The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Fight about Knowledge—in Schools & Everywhere

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue is about the teaching method that is one of the great achievements in thought, justice, culture, kindness. It’s told of here in a paper by Leila Rosen, from a public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Students Learn & Prejudice Is Defeated!” It is the method, beautiful in itself, that succeeds, and has for decades, in relation to every subject and with students of all backgrounds.

During these decades, other approaches have been presented by school systems as the answer for education, and made mandatory in classrooms, only to fail miserably. All the while, in New York City, in classes where the Aesthetic Realism method was used by teachers trained in it, children—including children who had been seen as rather hopeless—learned; in fact, they came to love learning.

And, as Ms. Rosen describes, a huge, terrible matter—which has damaged our nation—changed in these young people: prejudice. Through the Aesthetic Realism method, students not only see the subjects of the curriculum as deeply and vividly related to themselves—but come to see people of different backgrounds that way too. The basis is this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

For 29 years Leila Rosen taught English in New York City high schools. She has given workshops on the Aesthetic Realism teaching method at conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English and other professional organizations.

How Do We See Knowledge?

Here, preceding Ms. Rosen’s article, are several passages I have brought together from Eli Siegel’s philosophic work The Aesthetic Nature of the World. They are from a chapter about knowledge, and explain something that’s urgent for America to understand.

The young people of our land are being asked to learn, to welcome knowledge. Yet they feel, whether they can state it clearly or not, that the adults who seem to tell them and others what to do, the adults who seem to be running things, do not like trying to know, to see, to understand. America’s schoolchildren are furious that they’re being told to like knowledge when they see other people, including eminent people, driven not by a desire to know but by a desire to have their own way, to aggrandize themselves, to change the facts.

How we see knowledge is not something that starts when we go to kindergarten and ends with our getting a diploma or doctorate. An attitude to knowledge takes in the way we meet anything. It’s about, for example, how deeply we want to understand another person. It takes in how honestly we want to think about the fact that millions of children in America, through no fault of their own, are poor—and how honestly we want to think about what is justice to these children.

In the sentences by him included here, Eli Siegel explains, as no other person of thought ever did, that in the human self which is against knowing.

In Schools and Ourselves

America needs to see that the education crisis in our schools is not separable from the crisis about knowledge in the mind of everyone. The adults of America, including those in government, of every party, should feel, “We have the same problem as America’s schoolchildren: there’s something gigantic against knowledge in us too.”

To be really for education, we need to see that knowing as such makes us important, is warm, delightful. That’s very different from feeling one should go after good grades or degrees as a means to comfort and self-glory. No one who feels the latter will convince students that knowledge is lovable.

Aesthetic Realism and its teaching method can have a person of any age see that to know the world—including through a subject’s curriculum—is grandly the same as caring for ourselves, being ourselves. As a child and adult, I saw in Eli Siegel a person who truly loved knowing, whatever the subject or situation. His love of knowledge was the most beautiful human thing I ever met or heard of. From it arose Aesthetic Realism, and the teaching method that America’s children so thirst for and deserve.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What in Us Opposes Knowledge?

By Eli Siegel

The desire for knowledge is opposed cunningly, deeply, terribly, by every living person. Our desire to place ourselves, to matter to ourselves, to be “happy” as we see it, is regarded as something inimically different from our desire to know. The desire to know is always there, but it has to meet the inclination of ourselves to establish ourselves as we understand establish. At this moment, thousands of persons are suffering because their desire to know is hindered, tainted, weakened by the desire of self to be complacently supreme, to manage, to evade, to have its own aims succeed first.

How much or how sincerely a person desires to know is the chief thing in that person’s life, is the chief character trait.

I see the suffering of the world as having arisen from an insufficient or weak desire to know on the part of man, which made in turn for modes of getting a living, using men and women for profit and being superior to them. Then these modes of getting a living and so on in turn made the desire to know secondary. The insufficient desire to know made for institutions of the kind Isaiah and Wat Tyler opposed; and these institutions in turn encouraged something else than the desire to know.

When a person believes in knowing, the desire to know is rightly placed as to other desires. If the desire to know in any situation becomes secondary, that much our desire to know is incomplete and can be questioned.

