Real Learning and Kindness!
By Rosemary Plumstead
For more than 23 years I have used the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and I know, with every fiber of my being, that it can end prejudice—in students and teachers! It enables students to love learning, and to be kind, because Eli Siegel, the greatest educator of all time, explained the purpose of education: “to like the world through knowing it.” And he described the greatest interference to learning and the cause of all prejudice: contempt.
When I walked into a classroom in a Bronx high school in 1971 as a new teacher, I met students who were predominantly African-American and Latino. Like many teachers today, if I had been asked, I would have denied that I was prejudiced. But the truth was, I unknowingly looked to find things in students that would ratify my anger with the world different from myself. This showed, I very much regret to say. In how I saw students of ethnic backgrounds different from mine. I made mocking comments about the speed with which many of my students spoke Spanish. I told myself that the girls from Puerto Rico were highly emotional and that the African-American students were unmotivated. I was horribly superior to all my students and patronized them.
I loathe this ugly, contemptuous, inaccurate way of seeing, and am tremendously thankful that through my Aesthetic Realism education I have changed! My desire to have contempt for the world was criticized. And I am very grateful that now as I look at my students, I see them as having rich meaning, dignity, depth of mind. And I want to bring the very best out of them and also to learn from them.
I tell now what happened last semester in two Regents biology classes at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. The young people I teach come from all five boroughs of New York, and from diverse ethnic backgrounds. They are horribly affected by our unjust economy. Many live in some of the most unsafe areas of New York, and some hear gunshots daily. Many have part-time jobs after school and on weekends.
When I first met these 9th- and 10th-graders, I saw that students of the same ethnic background tended to stay close to each other and separate from those of other backgrounds. Often, when one student asked a question, others would talk together and not listen. They simply did not feel the thoughts of another were worthy of interest and respect. Many of these young people had met racial prejudice, and they understandably but wrongly used that injustice to feel, “This is a messy world, and I have a right to hate everything—from the person sitting next to me whose skin color is different, to the boring subjects I’m supposed to learn.” Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, this feeling changed! I was able to show them through the facts of science that the world has a thrilling, sensible structure, from which we can learn about ourselves. I told the class, “The basis of these lessons is this great principle of Aesthetic Realism, stated by Eli Siegel: ‘The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.’”
The Cell Membrane Is Not Prejudiced
As we looked at an illustration in our text, I asked the class, “Can you see what the major function of the cell membrane is?” Tonya said, “It separates the cell from what's around it.” James* added, “Things the cell needs, like water and oxygen, air transported through the membrane.” Right away we saw the opposites: every cell membrane both separates and joins, is impermeable and, also permeable, in a beautiful and efficient way. The fact that this takes place everywhere in every person’s body, whatever his or her skin color, in a structure that is so fundamental yet so minute, is awesome. I told my students, “A stack of ten thousand cell membranes is about the thickness of this piece of paper.” Sandy looked up at me and said with amazement, “This is incredible!”
In this class we were studying phospholipids, of which the double wall of the membrane is made. I drew one on the board and told the class. “A phospholipid is a molecule which has a head made of a phosphate group, and two fatty acid tails. In its very structure, the phospholipid puts together opposites, and the way it does is thrilling. The head end is hydrophilic, which means that it is water-loving. The two fatty acid tails, however, are hydrophobic, or water-fearing.”
There is a watery environment outside the cell membrane as well as inside the cell; and every cell membrane is made up of two layers of phospholipids. Through a diagram in Biology: Living Systems, by Oram and Hummer, we saw that the cell membrane is formed when, in the presence of water, the phospholipids spontaneously align themselves with the water-loving phosphate heads facing the water both inside and outside the cell, and the water-fearing tails facing away from the water.
“What makes it stay like that?” Shantel asked. My students found the reason amazing. “The dynamic force keeping the phospholipids in place,” I said, “arises from the oneness of attraction and repulsion. The water-loving phosphate heads are attracted to the water molecules, while at the same time the hydrophobic fatty acid tails are repulsed by them.”
“As we look at this cell membrane,” I continued, “are we seeing the opposites of for and against working together beautifully, making for its stability? And this takes place in the cells of all living beings!” Then I asked, “Is it taking place in the person sitting next to you right now, who may be from a different culture?” I saw student look at each other with a sense of wonder.
In an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss explained what was occurring within them: “When you see the aesthetic structure of the world, you respect the world, and you don’t feel you’ve got to get revenge on it.” And she continued, “you cannot have a prejudice against a person when you see the aesthetic structure of the world in him or her.”
Can We lnclude and Exclude Beautifully?
The class saw that the phospholipids, while very close, are not bonded to each other. they are able to move about, even change places with their neighbors. I asked, “Why do you think the cell membrane needs to have this flexibility?” Ramon said, “So that water and other substances can move into and out of it.” “Yes,” I said, “it’s permeable.”
A cell membrane can take the shape of any cell in the body. And proteins, embedded in the midst of the phospholipids, play a central role in the ability of the membrane to be selectively permeable—that is, to allow certain materials to pass into and out of the cell. The proteins, different for different kinds of cells, and assisted by enzymes, will include and exclude—keep out something a blood cell doesn't need that will be allowed entry into a nerve cell.
Seeing these opposites made one in the cell membrane led to a discussion about how we, in our attitude to things, include and exclude, are for and against. Is it on a respectful basis or a contemptuous one? For example, Monroe and Daniel would tease and make fun of Enrique because he had a distinct Dominican accent. They would call him “Plátanos” and exclude him from their conversations. He tried to act as if it didn’t bother him, and they said they were only kidding. But I was tremendously critical of Monroe and Daniel’s contempt, and it was clear they were ashamed.
Some questions I asked during these lessons were: “Do you think the way we exclude the thoughts and feelings of people different from ourselves is as kind and sensible as what happens with the cell membrane? Does the way we keep things out and take things in make us proud or ashamed? Do you think we can include things in ourselves we shouldn’t—for instance, a false notion of our superiority, or lies about what other people are? Do you think if a person doesn't like the world, he or she can become
impenetrable and hard?”
Lessons like these had a profound effect on my students. By the end of the semester the teasing had stopped, and not only had Enrique developed a friendship with Monroe and Daniel, but he increasingly expressed himself and participated in class discussions. As students saw day by day that they share a structure of opposites—beginning in their very cells—they had more respect for each other and the world. And through the opposites, they had a real grasp of the subject. 93 percent of these student passed the course, which is almost unheard of at this time of educational crisis.
When Aesthetic Realism is known throughout America, learning difficulties and prejudice will truly be things of the past.