The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Needed by America’s Schoolchildren!

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we are publishing a tremendously important article by one of the most courageous and distinguished educators in America, Rosemary Plumstead. It was originally presented as a paper at the public seminar titled “The Answer to America’s Learning Crisis: The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method.”

Mrs. Plumstead taught for more than three decades in the New York City public schools. Now retired as a teacher of high school science, she is one of the instructors in the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, and presents workshops in it at professional conferences throughout America. Through this method, she says, “I have seen thousands of young people, many from the toughest areas in New York, learn successfully.”

The Purpose of Education

Eli Siegel was the philosopher to show that the purpose of education—whether in biology, languages, history, computers, cooking, meteorology, sewing, physics—the purpose of all education is “to like the world through knowing it.” Mrs. Plumstead illustrates this and the other principles at the basis of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method as she describes a science lesson she taught, and describes too the response of her students. What happened in her classroom, how her students changed and succeeded, is what parents, teachers, communities, and young people themselves want desperately to have happen in the schools of America.

The two matters concerning education that are causing terrific worry in our land are: 1) students’ failure to learn, which has been increasing; 2) their cruelty to each other, including through “cyberbullying.” It is a great and beautiful fact that the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the solution to both—and that through this teaching method, the subjects of the curriculum are themselves the means by which students become kinder. That is clear in Mrs. Plumstead’s article. Students of different backgrounds, who resented and scorned each other, became respectful of each other, became friends.

The success Mrs. Plumstead documents represents that of other teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism method—no matter what the grade level, subject, neighborhood.

What Is Needed

Without commenting on the various “solutions” now being advanced in school districts and by the US government, I want to be plain. There are two things needed now for America’s schoolchildren to fare well. One is: America must be owned in a way that young people can see as just to them. A report on notes that “an estimated 16 million children” in our nation “face[d] a summer of hunger this year.” For children—let alone 16 million of them!—to lack food in this land is completely obscene. Further, millions of children who may technically get enough to eat are poor. Millions of others have parents who are unemployed or worried about being unemployed. This is happening because, as Eli Siegel explained forty years ago, the profit system—the ownership of America’s wealth by essentially a few people rather than all—is immoral, un-American, and no longer works.

America’s schoolchildren feel there is something very ugly in how wealth, the good things in life, are had and not had in America. Without being able to express it clearly, they feel there is a profound contempt for them in that arrangement, and in the fact that people let it go on. They are right to feel this. Then, understandably but wrongly, so many respond by having contempt themselves for the outside world.

Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the most hurtful thing in the human mind. It’s the big impediment to learning and is also the source of cruelty. Contempt is the feeling that I’m more by lessening the world different from me. It can take the form of a young person’s unknowingly declaring war on the facts presented in a classroom—feeling they stand for a world not good enough to get within her. And contempt has taken the form of students retaliating against the world by scorning and hurting a representative of it—another child.

And so, for schoolchildren to fare well, America must have an economy that’s just to them, and everyone. Children have to feel that the adults with power are really going after that justice—not smoothly evading.

The other necessity for our schools is the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. The fact that it succeeds even under the present circumstances shows its kind, logical might. Here I must state, in all politeness, the reason this method is not yet nationally implemented, though its success has been proven for decades: various persons with official positions haven’t liked the fact that there is knowledge in it—about education, the world, and self—from which they themselves need to learn. It has been a matter of snobbishness and conceit—versus a method that at last enables young people to take in facts eagerly and see each other in a way that makes them proud.

We precede Mrs. Plumstead’s article with three very short poems by Eli Siegel. He wrote them all in 1961. And musically in all of them there is a oneness of suspense, or stir, and composure. (These are opposites both young people and older people long to put together.)

The last is about a matter urgent now. Because this short poem is of such importance for today, I have substituted the word Muslim for the variant, then current, that Mr. Siegel used: Moslem. My doing so causes the first and second lines, which originally rhymed, to be in assonance. In both versions, we feel that oneness of kindness and logic which is Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Short Poems by Eli Siegel

For Some Exploration

There is room

In gloom

For some exploration.

And Motion's Friends

We go from one room to another

As we go from one thought to another,

All in behalf of

Motion, and motion's friends.


If some people are Muslim

We should try to understand them

And see why they are.