There is a famous line of Matthew Arnold about Sophocles: “Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” If our desire to know is not interfered with, we go towards the seeing of life whole; otherwise we see it with some specialty, narrowness, aberration, disproportion, even insanity—and this is a victory of our ego over our desire to know.

When one doesn’t have the desire to know, one can find working towards being clear quite unengaging, quite uninteresting. It is so much easier to have attitudes that suit oneself than to ask questions and in other ways work honestly to be clear. Everyone should be modest and careful and ask: Do I desire to know or do I care for something else more?

Part of the insult that most people in the world give to knowing is the resentment we have when deeply we have a sense of unsureness. We just love to be sure; and if we aren’t we either become hidden or resentful, or both.

Men and women are suffering—ever, ever, ever so many—because their desire to know is seen as uninteresting, as secondary; while winning or establishing oneself in some unseen way is primary, most immediately necessary. Should the desire to know be victorious in us, or should something else be?

Learning Wins, Prejudice Ends

By Leila Rosen

It is my fervent hope that teachers throughout America know the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. It can end the failure to learn, the pervasive anger, and the prejudice in our nation’s schools. Eli Siegel, whom I see as the most important educator in history, explained that the purpose of education is “to like the world through knowing it.” Many of the young people I have taught have, themselves, endured prejudice and economic injustice. But when students see, through this teaching method, that the English language has a sensible, beautiful structure that stands for the world itself, they learn, and they don’t want to be against people who look and sound different from them.

Aesthetic Realism shows that the cause of prejudice is contempt, described by Ellen Reiss as “the ordinary yet infinitely dangerous feeling, If something different from me is less—if I can look down on what I am not—I am more!” I’ve seen this feeling in many students. It’s what has young people of different ethnic backgrounds brutally go at each other, with words and weapons, in schools every day. And contempt is against the very basis of learning. Ms. Reiss continues:

Eli Siegel has shown that all real growth and all education arise from the fact that we come to be ourselves through finding meaning in—even becoming one with—what is not we: air, food, the alphabet, numbers, sights, sounds, words.... It is possible to feel powerfully that what is different from us can thrill us, teach us, make us larger. [TRO 1115]

I’ll tell of how that occurred in a 9th grade English class at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, a class for students with low reading scores.

When I first met these young people at the start of the term, they had great difficulty reading and writing. They also looked at each other with suspicion and anger. Students of different backgrounds mocked each other with ethnic insults. Those whose first language was English mimicked those who had accents. When Felipe, from Mexico, tried to read, there were snickers. This was also true of Shu Lan, a girl from China. Students from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico taunted each other with assertions about the other culture’s inferiority.

I knew that despite the blasé and scornful attitude they showed, these students desperately wanted to learn. And I’m proud to say they did learn, and became kinder. Among the lessons that enabled them to were those I gave early in the year on the meaning of rhyme. My students saw how rhyme puts together opposites that are one in reality itself, but which are used cruelly against each other in prejudice: difference and sameness.

What Does Rhyme Have That We Need?

I learned in the course The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry, taught by Ellen Reiss, that rhyme is so popular, so loved, because it answers fundamental—and usually unarticulated questions—of every person: How can I see the different things in the world as also coherent with each other? and, Am I just different from other people, or am I the same too? Ms. Reiss gave this succinct description of rhyme: “words that begin differently and end the same.”

Early in the fall, my class studied rhyme in a wild and wonderful English poem: “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” by Robert Browning. As it begins, Browning describes the terrible problem facing the town of Hamelin:


They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

An infestation of rats is awful, and it’s a horror many of my students had to face. Does the speedy way Browning takes that ugliness and gives it an energetic, lively form contradict the horror, even as we feel it vividly? My students loved these lines. “What stands out?” I asked. “The way it rhymes!” said Carla.* Danny pointed out that rats and cats rhyme: they’re different at the beginning, and end in –ats. Ramón said, “There are more! Vats, sprats, hats, and chats!” “And flats,” said Carla. “As you hear these words, are you hearing sameness and difference?” I asked. They said yes. “And while each word has a different meaning, do they all add to the intensity of the same situation?” “Yeah,” said Danny. “There must be millions of rats. Ugh!”

