• Teaching World War I through the Aesthetic Realism Method, Part I

    Note: This is a paper about education that I'm proud to have given in New York City in 2003, as part of a seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. Some things have changed in education in the decade and more since then: notably, there has been a concerted onslaught against public education that has taken forms such as closing "low-performing" schools in poor neighbourhoods, abolishing teacher tenure, attacking teacher unions, creating thousands of charter schools, [the US equivalent of the UK's "free academies."] and revamping teacher evaluation methods to rely predominately on test results emphasizing "rigour” over "frivolous" activities such as art, music, literature and the humanities – and the testing itself has expanded geometrically. All this has provided billions in education tax dollars to private companies, which I see as the main purpose of the attack. Some of the situation I describe at the start of the paper was part of it. The closing of Norman Thomas High School, which was loved by many, was part of it too. And the crisis in education, which I describe here, has continued and worsened.

    But though things have changed, the fundamentals of education remain. How can a young person in 2015 be encouraged to see the curriculum as friendly: mathematics as meaningful, grammar as important, history as relevant? The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method has been doing this since the 1970's.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    In 21 years as a New York City teacher, I have never seen education in such as crisis as it is today. Norman Thomas High School, where I teach global history, has between 400 and 500 more students than it had two years ago, because other large public schools are being divided into mini-schools and the excess student population has been transferred to us. This dangerous overcrowding has led to an increase in the number of fights, to three teachers having to take turns using the same room, and the fact that hundreds of students have to wait until 8th period--2:00 pm--to have lunch. The schools' resources have been stretched thin.

    In these circumstances, it is so easy for a young person--or teacher--to be cynical. And this is what I saw at the start of the semester. The atmosphere in the Global History class was one of dullness, punctuated by sarcastic, angry comments. "What do we have to learn about dead people for?" Alfredo Muniz asked with disgust. [The names of all pupils have been changed for this paper]. Alan Bell, whose test average was in the 30's, continually made jokes and acted as if the subject didn't matter to him, saying "I'm not going to graduate anyway." Rosie Garcia, a very pretty young woman, spent a lot of time putting on makeup during lessons, seemingly unaware of what was going on. Alexis Ramos brought in a newspaper one morning and showed me a paragraph about a fourteen year old "youth offender" who had been shot and killed. "That's my cousin." She said. He was murdered on her stoop late at night. Giselle Collins would make angry, mocking comments and was in a team with Michelle Baker, recently here from the Caribbean. Michelle was furious at the racism she'd met in this country, and would assert repeatedly that no good has ever come from a white person. Then, when there was a test, she'd put her head on her desk, saying despondently that she couldn't take it, and couldn't remember anything.

    Yolanda Paredes, a junior, never commented in class and wrote almost illegible essays, beginning paragraphs half way across the page, jamming words and sentences together and writing over and under lines. When I suggested she try to write more clearly, she said resignedly, "I can't." Yismeny Lopez shrugging her shoulders, complained, "History's boring. What's it got to do with my life?"

    As an educator, I'm enormously grateful to have seen evidence year after year for what Aesthetic Realism explains: the deepest desire of every person--no matter how cynical he or she may be--is to like the world, and this is the very purpose of education itself. For cynicism to lose, students need to see through the subjects in the curriculum, that reality itself, with all its messiness and confusion, is made well, has a sensible structure and can honestly be liked. "The world, art, and self explain each other," Eli Siegel stated, "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Through this principle students come to see history as interesting, as valuable, and--to answer that question of Yismeny Lopez--about their own lives! And that occurred as my class studied one of the most terrible times in history: World War I of 1914-1918.

    soldiers on the Western Front

  • Teaching World War I through the Aesthetic Realism Method, Part 2

    The causes of what was called for many years "The Great War," are complex. This war, in which 25 nations took part, 8.6 million died in combat, and which had the first use of trench warfare and mustard gas, has been used to say the world is essentially ugly and senseless, and that people are at bottom selfish and cruel.

    soldiers blinded by mustard gas

    I told the class we would be asking: Was there something running all the nations involved without which there would have been no war?
    I said I've learned from Aesthetic Realism that every event in history is centrally about ethics--about the question: on what basis are we going to take care of ourselves, through being just to the outside world, including other people, or through superiority and contempt?

    In the previous unit, we had studied Nationalism and Imperialism--seen as two of the main causes of this war. Nationalism is described by Webster's as the "exalting of one['s own] nation above all others." And from our textbook Global History and Geography-The Growth of Civilizations (Brun, Forman, & Brodsky) we read the following sentences:
    "Many people in each nation of Europe felt themselves to be superior to the peoples of other nations...The leaders of various nations [felt] that their country had the right to rule territory beyond their own borders and on different continents."

