Social Studies | Lessons & Narratives


Their True Intelligence

By Lois Mason

For 25 years I have seen the Aesthetic Realism teaching method bring out the intelligence of students as nothing else can. Learning how reality’s opposites—opposites they themselves are trying to put together—are in the events of history, has students be excited by knowledge, learn, and remember what they learn!

Mr. Siegel has defined intelligence as “the ability of a self to become at one with the new. “I had used the fact that I got high scores on standard intelligence tests to feel superior to other people. I used what I already knew to be impressive, and less and less wanted to value the new. For example, though I liked French, I dropped it when I got only an 80, and I didn’t take physics because I was sure I’d fail. Though I acted confident, I felt I was a faker.

My spurious notion of my intellectual superiority affected my teaching. I would sarcastically belittle students for incorrect answers. And when I didn’t know the answer, I often said, “You don’t have to know that. It’s not important.” By the end of my second year, I hated teaching.

I am very fortunate that at this time I met Aesthetic Realism. I learned that contempt is the greatest diminisher of intelligence; and I learned there is something so much more mind-enhancing: to know and be affected by as much of reality as possible. I began to see, to my happy surprise, that I needed to and could learn from my students. I became much more sure of myself, and interested in things I’d once ignorantly disdained-including other people’s feelings.

American History & the Opposites

I tell now of an American History class I taught to summer school students at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, most of whom had failed the course before. This lesson was about causes of the American Revolution. And it brought out my students’ intelligence, because they saw that For and Against—crucial opposites in their own lives and feelings—were in happenings of more than two hundred years ago; and seeing this made them able to welcome new facts and retain them.

We read in our textbook, The Americans, by Jordan, Greenblatt, and Bowes, that Great Britain passed laws imposing on the American colonists high taxes for imported goods: the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, which taxed printed materials, and the Townshend Acts, which taxed glass, paint, paper, tea. This was for the British government’s making profit and against the welfare of the colonists. “That’s not fair!” said one student, Al Salzo.* The colonists didn’t think so either, and protested by boycotting British goods, smuggling, demonstrating at customs houses, and writing letters to newspapers.

I explained that what we were seeing in the British government of the 1760s was contempt. Contempt is always a hurtful relation of opposites; in this case, for and against. I said, “We can ask whether these opposites are in us. Have we ever felt, like the British government, that the way to be for ourselves is to be against and lessen other things or people?” “Yes—my little brother, ” said Esteban courageously. Emily Johnson was thoughtful, and then said, “I did something against my best friend. I got a boyfriend and I acted like I didn’t know her.”

The students were excited to see that the same opposites were in the colonists’ feelings—in a much truer relation. The colonists were fiercely against those taxes because they were for the rights of Englishmen. They were Englishmen; and taxes imposed by a Parliament in which they were not represented violated their rights. The resounding cry that traveled through the hills and valleys of colonial America was: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”

I asked, “Were the men who used their minds and bodies to be against these taxes—Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson—for what men, women, and children in Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania deserved?” Definitely yes, my students said! And I asked, “Do you think we can learn from American history how to have these opposites in a better relation in ourselves?” On this hot, humid summer day, my students were clearly interested, taking notes, excited about history. “What happened next?” asked Esteban.

The Boston Tea Party

We learned that in 1773 a huge private corporation, the East India Company, was on the verge of bankruptcy. “But the company’s warehouses,” our textbook states, “bulged with 17 million pounds of…tea.” To save the company, Parliament gave it a monopoly on the sale of tea to the colonies.

Despite the fact that this tea would actually have been cheaper, the colonists objected to an unjust law that said no one could sell tea in America except the East India Company. The objection was so intense that—on New York, Charleston, Philadelphia—the tea was sent back to Britain or held in warehouses at the docks. But in Boston, Governor Thomas Hutchinson ordered that the tea be unloaded. Hutchinson, I explained, had two sons and a nephew who were tea agents for the company.

I asked, “How did the men who were for this law—Lord North [the British prime minister], others in Parliament, Hutchinson—see the colonists?” “They didn’t care about them,” said Billy Johnson, “only about the British company.” “They didn’t care about what was right,” said Serita Jimenez: “it was about money.” “The British were just for themselves!” Vito Vitelli called out. We read this from our textbook:

On the evening of December 16, 1773, a well-organized group of colonials disguised themselves as Indians….They boarded three ships…and threw 15,000 pounds of tea into the dark waters of Boston harbor. This incident is usually referred to as the Boston Tea Party.

The students were thrilled. “Wow, they were really something!” said Esteban. In being against injustice, were they also for justice and kindness? “Yes!” was the resounding answer.

In just six weeks, this lesson and others like it dramatically affected my students and their ability to learn. Esteban—about whom I’d heard a teacher say, “He’ll never learn anything; he’s slow”—passed every classroom test and got a 78 on the citywide uniform final. Of the 16 students who took this exam, 15 passed. Toward the end of the summer session, Al Salzo said in amazement, “We always have such a good time here!”

I love Eli Siegel for teaching the beautiful, true, intelligent way of seeing history that enables it to be really useful. As surely as it was the right of the American colonists not to be taxed without representation, it is the right of every child in every school across America to meet this teaching method—the knowledge that will enable his or her mind to be all it can be.

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*The names of students have been changed.

 

This article by the late Lois Mason was originally published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1378.