Aesthetic Realism and Education
By Eli Siegel
IF ONE LOOKS CLOSELY AT EDUCATION and the history of education, one finds a set of recurring problems, and these problems fall into pairs. For example, education should be practical, and also should be general. Education should be exact, and it should also be imaginative. Education should be about oneself, and it should also be about all kinds of things. Education should be cultural, and it should also tell you how to repair pipe. To show that the way of dealing with these problems is akin to the aesthetic way, I read a little story from the Talmud that appeared in the recent, rather valuable collection A Treasury of Jewish Folklore [ed. Nathan Ausübel, New York, 1948, p. 42]. There was a discussion about education in the second century A.D.:
The question was raised: “Which is more important—learning or action?
Rabbi Tarfon replied, “Action is more important. Of what earthly use are fine words and preachments unless they are put into practice?”
Rabbi Akiba upheld the contrary viewpoint. “Learning is more important,” he said.
The sages finally concluded that both were right. “Learning is more important when it leads to action.”
This is a simple story. The important thing about it is not so much that the problem is really settled—I don’t think it is really settled that way—but that the problem should come up again and again: on the one hand, education consists of such things as how to sew, how to cook, how to deal with your wife, how to make shoes; and at the same time it is about the whole world. There is still a tendency to get religion into education.
The Jews have dealt very much with education. One of the folk songs of the Jews—”Oif’n Pripechuk,” which means “In the Oven”—goes as follows:
In the oven burns a little flame,
And it’s hot in the room.
And the teacher drills the little children in the alphabet.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When you children will grow older,
You’ll understand yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters
And how much weeping!
[Ausübel, pp. 686-687)
Education here is related to something deep. Why all this weeping? There has been a feeling that education has to do with pleasure and also with something very sad.
Education can be defined as that which brings out from yourself what is best for you to be brought out, and what is best for everything. The big problem has been always how to bring these things out and what are the things to be brought out? For instance, many persons say, “Why do you have to take up such a thing as Latin? What do you have to do with Latin? All the people who used it are dead. Why do you need Latin? Take a solid thing like bookkeeping.”
Education says, “You’ve got things in you; and if you come around often enough, I, the teacher, will bring them out. You don’t know it but you’ve got trigonometry in you. You’ve got spelling, arithmetic; you’ve even got algebra; you’ve got a knowledge of European history, and it’s going to be brought out. In getting European history, something is going to be brought out in you. By having something brought to you, something will be brought out of you.”
One of the most readable statements on education is by that famous Victorian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, who was the chief proponent of Darwinism in the nineteenth century. He is a good writer, and talked in 1868 on “A Liberal Education and Where to Find It.” Huxley says:
It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us….What I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game.
At this time there was a feeling that what was taught in schools was too academic, that there wasn’t enough of science in it, there wasn’t enough of the physical world; there was an accent too much on pure mathematics and Greek and Latin, theology, philosophy, logic. Huxley, as a scientist, would say, you have to know what the world is made of; otherwise you may get hurt. This is in keeping with previous notions of education: that education in the long run is a way of taking care of ourselves better; that if you are educated you know how to get around; that if you’re not educated you might fall into a ditch, even one prepared for you by other people.
Then Huxley shows that by the very nature of life, you have to be educated:
Suppose that an adult man, in the full vigor of his faculties, could be suddenly placed in the world….How long would he be left uneducated? Not five minutes. Nature would begin to teach him, through the eye, the ear, the touch, the properties of objects. Pain and pleasure would be at his elbow telling him to do this and avoid that.
Huxley doesn’t say what I think can justly be said: that everything we do can be looked on as educative. Would you like to think that anything you ever did didn’t educate you to a degree? If you walked across the floor, would you like to think that this was not teaching you anything; that you spent one moment, even, without learning something, whether you read a book or not? Would you like to think, even, that you went to bed and somehow didn’t learn anything? If one looks at oneself deeply, the answer would be, “No, I wouldn’t like to think that I had spent a period of fifteen minutes, or an hour, or even a minute without learning something.” So the question is, what cannot bring out something in us? As soon as something is brought out of value to us, we are being educated. And having things brought out is the same as being given a chance to express ourselves.
