strengthen or weaken the body?" "Weaken it," they said. "This is because they go off on their own, sloppily mowing down and even destroying healthy cells. "Is this like a person who becomes blind with rage?" "Might we weaken ourselves, if we don't want to give up a wrong anger?" I asked. I said that many years ago I was angry at the world in a way that hurt my life very much--because the way I was against people and for my own opinons was generally inexact and sloppy. I'm very grateful that in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel explained, "We like anger because we feel it establishes our personality." And he asked me, "Have you been interested in seeing whether your anger has been sloppy?" "No, I haven't been," I said, with a feeling of relief. He suggested an assignment that continues to change my life: to write an essay - "How Can I Be Proud of My Next Anger." I learned that a beautiful anger is one that is against what is unjust and for what will make the world better and stronger.

My students loved these lessons. They remembered the names and different jobs of the white blood cells, and when I reviewed the material for the final exam, they gave animated, exact descriptions of the workings of this complex system. That they were able to take all this is in, and even like taking it in--especially at this most frightening time in New York City--is so important.

The fall semester of 2001 was by far the most challenging of my entire teaching career, but it was also one of the most fulfilling. In the midst of difficult circumstances, my students showed they were thirsty for evidence that the world which seemed so chaotic and unpredictable could be respected and honestly liked. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, they learned the subject, and came to feel the world as such was not an enemy, but a friend; and they became kinder, stronger, and happier.

Ninety percent of the students passed the course. In many of them, a sodden resignation changed into an energetic desire to learn, to do their homework, and study for tests. Forty students did an extensive extra credit project on an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History entitled, "The Genomic Revolution."

Tom Allen, who earlier had to leave his home near ground zero, asked and answered questions daily. His eyes had a sparkle in them, and the glazed look of once, was replaced by a warm smile and a keen interest in the subject. He got an 80 on the final exam. Jorge had completely stopped cutting class, was participating in discussions, and very proud that he was studying for and passing every exam. He too got a final grade of 80. Kim, one so angry, was now talking to her classmates. Her face had softened and she even smiled. When she learned she had passed the class, she shouted out loud with joy.

Note: *The names of students have been changed for this publication. For more information aobut this teaching method, call 212-777-4490 and see

** Additional note: Portions of this work have been published before under the following name and reference: Plumstead, R. "Turning Anger into Respect." The Phillipine Post May 2002: 17-18.

Hall, S. (1998) Billions of Powerful Weapons to Choose From. Arousing the Fury of the Immune System: A Report of the Howard Hughest Medical Institute. (pp. 6-24).

Rosemary Plumstead taught 33 years in New York City public high schools. She is a Consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, where, since 1975, she has taught along with her colleagues in All For Education, a bi-weekly workshop for educators and has traveled the country giving presentations on this method at art, science, and state education conferences. She is a co-auther of the book, Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism by Alice Bernstein and Others, published by Orange Angle Press in 2004.