They pointed out another rhyme: shrieking and squeaking. This brought up something important. Because in English the same sound is sometimes spelled in different ways, students can have trouble recognizing and pronouncing words. Many of my students had this difficulty and would give up in frustration. At first glance, shrieking, with its i-e-k, and squeaking, with its e-a-k, do look different, and you could see them as having little in common—until you hear them. I asked, “Is this a little like how one person can sum up another, think his skin color or accent makes him just different from oneself?” They felt it was. But they began to see through our study of rhyme that difference and sameness add to each other, bring out something good in each other. As the class continued, their oral reading improved greatly.

In the poem, the mayor and town leaders, who wear “gowns lined with ermine” are trying to figure out how to solve the problem of the “vermin.” Just then, the Pied Piper appears. He says that he can play his pipe, or flute, and lure the rats into the river. And when he asks for the modest fee of one thousand guilders—“‘One? Fifty thousand!’—was the exclamation / Of the astonished Mayor and Corporation.” However, when the job is done and Hamelin is blessedly free of rats, the town officials are horribly ungrateful. They feel superior to this “wandering fellow / With a gipsy coat of red and yellow.” They dismiss the Piper, refusing to keep their promise. My students were angry: “That’s not fair!” they said. “They promised to pay him!” And they were glad when the Piper, through the power of his music, teaches the town a sad but useful lesson, by piping all but one of the children away into another land where, it is supposed, things are kinder.

I told my students what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: that in thinking about other people we need what’s in a good rhyme, fairness to sameness and difference, but that often people use what they see as their difference from others to have contempt. Students gave many instances. Eneida, from a small town in the Dominican Republic, said people from the capital were prejudiced against people from the campo, the countryside. “Rich people think they’re all that,” said Carla; “they look down on people from the ghetto.”

These young men and women, mostly Latino and African American, are rightly furious at the prejudice they meet. And they were affected as I told them what I learned: that prejudice begins with something in every person. “Who here has felt you were completely different from everyone else?” I asked. Every hand went up. “When we see other people as just different from us,” I asked, “are we being exact?” They were thoughtful. “No one is completely different,” said Miguel; “we all have feelings.” “Have you also felt ‘Everyone’s the same—no good’?” The unanimous answer, in words and facial expressions, was “Yes.” “Have both made for trouble?” I asked. “Yes,” said Eneida. And others agreed, and gave examples.

Like my students and most people, I saw myself as different from everyone: superior and much more sensitive. But I didn’t know that as I made people unreal, I was making my own mind duller. I am enormously grateful for what I learned from Aesthetic Realism on this subject, knowledge that changed me. For example, in a consultation I was asked, “What’s the greatest insult you get from everyone?” I wasn’t sure, and my consultants said, “It’s that they’re not you. That’s the way our ego is insulted by every other human being: they’re not us and they seem to think they’re important anyway.”

There Is Shakespeare

I’m very glad that when the students I’m writing of began the next term, I was their teacher again. By then, their feeling about reading had changed so much that these young people, who had found words on a page so difficult, asked me if they could read a play by Shakespeare. So we began our study of Romeo and Juliet. My students saw sameness and difference throughout the play, and I’ll mention just two instances. The first was in the Prologue’s description of the two families, the Montagues and Capulets, who were “alike in dignity” but different in a big way, through an “ancient grudge.” These 14- and 15-year-olds were especially moved learning how Romeo and Juliet, who were around their own age, felt about each other: This person different from me has big meaning for me, is like me, despite the differences between our families.

My students eagerly volunteered to read, and read with greater care, fluency, and pleasure, even as the Shakespearean English was unfamiliar. While all the young men wanted to read Romeo’s part, they especially liked hearing Armando read it, a young man who’d earlier annoyed the class by making fun of everything. Miguel, who had often slurred unfamiliar words or skipped them altogether, substituting “whatever,” was careful to look at and sound out words he hadn’t seen before. And when it came time to choose someone to read the stage directions, everyone in the class called out, “Shu Lan, let Shu Lan read them!”—because she was always right on cue and they liked it! This was the same girl from China they had made fun of before.

Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, my students loved learning about words and a great English play. And also, they all had more confidence, the jeering and sarcasm stopped, and they worked together, encouraging each other. It is radiantly clear to me that this is the teaching method of the future.

*The students’ names have been changed.