    Related to Nationalism is Imperialism--the feeling of a country, say Britain, that it had the right to conquer many countries around the world, and see the land and people living there as inferior, existing for the profit of the British and their businesses. The competition of European nations for power in Africa and Asia has been seen as one reason European governments desired war--to displace each other in controlling the natural resources in these continents. In fact, the man for whom our high school is named, Norman Thomas, was passionately opposed to American's taking part in the First World War--he felt a central purpose was profit for corporations.

    Our textbook continued:
    "Nationalism...led to the rise of Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism. Pan-Slavism was the name given to a movement in Russia. The people who belonged to this movement felt that it was Russia's right and duty to protect Slavic people living anywhere in Europe....The supporters of the Pan-Germanism movement sought the protection of all German-speaking people in Europe."

    "Can we see from this something of what the war began with?" I asked. "They each thought they were superior to the others," said Marguerita Duran. Yes, I explained, and the basis of this superiority is the false assumption that what is like oneself or the same as oneself is inevitably better than that which is different. It's also not wanting to see what seems different is like you. So both Nationalism and Imperialism are ways of dealing with the tremendous opposites of sameness and difference. I read the class these sentences from an essay by Eli Siegel titled "We Build Up Ourselves":
    "All we need to have the most hurtful contempt is sameness and difference unfortunately placed. We are disposed to think less of others because they are not ourselves; and that's enough. We are disposed to think more of ourselves because we are ourselves; and that's enough. And from these two likelihoods of difference and equivalence, the most frightening and painful things can ensue."

    Crime of the Ages

    "That's what they were doing," Alfredo said, excitedly--"they were making more of themselves and less of other people because they were different." I asked: "Should we protect someone just because we see them as like us, from the same background, same culture?" "No!" said Giselle Collins. "So what should be the basis upon which one person defends another?" "If they're right!" said Marguerita Duran passionately. "If there's a problem, and I'm wrong, just because she's from my nationality doesn't mean that she's got to come in and help me. She should go against me with the other person because the other person is right!"

  • Teaching World War I through the Aesthetic Realism Method, Part 3

    As part of this unit on World War I, the class read and discussed passages from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929. Remarque, who fought in World War I, tells the story through Paul Baumer, a German soldier fighting the French at the Marne River--the western front. The novel is tremendously moving and had a large effect, including through a powerful 1930 film based on it.

    All Quiet on the Western Front

    We learned that it was later banned in Germany, and burned by the Nazis before World War II. I told my class that I see this novel as a powerful showing of what Aesthetic Realism explains--that unless we want to see the feelings of people different from us as real--as like ours--we can do any inconsiderate, mean thing, be cruel.

    In the novel, Paul, after weeks in the front lines, gets trapped between the lines of trenches in no-man's land and cannot move because of the shells and machine-gun fire. It is night, and he imagines what he will do if a French soldier takes cover in the shell-hole where he is taking cover:

    If anyone jumps in here I will go for him...stab him clean through the throat, so that he cannot call out; that's the only way....
    A French soldier does take cover in the trench and Paul stabs him three times. Yet he himself cannot escape and is forced to remain and hear the suffering of this young man. Remarque writes:
    "(F)or a moment the groaning becomes louder, his forehead sinks back upon his arm. The man is not dead, he is dying but he is not dead. I drag myself toward him...At last I am beside him. Then he opens his eyes. He must have heard me, for he gazes at me with a look of utter terror...
I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him, I stroke his forehead....
"I look for the knife and find it again. But when I begin to cut the shirt the eyes open once more and the cry is in them again and the demented expression, so that I must close them, press them shut and whisper: "I want to help you, Comrade, camerade, camerade, camerade----"

    Paul tries to help the French soldier he has stabbed

    The class was gripped and silent. "What is happening to Paul?" I asked. I was moved when Tania Sanchez, whose cousin had been murdered, commented, "He's seeing that the Frenchman is a man just like him, that he has feelings and he's dying because Paul killed him." Rosie said, "He's forced to see what the man is feeling inside, what's his pain and what he's thinking of...(H)e feels his conscience telling him what he did was wrong." Alan Bell, who had been so mocking, was serious for the first time, saying, "He feels regret for what he's done."

    The Frenchman dies, and Paul thinks more about this man, imagining what his life was like:
    Now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up-take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now...

    My students spoke about how much they respected Erich Maria Remarque for showing how Paul is driven by his remorse and now sees the soldier he killed as like himself. About the sentence "Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us," one student said: "They don't tell them how much they're alike--because they wouldn't fight if they did!"

