Education: Ethical and Beautiful
Dear Unknown Friends:
On March 14, 1973 Eli Siegel gave, at one of his Wednesday Nevertheless Poetry Classes, the lecture Educational Method Is Poetic. Though he saw it as having a certain casualness, it is mighty. It is an urgent classic for educators and everyone. And we are honored to begin serializing it here.
What is in this lecture is, of course, related to the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—the method which, for decades, has succeeded magnificently while other approaches have failed and while schools have increasingly become places of anger and non-learning. Year after year, teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism method in their New York City public school classrooms have documented that success in seminars, articles, and professional conferences. Through this method, children—including those on whom other teachers had given up—like the subjects in the curriculum; they learn; and they have authentic respect for people different from themselves, instead of scorn and fury.
Eli Siegel is the educator who saw that "the purpose of education is to like the world" (Self and World, p. 5). And the following principle stated by him—so philosophically historic and humanly kind—is the basis of the Aesthetic Realism method; through it, children come to see the subjects they meet as friendly to their very lives: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." A child sees, for example, how an algebraic equation is a making one of the known and unknown; how high and low, and depth and surface, are together in earth science; how a noun becomes more itself as it is changed by an adjective. These are bewildering, even tormenting, opposites in the child’s own life; and seeing that a subject shows they can make sense, the child cares for that subject and happily learns it.
In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel explains that education itself, the very procedure of learning, is a oneness of the opposites which are also one in a line of poetry. Let us take, for example, a line of Keats, from "Sleep and Poetry": "A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air." We will see Mr. Siegel showing that education is, at once, freedom and structure. And so is the line of Keats: the iambic rhythm, with its order, goes on, as we feel the motion of that pigeon, and the air itself, are grandly untrammeled. Education, Mr. Siegel shows, is always an individual self merging truly with the outside world. And the line I quoted has lived because the self of John Keats, in all his particularity, was so fair to an outside fact that the result was musical. Then, the line makes other opposites one. There is great exactitude in it, yet how warm it is—we can almost feel the heartbeat of that bird; and true education is both exact and warm. And the line has, as education should have, a simultaneous beautiful accuracy and wonder.
The Aesthetics of Public Education
A very current matter concerning education is the effort to make public education increasingly private, through such techniques as vouchers and for-profit "charter schools." I comment on that matter now in relation to aesthetics, which also means ethics. The coming to be of public education and compulsory education—education for all children—was a tremendous victory of ethics in human history. Humanity’s biggest fight, Aesthetic Realism shows, is between respect for reality and contempt for reality. This fight goes on within every person; and it has also been the fight in history itself. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." He showed that contempt is what all cruelty comes from; and it is the thing in us which weakens our minds.
Public education and compulsory education are not the same, but they are fundamentally connected; and both represent the victory of respect for people over contempt. Compulsory education for all children was a saying, after thousands of years, that every child has the right to knowledge. It is based on the oneness of self and world: the idea that the world as knowable is inseparable from the self of everyone, and therefore everyone is compelled to learn. Public education is based on the opposites of one person and the manyness of the nation. Public education is the saying that all the people of a land owe it to a single child to have knowledge come to him or her. It is also a saying that a child’s need for knowledge should not be exploited for private profit.
Fundamental to America
To indicate a little how fundamental public education is to the democratic basis of America, I quote from two sources. The famous 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the establishment of America’s first public schools. And it quotes the revered educator Horace Mann (1796-1859) to place the world-importance of that very early enactment:
In 1647, [there] was enacted the law which is not only the real foundation of the Massachusetts school system, but the type of later legislation throughout the United States....It required every town of fifty householders to establish a school....Horace Mann said of the act of 1647: "It is impossible for us adequately to conceive the boldness of the measure, which aimed at universal education through the establishment of free schools. As a fact it had no precedent in the world’s history....But time has ratified its soundness....[It was] as wise as it was courageous, and as beneficent as it was disinterested."
My second source is Schools and the Law, by E. Edmund Reutter, Jr. (NY, 1960). Reutter says on page 12:
The first instance of federal-level legislation in the area of the public schools took place even before the federal Constitution was adopted. The Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 provided for land grants to the states from the public domain for the "maintenance of public schools."...[They state that] "knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged."
The effort to undo public education is, really, as reactionary as an effort to have this nation ruled again by a king. So why is it now taking place?
The answer is in what Mr. Siegel explained 30 years ago, in his Goodbye Profit System lectures. He showed that an economy based on the contempt of seeing people in terms of how much profit one can make from them, no longer works. In recent years four things have kept profit economics going at all. One is cyber-technology, which suddenly provided new worlds to conquer. The second is the government’s giving public funds, taxpayers’ money, to corporations, to ensure that their owners accumulate wealth. The third means of having profit continue is the using of "cheap" foreign labor—workers in other countries, including children, whom one can pay horrifically little. And the fourth is the doing away with decencies which human beings (largely through unions) fought hard to gain: for instance, a massive doing away with the 8-hour day, with health benefits, with job security.
The desire to make public schools a source of private revenue, and, really, get rid of them altogether, is a phase of that fourth effort. It is the desire to undo an instance of justice that took centuries to attain, and turn it into a field for profit-making. We can ask: do some persons want to arrange for public education to fail, withhold funds from it, so they can say that it’s a flop and that schools should be run privately, for profit?
Meanwhile, every day children come to school angry at the world because of the effects of profit economics. Millions suffer because their parents don’t have enough money. And these parents are told, by officials with corporate ties and agendas, that the remedy for their children’s education is more profit economics: for the schools themselves to be used for private profit!
The meaning of public education should make for a great pride in America. As the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 indicate, it stands for America herself. The public in public education should be dealt with lovingly, as a treasure of civilization.
And Eli Siegel, with his tremendous scholarship and passionate love of justice, was the greatest friend to what school is truly for, and to the hoping mind of every child.