The Method That Succeeds
By Sally Ross
I am very proud to be using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method in my science classes at Seward Park High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the thirteen years I have taught in New York City schools, I have seen the deep, powerful effect of this method on students’ lives; and never has the need for Aesthetic Realism been more urgent than now.
It is common to hear students make fun of each other’s languages, and to see suspicion among students of different cultures. Fights have broken out in our school cafeteria and the parking lot across the street; and at times there are police cars outside, to prevent fights as students leave the building.
Aesthetic Realism is the one means of ending prejudice, because Eli Siegel understood where it begins in the self: the cause of all prejudice, he explained, is Contempt, “a disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
I am so fortunate to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that though I saw myself as “liberated,” I was deeply prejudiced against other people simply because they weren’t me! When I began to teach, I contemptuously presumed my students didn’t have it in them to do as well academically as I had, and unknowingly I was out to prove this. In my first teaching job, at Cardinal Hayes High School, an all-boys’ Catholic school in the South Bronx, under the guise of having “high standards” I gave work that was much too hard, for which my students had not been prepared. The first quiz had thirty-three difficult questions.
When all my classes failed I was distraught, yet I told myself triumphantly, “We weren’t like this in high school.” I then made the tests easier—not out of good will, but with contempt for the students’ possibilities. This patronizing attitude brought out anger and contempt in my students, and the lessons were interrupted by loud talking, paper airplanes, and spitballs.
Fortunately, I heard Aesthetic Realism criticism! In classes with All For Education I was given assignments—such as, to write something every day that a student in my class knew which I didn’t know and from which I could learn. This assignment made me respect my students more, immediately.
I told them what I was learning from All For Education, including the criticism I received about making my lesson plans so obscure no one could understand them; and these young men were kind: they wanted me to be better, and I’m grateful to them.
Most of the students I now teach at Seward Park High School are Latino, African-American, and Asian. Some have lived their whole lives in places that are dangerous, where they are looked down on because of their accent, lack of money, or the color of their skin. I was proud to tell them how angry I am at our cruel economy, and also to express the shame that I, as a white person, have for the injustice they have met, and my gratitude to Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to be against prejudice, including in myself.
Even Here—Reality’s Opposites
I will tell of a lesson about viruses, part of a larger unit on disease, which I taught to my Human Development classes. I began it by saying that our purpose in studying viruses is the same as the purpose of all education: “to like the world through knowing it.”
Aesthetic Realism describes the one basis on which we can honestly like the world, without ignoring the painful or ugly: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Scientists have studied viruses in order to learn how to combat them; and my students saw that this purpose puts together opposites: going toward something through knowledge, as a means of being accurately against it.
I read the class these sentences from The Body Victorious, by Lennart Nilsson: “No virus exceeds a few millionths of a millimeter in diameter. To a virus...the human cell is like a whole city block.” Though viruses are tiny, they are extremely powerful: they can fell organisms billions of times larger than themselves—including people.
Students were very excited to see that viruses, which are so fearsome, are made up of the same opposites—power and delicacy, large and small—that are elsewhere in reality. I asked: “What other things in the world can you think of that are very small but very powerful?” Robert de la Cruz* said, “An ant—it can carry things a hundred times its weight.” Lorraine Johnson said, “A microchip from a computer can store thousands of pages of information.”
I asked, “What about a word?” Jamal Coleman said, “I’ll tell you a powerful word: love.” Everyone said, “Yeah!”
Viruses and Contempt
We learned that viruses are not cells; they consist of a piece of nuclear material, DNA or RNA, surrounded by a coat of protein, and they can’t reproduce on their own. What does a virus do? It either remains inactive, or it invades a living organism and uses the cells of that organism to reproduce itself; and in the process, the virus destroys the cells. I read the class this description by Nilsson of a T4 virus invading a cell:
After about twenty minutes, the cell bursts and a couple of hundred new virus particles pour out. Each one of them can infect an additional cell. Every twenty minutes, infected body cells thus shed thousands, and soon millions, of these particles. In twelve hours...an unprepared immune system cannot possibly mobilise countervailing weaponry: we fall ill.
Students commented that, considering the power of viruses and the fact that they are found in water, air, soil, on dust, in food, it is amazing we don’t get sick more often.
The reason is that our bodies produce special proteins called antibodies that prevent the virus from attaching to our cells. Thousands of antibodies, which act on specific viruses, are produced every second. Another way our bodies defend themselves is with interferon, a substance released by infected cells that alerts neighboring cells to the presence of the virus. These neighboring cells then produce a protein that keeps the virus from multiplying within them.
It was thrilling to the class to learn about this fight between the healthy cells and virus and see that it is related to an ethical fight in people. Students saw that what the virus does is like what we can do: want to take over and run other people, without caring who they are or what they feel. We saw that while viruses are harmful, through studying them scientists have been learning to oppose them. In the same way as a virus can be examined under an electron microscope as a means of its being fought successfully, we can look with scientific rigor at our contempt, and oppose it. For example, I asked students to write down one way they had tried to build themselves up by making less of someone or something else; and I respected their courage as they eagerly volunteered to read what they had written.
Jay Randall told that some children used to make fun of him because he grew up in a foster home; he said one day when he was ten he punched a boy for this and, while he felt tough at the time, he wished he had “expressed himself in a more eloquent way.” I asked: “Are you saying you shouldn’t have met this person’s unkindness by having contempt yourself?” Jay said with a smile of pride, “Well, I was only ten—but yes!” Luis Diaz told about coming to school one day with a new haircut and new clothes and feeling superior to a friend who didn’t have such nice clothes. Later he was sorry. Jason Miller told how, the day before, when he was in the cafeteria feeling bored, he began dissing people around him. By the time he got home, he felt really bad. Students listened to one another with great interest. They saw that their contempt had weakened them—that they didn’t like themselves for having it.
Vaccine: The Harmful Made Useful
When I asked the class how many of them had had the measles, very few hands were raised. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. Lisa Morris said, “I had a vaccination for measles.” I asked if they knew what was in the measles vaccine. “It is made of the measles virus itself. The virus has been treated chemically so that it is too weak to give you the disease, but strong enough to enable your body to recognize it and produce antibodies, in order to protect you if you become exposed to the actual measles virus.” Students were excited to see the opposites: the thing that causes a disease can, in another form, prevent our getting it. “Do you think this shows that knowing a hurtful thing is a way of being against it?” I asked. “This goes for contempt too.”
The effect that this and other lessons had on my classes was profound. They learned. And not only did these Human Development classes do well on the exam about viruses—but students who had made fun of each other’s accents became kinder; they listened to each other with new respect. I was moved one day to hear a Chinese student ask some Latino students in the class to help him choose an American nickname for himself; they all decided on “Peter.”
I was very moved by what my students wrote at the end of our study of viruses. David Zeng, a young man who had been in Special Education classes for many years, wrote: “This study proved to me that contempting anyone else would not make me bigger. No matter what kind of color people are, they are the same human as me.” And Rafael Martinez wrote: “Through this class I’ve learned that everyone is equal, and no one should put someone else down just to make yourself feel better....This is something everyone should study.” I am proud to agree.