    This novel has been read for over 85 years and people have been moved by it--but for a person to see, as my students did, that it's really about us, critical of how we see other people different from us, is new and important. Through this lesson and others like it, these young people, once cynical and separate became really interested in history; they also became much kinder, including to each other. Alfredo Muniz, who, at the beginning of the term said history was boring, wrote: "I think the way that Paul sees [the French soldier] now has more true relation of sameness and difference. They were different in nationality but the same in everything else. They both had family and friends and the same fear of death. This is important because we're on our way to World War III and people must see that war is not the answer to all problems."

    Michelle Baker--so bitter earlier, who had said she couldn't remember things, and that no good could ever come from a white person, changed! She began passing tests and writing essays she is proud of. She no longer tries to run the class and her classmates, but listens and encourages them. "I feel calm in this class," she said recently. Yolanda Paredes, whose writing was illegible, is now writing carefully and clearly, and she is getting a passing grade. All the students are much more interested in what's happening in the world right now, want to express their opinions, and are also more self-critical.

    People today, including school administrators and government leaders, need to know what my students were learning. And I want to say very soberly, if what happened in my classroom were multiplied by thousands of classrooms throughout America and Britain--we would have a different world, a safe world. Yes, the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method can and does change cynicism into real interest, real desire for knowledge, and real kindness. This is the education needed everywhere.

    See also:
    What Caused the Wars, by Eli Siegel -- an essay that contains the definitive understanding of the emotion impelling nations to war
    Contempt & World War I -- the first part of a lecture Eli Siegel gave about the Great War
    Educator Leila Rosen on Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting"
    Writer Lynette Abel describing a class given by Eli Siegel on "The Miracle at Verdun," a play about World War I

  • Hunger In Children Has To End!

    With "austerity" programs inflicting suffering on people all over Europe and beyond, I think every person should read the following passionate sentences, to get more of an idea of what we are talking about when we say "austerity". They are by the Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss, and I've quoted them before:

    "Among the effects of unemployment . . . is hunger, including the hunger of children across the land who cannot get the food their little stomachs need because their jobless parents are unable to purchase it. And there is this effect: every person who wants a job and cannot get one, feels a certain way. When a person sends off a resume [CV] and gets no response or is turned down; or goes for a job interview, then learns he has been passed over; or, after working someplace for years, is told his services are no longer needed, there is tremendous feeling. Millions of people are being made to feel that they cannot be of use, that America does not need what they can do. That feeling is horrible. And it comes from a lie."

    --From Jobs, Feelings, & Philosophy, issue #1826 of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

    Child Hunger in UK

    As British leaders embrace austerity (though hardly suffering themselves), everyone should be aware of how this will affect society as a whole and those individuals, like the children Ellen Reiss is writing of; the 99% who are seen simply as fodder for the profit-machine. Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, did say 45 years ago, in 1970, that such a system of economics could not endure because deeply people cannot stand it. What we are yearning for is a system of economics that is based on good will. Good will, the real thing, not some soupy, soft, unbelieved-in mush, is what Aesthetic Realism teaches and what the world needs. In fact, Mr. Siegel said that good will is the most suppressed emotion of all. That is very hopeful, and I've seen very much evidence that it is true. The victory of Syriza in Greece, the election in Delhi, the outpouring of support for people who represent kindness and consideration for those who are NOT billionaires, are part of what Aesthetic Realism sees as the "force of ethics" working in the world. Whatever happens in 2015, ethics is on the march and cannot be stopped.

  • An Aesthetic Realism Discussion of Sargent's "Madame X"

    There is a thrilling Aesthetic Realism discussion by Lynette Abel, about a portrait I've admired for a long time. Titled Sargent's "Madame X"; or, Assertion and Retreat In Woman., it can have every man deeper and more thoughtful about a woman, how she sees; her questions to herself.
    Madame X
    This is also a perceptive and revealing critical analysis of a famous and loved portrait. As I read and think about this, I have more respect for women, for art, and for John Singer Sargent, the American artist who painted "Madame X".

    This talk is a good opportunity to see what Aesthetic Realism is. It is education of the widest kind, about everything from art to mathematics, from history to science to poetry to music and the lives of individual people of today and yesterday. But that's too much respect for some people apparently, and consequently there are lies about it on the Internet. I passionately object to these falsehoods, which are calculated to scare people away and prevent them from seeing Aesthetic Realism for what it simply is: an exciting, critical, thought-provoking education of the highest class. As a friend of mine said recently, "Aesthetic Realism is FUN!" You can read more about the reason for the attacks at Countering the Lies.

    I think we were born to have more respect for and greater feeling and knowledge about the world, including the people in it. That's why I'm grateful and proud to be studying Aesthetic Realism. I'm learning how to be a better and more fulfilled human being! And, yes, this is a study based on principles such as this one by Eli Siegel that Ms. Abel quotes in her talk: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."


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