The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What the Schools of America Need Most!

Dear Unknown Friends:

The important article by Rosemary Plumstead printed here was first presented at a public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Succeeds—& Answers the Question ‘Education—What For?’” Ms. Plumstead is an instructor of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method workshop for educators, and she herself is one of America’s most distinguished educators.

Yes—this great teaching method succeeds, magnificently succeeds. Through it, at all grade levels, in environments of every kind, students learn—including those who had seemed unable to. And they become kinder. The Aesthetic Realism method is the most powerful opponent to bullying and racial prejudice in our schools. It is grandly effective.

I have said in this journal that the two things the young people of America need most are an America owned by all its citizens, and the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. I’ll say something about the relation between them.

The Purpose of Education

The Aesthetic Realism method is based on Eli Siegel’s showing that the purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it, and that to have this honest like of the world is the deepest desire of everyone. Meanwhile, there is another purpose in each of us, which is constantly at war with our deepest purpose. The second purpose is contempt: to get a “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” One of the forms contempt has taken in human history is profit economics: the arrangement by which the wealth of a nation belongs chiefly to a few people, while millions of others have very little. The profit system is the arrangement by which a person—a boss, or stockholder—sees other human beings in terms of how much money he can pocket from their labor, how much of the wealth their work produces he can take for himself while paying them as little as possible.

The schoolchildren of America are growing up amid this economic contempt and its horrible effects. They see their parents terrifically worried about money; working long, life-sapping hours and unable to give the children the things the parents would like to give them. They see their parents, in many instances, even unable to give them adequate clothing and good food. Millions of America’s children come to school hungry. (Then they’re tested to see how well they learn!)

In a series of lectures in the 1970s, Mr. Siegel explained that history has reached the point at which economics based on contempt for people no longer works. I have written much about that fact and the reasons for it. But where our schools come in, is this: Various persons thirsty to find new sources for big personal profit, and politicians backed by and backing such persons, have been trying to privatize every public institution they can sink their claws into—from the Post Office to our National Parks. One institution they’ve been grabbing away at is America’s schools.

Using Schoolchildren for Private Profit

The effort has been to turn education into a profit mill for private individuals—for instance, through so-called charter schools; through the creation of a massively lucrative standardized-testing industry; and by evading and trying to kill teachers unions. Teachers have been maligned and their unions attacked so as to have these educators become the meagerly paid servants of private-profit-makers, whose bidding the teachers would be forced to do. Public education is one of the great rights of the American people. To subvert it to private interests is not only immensely ugly but is an assault on children, knowledge, and America herself.

There is a relation among all the thousands of forms of contempt. That desire to make oneself big by lessening what’s not oneself is in the profit motive, but is also behind bullying and ethnic prejudice. And it is the biggest opponent to learning: contempt is in a child’s feeling, usually unarticulated, “These ‘facts’ I’m being presented with come from a world that’s unkind, that’s not good enough for me. I won’t let them get inside me.”

The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the means by which contempt can really lose in that fight going on within every child, and the desire to like the world, know the world, can resplendently win. Ms. Plumstead shows how, as she speaks about the principle at the heart of this method: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

First, here are two poems by Eli Siegel. They are, musically and kindly, about opposites that confuse people at any age. One poem is about motion and thought. The second shows composition and wonder in what every schoolchild is in the midst of: change and continuity, new and old.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Two Short Poems by Eli Siegel

Thought Is There

Before motion there is thought;

As there is during motion.

Before a jump, there is thought;

Before a slouch.

Thought insists: is there.


The baby has smiled at nurse;

Now it wants to smile at sky;

Later it may smile at book and music.

The baby’s smile

Is newer and older

At once:

As it recurs.

Education—What For?

By Rosemary Plumstead

The Aesthetic Realism teaching method answers resoundingly the question Education—What For? It shows that “the purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” Again and again, I’ve seen students who were angry and cynical change through this great method, and learn successfully. I’m very glad to present an example: a ninth-grade science class I taught at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, in Manhattan.

LaGuardia students are of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, and many travel long distances to attend classes. Some are so poor that they live in temporary housing, while others have parents who are affluent. In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of students on anti-anxiety pills and of students hospitalized temporarily for depression.