The Purpose of Education
To take the new sensibly is to be educated. Any time, therefore, we play around with the new, want to make it less, want to say that it shouldn’t get to all of us, we are saying that we are against education. To live is to be educated. Then there is a way of more consciously and more organizedly living.
The most thorough sort of education would be that which would go along with the self that is most true to itself. That is, a thorough education would be that which took in as many things as possible and was as unified as possible. As soon as we say that we’re not interested in anything and as soon as we say that we are interested in many things but we can’t see any connection, we are saying to education, “I don’t really care for you.” Education goes for as many things as possible that we can learn with as much unity as possible, just as the self goes after this for its very existence.
That man, I think, has had a liberal education, who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine… ; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of Nature… ; one who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty,…to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself….He is…in harmony with Nature. He will make the best of her, and she of him. They will get on together.
This is essentially true. I don’t think Huxley saw the full meaning; I don’t think he saw the relation of the passions that are close to “life and fire,” to the intellect which is “a clear, cold, logic engine.” But the feeling that the chief thing in education is a relation to nature—that is, the whole world—which must be sensible, is a true feeling. The purpose of education is for us to be sensible: to be good for ourselves and good for things, in our perception of what reality or the world is.
The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is, in the deepest sense, educational. It says that there is something in us which doesn’t want to be sensible about reality; which would rather use reality, play with it, smudge it, be angry with it, kick it around, despise it. That part has to learn a lesson. In learning a lesson it also give a chance for the real I to learn the lesson it wants to learn. But before you can learn a beautiful lesson, you have to give up going after what can be termed ugly lessons.
The Only Sensible Motive
It is well to mention the general purposes that education has served.
A person thinks of education as getting him a better job, making him more money. This means that he is going to use his mind to be acquisitive and to beat out other people. That is quite poisonous. But I mention education for jobs: practical. It is unavoidable in a way; but the unavoidable, nevertheless, can do harm.
The next is education for superiority. If you have taken a course in the deism of the eighteenth century, or in the Manchester economics of the nineteenth century, or Southwestern anthropology, or muscular psychology, you can look down on everybody who hasn’t. This also is pernicious. It is hidden poison.
There can be education which is a response to a desire to know what things are, to feel that you are not in a mist, that you have some knowledge of what the actual world is about—which is different from feeling whether the world is for you or against you. You want to know things the way people want to read a newspaper.
Then, people learn things because there is a pleasure in learning them. People, for instance, listen to quizzes. This can be next door to the desire to be superior.
The motive which will take in the good things in all the other motives is—education because it is good for yourself and everything else. That is the only motive that is, I think, definitely and completely sensible.
I read now from a great document: the earliest compulsory education law in America, and perhaps in the world—Massachusetts, 1647:
It is…ordered tht evry township in this jurisdiction, after ye Lord hath increased ym to ye number of 50 householders, shall therforthwth appoint one to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read….It is ordered yt where any towns shall increase to ye number of 100 familis or householders, they shall set up a gramer schoole. [Woman’s Work in America, ed. A.N. Meyer, New York, 1891]
There were few people in New England, but they passed this law; because it was felt that people who didn’t know would have a better chance of being untrue to themselves.
It has been felt that there is some war between education and women. This isn’t so. One of the things that have been bad is, women have felt themselves that the part of them that knew things and studied was different from the part of them that looked beautiful, captivating, alluring, and sensual. I read, it seems, an authentic note—there was a very bright girl who wanted to get into Yale, and this was said of her in 1783: ”I have examined Miss Lucinda Foote, twelve years old, and have found that in the learned languages, the Latin and the Greek, she has made commendable progress,…and that she is fully qualified, except in regard to sex, to be received as a pupil of the Freshman Class of Yale University….Ezra Stiles, President” (Woman’s Work in America).
Men have felt also that they were two people: if they knew anything that was very academic, they felt it was completely apart from the practical side; it really wasn’t about them. There has been a big confusion about whether education was about oneself or was just a decoration of oneself that one could show and keep up with other people. This is a confusion now afflicting the colleges and schools of the country.