A New Care for Knowledge & People

By Rosemary Plumstead

Having used the Aesthetic Realism teaching method for over 30 years, I know it is the answer to America’s learning crisis. When students—even those who hated science and thought they couldn’t possibly pass it—see that the facts we study show the world has a structure that’s coherent and related to themselves, they see the subject as friendly, and they learn it! The means is this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

I’ll tell about a 9th grade ESL (English as a Second Language) Living Environment class I taught at LaGuardia High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, in Manhattan. The students came from many countries: China, Korea, Yemen, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Mexico, and Colombia. It’s very difficult to be in a new country and learn many subjects in a language different from one’s own. And it makes me angry that in our rich nation many of these young people suffer because their parents don’t have enough money for even necessities. At the beginning of the term, most students didn’t have notebooks or filler paper, and when I brought a supply and gave them out, they looked as if they were getting a present. One girl, Paulina, from Colombia, had to sell candy to students in order to help her mother.

Meanwhile, these young people also had that way of seeing which, Aesthetic Realism explains, is in everyone and is the interference with learning: contempt for the world different from themselves. It was in a fight with their deepest desire: to welcome a diverse world—represented by biology and a strange new language. As the term began I saw that those who spoke the same language always sat tightly together, whispering to each other. Students from different countries hardly acknowledged each other’s existence. And it was hard to get anyone’s attention.

There was Alejandro,* who was exceedingly agitated. He’d talk across the room to his friend Umberto and cackle out loud. At times he would make fun of the Chinese or Korean language and encourage others to do so. He often had no idea what we were studying. One day he asked me, “Can I go to the nurse? Estoy enfermo,” and I asked him what was wrong. He said almost inaudibly, “I can’t sleep at night.” His eyes filled with tears as he told me that his uncle, with whom he’d been living, had been killed during a robbery.

I knew it was urgent for Alejandro and my other students to see sense in the world, and if possible be able to like it, and biology was replete with evidence that they could.

Delicacy & Strength in a Leaf & Us

The lesson I’ll describe was on the structure of a leaf. And three pairs of opposites that my students came to see as central in that magnificent structure are strength and delicacy, surface and depth, separation and junction—opposites they were trying to make sense of in their lives.

As I held up a large leaf, students commented on the size: “Wow! It’s so big!” “It’s very large, but do you think it’s delicate?” I asked. “Yes, it’s very thin,” Dmitri said. We saw that it was torn a little, which showed its fragility. “But,” I asked, “is a leaf also strong?”

They thought for a minute; then Chen Sue, a dance student, said, “Yes. It doesn’t fall apart in the wind.” “And when you dance,” I asked, “do you want to be both graceful and strong?” “Oh, yes,” she answered: “dance is very hard work; you have to be strong.” Then she put her arms out into the air: “But you have to have very graceful movement too.”

These students, like teenagers across America, were in a tremendous mix-up about the opposites of strength and gentleness. They could feel that when they were tough they were mean, and when they were considerate they were weak and people would take advantage of them. I told them that I’d once felt I had to be tough in the classroom in order to protect myself from the enemy—my students! I’d disliked myself very much for the way I’d gone from being sweet and chummy to intimidating them with fierce looks and excoriating criticism—and my students had hated it. As I studied Aesthetic Realism and saw instance after instance of how, through the opposites, I was related to everything and every person, a new relation of strength and kindness came to be in me.

Looking at the leaf and seeing how it put together beautifully the opposites of delicacy and strength, my students had a sense of wonder and respect for it. They said they wanted to know more about what leaves are and do.

Surface & Depth, Outside & Inside

I showed the class a diagram of the structure of the leaf. And Alejandro, who had been so agitated, mocking, and inattentive, now said with great surprise, “All this is in that leaf?!” I held it up, and we saw that along with being thin, the leaf was also flat and wide. “Why do you think the surface is so wide?” I asked. Hye Ji, from Korea, who had been here only four months, said, “So sun hit it.” “Why is that important?” I asked. In our textbook, Concepts in Modern Biology, by David Kraus, we read: “Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants use energy from sunlight to make their own food.” We saw that the leaf’s ability to make its food is a result of the beautiful way its surface and depth work together.

For example, the cuticle is the thick, waxy outermost layer that prevents water from being lost from within the leaf. Water is needed for photosynthesis.