Many of the young people in this class were cynical. There was Susan Ling*, who would, in the midst of a lesson, say sarcastically, “People are so stupid” or “This world is really screwed up.” She rarely took notes, did not study, and therefore was failing tests.

Genevieve Melia told me early in the term, with a mingling of defiance and shame, “I have a learning difficulty.” She did homework infrequently, and during lessons often had a bored look that said, “What’s all the fuss about? It all comes to nothing.”

Mitchell Logan, very suspicious of people, was argumentative during class discussions and would make bitter remarks. Meanwhile, he was frustrated that he could not remember facts. Danielle Ortiz told me with despair, “I study, Mrs. Plumstead, but nothing stays with me.” And near the start of the term in the midst of a class on the life activities in organisms, Ariadne Roman said, “I see it this way: we’re born, grow, go to school, marry, and die. That’s the pattern and it’s pretty boring.”

Yet I knew that every one of these young people was desperately hoping to learn, to see real meaning in the subjects we would study, and in the world those subjects represent. That is what happened through lessons I’ll tell of now. They were based on the landmark Aesthetic Realism principle “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Nutrition: Dependence & Independence

In this course, on the Living Environment, we study living beings’ ability to grow and reproduce, to synthesize new substances, transport materials, and excrete wastes. As the term began, I saw that the subject did not thrill my students.

In the classic textbook Concepts in Modern Biology, by David Kraus, we looked at the definition of nutrition: “Those activities of an organism by which it takes food materials from its environment and makes them usable.” “Can anyone,” I asked, “give an example of that?” Jana said in a rote, so-what voice, “We have to eat other organisms to survive.”

“That’s so,” I said—“that is a type of nutrition which is had by most living things and is called heterotrophic. And we can ask: Does the fact that it’s done every day make this procedure boring, or does it have meaning? That we can take something from the outside world and make it part of us, and that we depend on this substance to make us stronger and freer—do you think that’s a large thing or a small thing?” “Large,” several students said, reconsidering.

“Now, what about plants?” I asked. Emelda answered, “Plants are different. They make their own food.” “How?” “Photosynthesis,” answered Eric quickly—remembering something he’d heard in middle school. “Yes,” I said, “photosynthesis is the other type of nutrition, which is called autotrophic.” As our text explains, along with plants, algae and some kinds of bacteria are also equipped to carry on photosynthesis.

Then I asked a question that enabled the atmosphere in the room to change: “With which type of nutrition do you think an organism is more independent, and with which more dependent?”

“The autotrophs are more independent,” said Susan, “because they can make their own food, and heterotrophs can’t.” Jamilah said, “They are more independent, but a plant is stuck in a pot and look at all the things it can’t do.” I asked, “Do autotrophs also need things from outside themselves in order to flourish?” “Yes,” said Mitchell: “they have to have sunlight.” “And water,” Eric added. “And carbon dioxide,” added Jamilah. “Where does the carbon dioxide come from?” I asked. And Ariadne said, “We breathe it out.” We were seeing that plants are both dependent and independent. When I asked, “What are we dependent on plants to provide for us?” one student answered, “Oxygen.” “So does our existence literally depend on their existence?” “Yes!”

These opposites, dependence and independence, are in a terrific mix-up in young people’s lives. They can feel what I once felt: if you show you need other people—including parents, teachers, even friends—you’re weak and at their mercy, anything but independent. Meanwhile, they want to care for people—have friends, find love—which means need people. Also, in this arts high school, students feel they need to paint or act or dance. Yet they also feel they should be “cool,” need nothing very much.

Seeing the kind and natural reciprocity between plants and animals—that each depends on the other to be itself, its particular independent being—affected my students tremendously. They were interested, because a hope of their very lives, to make sense of these opposites, was being met.

Photosynthesis: Separation & Junction

We learned that organisms capable of carrying on photosynthesis appeared on earth about three billion years ago. Today this process sustains almost all life on our planet. Here is its equation:

6CO2 + 6H2O C6H12O6 + 6O2

As we studied the equation, we saw this mysterious and wonderful thing: the inorganic raw materials on the left side—carbon dioxide, a gas, and water, a liquid—are joined together in the presence of sunlight and are changed within the plant’s leaves to become glucose, C6H12O6, an organic sugar now useful to the plant.