Ethics and Education
Cotton Mather, one of the early learned men of America, lived from 1663 to 1728. In his Essays to Do Good, directed to all Christians, he writes, “Teachers! will you not regard the children under your care, as committed to you by the glorious Lord, with such a charge as this: ‘Take them, and bring them up for me, and I will pay you your wages!’ Whenever a new scholar comes under your care, you may say, ‘Here my Lord sends me another object, for whom I may do something, that he may be useful in the world.'”
Whether it is from a religious point of view or from another point of view, this teacher is supposed to think of the child as saying, Look, I’ve got things in me; please, Mister, will you bring them out so that I can serve the world and sometimes serve God?
Education has been complained about because it hasn’t gone deep—and that is true. Our education has not come where we begin. This being so, it really hasn’t been education; because the purpose of education is to bring ourselves out. If it doesn’t do that, it is education only by addition. Most people have education as extra stories to themselves which have not much relation with the levels they began with.
Knowledge, Pleasure, Pain
I read now from Nationalism and Education since 1789 (E.H. Reisner, New York, 1922): “Was the high school to be regarded as a school preparatory of higher studies in college or university…? Or was it to be regarded as the final stage of a general education and thus follow the curriculum that would prove of the greatest usefulness in the business and civic life of the pupil?” This problem came to be pretty acute towards the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a problem that we face, because deep in us is the desire to be practical; deep in us also is the desire to be deep and to like ourselves. We have the problem of the cultural and the practical.
Since the oneness of these two things in mind has not been seen by the teachers, superintendents, or educationists, they’ve talked about a reconciliation but they haven’t felt it. There is something in us that goes for bookkeeping, and there is something in us that goes for reading French poems of the eighteenth or seventeenth century. Unless we can put those together we are going to have two lives. Education as we’ve had it has gone for those two lives that have hurt each other. What shall be taught and how it shall be taught is still agonizing all the teachers. They cannot place what they teach with what is taught in the next room. Here is somebody: he’s just come from chemistry and they are going to teach him grammar. They are going to teach him, maybe, French history: what’s that got to do with chemistry?
Unless we want to see the oneness of ourselves and the oneness in variety of the world, we are going to be in a muddle.
People without knowing it are asking themselves these questions: 1. How can I make money?; 2: How can I be useful and feel I am having some good effect on people?; 3. How can I know myself and like myself? A person has to feel that he is the same person knowing how to cook as knowing how to do a good thing for someone, and also knowing about himself. If these questions are asked for different purposes there is going to be an awful division. Out of that comes a very tough problem of pleasure and pain.
In his earliest play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare talks of knowledge as severe: three persons in Navarre are going to keep away from women and just study. Most people feel that studying is when they give in to other people. They therefore go through all kinds of business: they are restless, fidget, and think of other things.
How to relate the pain associated with learning to the pleasure of knowledge, is another of those big inquiries. The only way it can be settled is to say that whenever we are good to ourselves—that is, go after the whole of ourselves, the completeness of ourselves—that is the greatest kind of pleasure. If we don’t feel that, our going after knowledge will be seen as something opposed to pleasure.
Shakespeare speaks through the character of Biron, who says he doesn’t want to be as severe as the others:
Biron. What is the end of study? Let me know.
King. Why, that to know, which else we should not know.
Biron. Things hid and barr’d, you mean, from common sense?
King. Ay, that is study’s god-like recompense.
Biron. Come on, then; I will swear to study so,
To know the thing I am forbid to know:
As thus,—to study where I well may dine,
When I to feast expressly am forbid;
Or study where to meet some mistress fine.
This question occupied Shakespeare a lot: what is the relation of knowledge to pleasure? It is not answered in the public schools. Teachers are afraid of it. It is not answered in the high school or the college. If it can’t be answered, children of all ages are going to have difficulty; and graduate students will have difficulty too.
Biron. Why, all delights are vain; but that most vain,
Which with pain purchased doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth….
From this statement of Biron we get to the important thing: any time we want to know something and we’re not pleased in the knowing, our desire to know is fake—because knowledge is pleasure. Knowledge is the making of ourselves one with the world. You don’t know something because you’ve taken courses. You know something because you’ve made it part of yourself. If we can make outside things part of ourselves in a beautiful way, ourselves will emerge. And when ourselves emerge, ourselves will be ourselves.