Directly under the cuticle is a single layer of cells called the epidermis. Though only a millionth of an inch thick, the epidermis is very important. It surrounds the leaf; and on the leaf’s underside, through microscopic pores in the epidermis, called stomates, the inside of the leaf is able to meet what’s outside. The stomates have the ability to open and close, and through them excess water vapor can escape during the night, and gases—oxygen and carbon dioxide—enter and exit the leaf. There is a constant interplay of depth and surface, inside and outside, that a leaf quietly and gracefully puts together through the microscopic stomates.

While the vocabulary in this course can be overwhelming even for English-speaking students, try to imagine what these students felt. In every lesson, we talked about how a particular term puts together opposites. For example, when you say the word epidermis, which means on or outer skin, your lips touch each other’s surface on the p in epi; then you go more deeply into the mouth as you form the d with your tongue and palate in dermis. Seeing how opposites are present in words that were foreign to them made these words more interesting, easier to say and learn.

Sometimes I asked students to say in their own languages a word we were discussing. They would marvel at the surprising relation of sameness and difference among their languages.

Junction & Separation

As we studied the diagram further I asked, “What do you notice about the cells right underneath the epidermis?” “They are big,” Chen Sue said. “They are very close together,” Umberto added. We saw that each cell is separate, yet clearly joined to its neighbor. This is different from the cells below, which are farther apart. I explained that those upper cells make up the palisades layer. The dots inside them are chloroplasts, in which photosynthesis takes place. Those cells are close together because—as Chen Sue realized and said with enthusiasm—“they have many chloroplasts and are near the top of the leaf so they can make much food!”

My students were seeing a structure of opposites as one—surface and depth, junction and separation—wonderfully present in a space perhaps a millimeter in size, and they were thrilled. We talked about the fact that cruelty, including prejudice and racism, is an ugly relation of those same opposites. I asked, “When we see a person, what do you think we make more of—surface or depth?” Jenny, from Russia, who earlier in the term had had a very hard time giving attention, said thoughtfully, “Surface.” “Is that how people generally judge other people—by how they look?” “Yes,” Paulina added: “this was how I picked my friends.” Doing that, we saw, we make ourselves separate from the feelings of another person. “But,” I asked, “do you think that, like this leaf, every person also has depth?” “Yes,” said Manuel, adding, “Usually we don’t think about it.”

On the diagram, we looked below the palisades layer. Here, “the cells are more round and also far apart,” said Umberto, who used to spend a good deal of time mocking people with Alejandro. “There are less chloroplasts here,” said Svetlana. This, we learned, is called the spongy layer.

For photosynthesis, a plant requires three things: sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. “Suppose,” I asked, “the spongy cells on the lower part of the leaf were as densely packed as those in the palisades layer—would that be good?” Nancy Jiang’s hand shot up. She was a girl who, class after class, had sat by herself in the back, not talking to anyone, seeming not to listen to what was going on. Now she said, “The stomates would be blocked!” Chen Sue agreed: “The gases couldn’t get in or out.”

Min Ho said animatedly, “I never knew there was so much in a leaf. I used to walk down the street and pull them off trees, and now I’m thinking, ‘This is a beautiful thing—I shouldn’t do that.’”

A Large & Deep Change

This lesson dramatically changed the way my students saw biology and also each other. After it, they were much more studious, and a tremendous thing occurred: the animosity and mocking stopped. They began to ask each other questions about where they came from and started to show pleasure at the sounds of each other’s languages. Their feelings became more real to one another. One day, after Vladimir finished a test, he took out his drawing pad and started to sketch a portrait of Nancy Jiang, working with a respectful desire to be fair to both her surface and what she felt inside. This affected everyone very much. As the term progressed, it was not uncommon for a student from Korea to walk around practicing a Russian word he’d just learned from Vladimir. On Hae Duk’s birthday, as I came into the classroom I heard students asking each other, “How do you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in your country?” And sing they did.

Of these 22 students, 20 passed the course. Alejandro, who once didn’t know what was going on in the class, began taking notes and learned the subject so well that he got an 82 on his final exam. The effect of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is in what Chen Sue wrote to me in a card: “I’m so happy to be your student. I never liked science things, until now. I think biology is a beautiful thing. I really want to thank you for teaching us, and making us know the world, and like the world.”

*The students’ names have been changed.