Along with glucose, photosynthesis produces another precious substance: oxygen. Millions of living things, including us, use this oxygen, along with the glucose in the carbohydrates we consume, to produce the energy we need in order to live.

Photosynthesis has two phases, and the class looked at them closely. They are the sum of many complex chemical reactions, which I’ll present here in a more simplified form. My students grasped this difficult subject through seeing that the fundamental and tremendous opposites junction and separation are in its various aspects.

The first phase, because it requires sunlight, is called the light reaction. It’s what the photo part of photosynthesis stands for. Pointing to the equation, I asked, “Can we see within the raw materials here—carbon dioxide and water—the elements needed to make glucose?” “Yes,” one student called out: “I see carbon and hydrogen and oxygen.” I asked, “As raw materials, are they arranged in a form yet that makes a sugar?” “No,” Jamilah said—“something has to happen to them.” “Yes,” I said, “and what needs to happen is that the chemical bonds holding those compounds together have to be broken apart, separated. This is where the sunlight comes in.”

Now the drama of junction and separation unfolds! Sunlight is captured by the plant’s chlorophyll and splits the water molecule, separating the hydrogen from the oxygen and releasing a small amount of energy. Elements that were bonded together are now apart, free to join together to make new substances.

The hydrogen plus energy that was produced when the water molecule was split is held for a time by a very nice coenzyme called NADP. This coenzyme temporarily bonds to the newly liberated hydrogen for the purpose of carrying it and its accompanying energy to the second phase of photosynthesis. In this phase, called the dark reaction because it does not require sunlight, the synthesis part of photosynthesis takes place: the building, through a series of chemical reactions, of the substance glucose. Synthesis means joining, putting together.

We learned that glucose is essential for a plant’s energy, its ability to grow, to make starch, cellulose, proteins, and oils. The class was in awe of the fact that carbon dioxide, a gas, and water can be converted to a sugar that is responsible for the height and girth of the tallest redwoods!

Junction and separation affect young people very much. For example, students can join together in exclusive cliques and make themselves separate from everyone else, even refusing to eat lunch in the cafeteria or talk in the hallway with people not in that clique. It’s cruel, and I’ve seen a lot of tears about it. There’s also pain about these opposites in relation to friendships: you’re close to someone, best friends; then you fight and suddenly you’re not speaking—you’re separate. And a very large way junction and separation pain young people is: they can feel their lives are in disconnected segments. A girl can feel she’s a different person with her parents from the person she is with her friends, and a still different person with her boyfriend. Then, she has a self inside, apart from all of them, which she feels none of them understands.

Seeing these life opposites in the very structure of photosynthesis, my students became excited and also hopeful. As they saw that reality has a beautiful relation of things coming apart and joining for the betterment of all living beings, they had a new respect for the world, and comprehended with pleasure a subject they’d previously thought was dull.

They Learned, & Changed

Throughout the five months I taught these ninth-graders, they saw hard evidence for the logical good sense and beauty of reality. For instance, we studied how the opposites of for and against are beautifully made one in the immune system. We saw the way the two sides of the heart, while separate, beat in synchrony; and the way simplicity and complexity, slowness and speed are together in how our food is digested and absorbed.

They learned successfully and changed profoundly. Every student passed the class. Susan Ling started taking notes daily and doing homework. Genevieve Melia, who had been failing and had told me she had a learning disability, now wrote:

Science was never my favorite subject, but I feel like science is a beautiful thing to me now, not a bunch of useless info about stuff. Thank you for not giving up on me, and believing in me.

Mitchell Logan, who hadn’t been able to remember facts and seemed to argue with everyone, said: “This class changed how I view the world, and I don’t think I’ll get angry with things as often.” Danielle Ortiz, who had said, “Nothing stays with me,” now wrote: “Things are starting to stay in my mind, Mrs. Plumstead.”

Before studying Aesthetic Realism, I once said to a class: “Who’d want to bring kids into this world anyway?” That I could be a means of enabling students to learn eagerly about scientific facts and to see reality as worthy of their respect, as having an exciting and valuable meaning for their lives, is a tremendous change. The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is based on the strictest logic and brings out intelligence and kindness—in both students and teachers.

*The students’ names have been changed.