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The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Shows: Education Is Ethics!

Part One: Biodiversity and the Emperor Penguin

By Rosemary A. Plumstead

This is the first of two parts. Link to Part 2.

The movie industry was greatly surprised last year that “The March of the Penguins” surpassed in viewers many “top rated” films released at the time. This shows with resounding clarity that when people go to the movies, we not only want to be entertained, but educated and strengthened.

     I have loved and respected Emperor Penguins for a long time—so much so that when I was teaching Environmental Science at Fiorello LaGuardia High School in New York City in the 1990s, I based a series of lessons on an issue of National Geographic magazine titled, “Emperors of the Ice." I felt that studying these magnificent creatures who live under the harshest conditions would enable my students to learn and have great respect for the penguins’ courageous struggle for existence.   

               Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method views the Emperor Penguin

I also felt that the grace, dignity, charm, perseverance, good sense and emotion of these penguins—including their kindness—could be a means of students knowing the world and themselves more fully.

     For thirty years, until my retirement in 2004, I used the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method as the basis of my lessons. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy founded in 1941 by the American poet and educator, Eli Siegel. The lessons that follow are based on these principles stated by Mr. Siegel : 1) “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” I loved being able to tell my students that this was my purpose in teaching them, and that if this larger purpose is met, we would meet the required standards. And we did!

     2) “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”   This principle is the basis for relating the subject to the whole world, to other subjects, and to the self.   As you will see, the opposites that Emperor Penguins put together—grace and strength, heavy and light, interest in self and justice to others—are opposites every person is trying to put together. That is why, when we see penguins doing so, we are moved and inspired.

     3) The greatest interference to learning is the desire for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the cause of all racial prejudice and violence; it is also the cause of the blatant disregard we humans have for the earth’s resources and the ill effects our injustice has on all living creatures. Eli Siegel described ethics as: “the art of enjoying justice.” That is what I wanted my students to feel as they studied Environmental Science.  

We Begin With Biodiversity—A Study in Sameness and Difference

In a unit on biodiversity, my students and I saw there is grandeur in the living beings and growing things that inhabit this earth. In addition to our text, we studied an article from the Jan ./Feb. 1994 issue of Nature Conservancy, with this definition:

Biodiversity is the sum total of all the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms in the world; or in a particular area; all of their individual variation; and all of the interactions between them.  

I asked the class, “As you hear this, what feeling do you get about the world and the organisms living in it?” Stephen said, “It’s big.” (All students’ names are changed.) Angela said somewhat complainingly, “There are too many organisms to count.” Many students feel something like this—too many facts and nothing to unify them. I wanted them to see that there is a structure—the opposites—that unifies all creatures and plants, and also makes each one of them like us. I asked first, “What opposites do you think are present in biodiversity?” “Large and small,” Anika said: “There are microorganisms and elephants.” “Right. And do we also see one and many—it’s the sum total of everything living on one planet and yet there are many different organisms?” “Also same and different,” Felipe called out. The students were amazed at how these opposites are in the following sentences:

“Scientists believe that there may be 8-10 million species in existence. We know a great deal about some kinds of organisms, such as the roughly 9,000 kinds of birds, 4,500 kinds of mammals, 20,000 butterflies and perhaps 250,000 kinds of plants.”

     The article states that there are many groups of organisms that we know nothing about. For example, we have only named 69,000 kinds of fungi and there may be as many as 1.5 million!

     I asked: “Do you think we would find the world more or less interesting if there were only one kind of dog, or cat, or bird, or trees? “Less,” they called out.  “It would be boring,” Robert said. To illustrate this thrilling diversity I held up pictures of different organisms—an owl, whale, macaw, polar bear, snake, chimp and bird of paradise. “What do they all have in common?” I asked. “They’re alive,” Janet said. “They each need a habitat in which to live,” Timothy replied. “Each is trying to survive in their own way,” Angela replied.

     My students were seeing—with increasing interest—that beings representing a vast array of different species are all living on this earthy, and each is needed to express the tremendous multiplicity of reality. Soon they would see the biggest thing making different creatures the same—and like us—is the structure of reality itself, the oneness of opposites.

     Meanwhile, because people don’t see difference as also sameness, there is agony. For example, in the school cafeteria young people of the same racial or ethnic group often sit at one table, looking at students of a different background sitting at another table as if to say, “They’re not like us, they’re inferior.” And I have heard teachers sum up whole classes of students in bored, cynical tones—“They’re all the same—nobody wants to learn”—and worse. Through the Aesthetic Realism method, the study of biodiversity shows unequivocally that the very opposites of sameness and difference that are used to be scornful, suspicious, and dully contemptuous are beautifully one in reality itself—its living creatures and its growing things.

Opposites in the Emperor Penguins

The next day we studied the Emperor Penguin of Antarctica, one of the 17 species of penguins. It is amazing that these sweet-looking upright creatures are capable of living so successfully in the coldest, harshest place on earth. Students and teachers alike feel that the world is cold and harsh—and can cynically use this to say either that kindness doesn’t exist, or if it did, it wouldn’t pay. I believe that is a large reason my students were very interested in the living habits of this magnificent being.  

     Next week the conclusion, Organic Kindness on the Ice of Antarctica: The Emperor Penguin. 

To visit the blog of Rosemary Plumstead, click here. To go to part two, click here.

[Note: This article was first published in The Science Teacher's Bulletin, the official publication of The Science Teachers Association of New York State (Volume 69, #1, Fall, 2005).]



Rosemary Plumstead is a Consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City and, since 1975, is one of the instructors of the Aesthetic Realism and Education Workshop for teachers of all subjects and grade levels.
     Her articles on Aesthetic Realism have been published nationwide in relation to road rage, drug use by young people, economic injustice, environmental issues, marriage, youth violence, and teaching. “ The Success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Interest Wins, Cynicism Loses in Both Teachers and Students !, ” (2004) and " The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Shows: Education Is Ethics " (2005: Vol. 69, No. 1) appear in The Science Teachers Bulletin , the official publication of the Science Teachers Association of New York State, Inc.  
     Mrs. Plumstead is a co-author of Aesthetic Realism Is the Answer to Racism , by Alice Bernstein and Others, published by Orange Angle Press.
     Beginning in 1975, Rosemary Plumstead studied in the historic classes taught by Eli Siegel—poet, educator and the founder of Aesthetic Realism. Her studies continue now in the professional classes taught by Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss.   In 1983, she married Reverend Wayne Jack Plumstead, Aesthetic Realism Consultant and Pastor of Park United Methodist Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey.  

[Note: This article was first published in The Science Teacher's Bulletin, the official publication of The Science Teachers Association of New York State (Volume 69, #1, Fall, 2005).]


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