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.
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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.