Alice Bernstein - Journalist & Aesthetic Realism Associate
Part Two: Organic Kindness on the Ice of Antarctica
[Note: Here is the conclusion of two Environmental Science lessons taught by Mrs. Plumstead at Fiorello LaGuardia High School in New York City, which she described in a public seminar, “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Shows Education is Ethics!” For thirty years she used this method which is based on Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded in 1941 by the American poet and educator, Eli Siegel, and these principles: 1) “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” 2) “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” 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 also of the disregard people have for the earth’s resources and living creatures. In Part One we learned about sameness and difference in biodiversity: millions of plants, insects, creatures, and we began learning about Emperor Penguins. To find out more about this teaching method, visit the website: www.AestheticRealism.org]
Opposites in the Emperor Penguin
Next we studied the Emperor Penguin of Antarctica, one of the 17 species of penguins. It is amazing that these sweet-looking 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.
The Emperor Penguin is the largest of the species, standing nearly 4 feet tall and weighing close to 80 lbs. Along with the Adelie Penguin, they inhabit the southernmost parts of Antarctica, where the temperature in the winter can dip to –94 degrees F. My students and I were amazed to learn that this species can dive the deepest—to 1700 feet—and hold their breath for 20 minutes while they feed.
We also learned that when the Emperor Penguins leave the sea, they literally fly out of a waterhole onto the ice, where they belly-wop with great enthusiasm. I asked the class: “What opposites does this penguin put together?” “Water and land,” Neira said. (Students’ names are changed.) “It’s flying out of the water,” Manny commented. “But it’s so big,” Jill remarked looking intently at a photo. “It’s bulky and light,” Nydia said. I asked: “Have you ever felt so burdened you had a hard time getting out of bed?” “Ever day,” Manny said. Others nodded in agreement. “Have you ever been so giddy with your friends that you found it hard to stop laughing?” “Yes,” Alicia said, “And then I go to class and feel so sleepy.” I said, “Look again at this penguin—is it heavy and light at the same time?” “It is both,” Nydia said smiling. “That’s great,” she continued. “Is that what we want to feel,” I asked, “that as we’re light and happy, we’re also deep?” “Yes,” they said.
Penguins are charming, and people are very taken by them. But it is seeing the opposites in them that made my students more able to learn about everything, and not just see the penguins as creatures to smile at. For example, we were very moved to see that these wild, playful birds also have great dignity. After flying out of the waterhole, they use their beaks to hoist themselves up onto two feet, enabling them to walk. This is very important to the survival of Emperor Penguins, because they need to walk more than 70 miles inland to breed and then back to the sea to feed. As they alternate between tobogganing on their bellies when they are fatigued and walking in an upright position, they are proud and humble at once—as everyone in our class, including the teacher, has hoped to be.
Organic Kindness on the Ice of Antarctica
Coldness and warmth are tremendous opposites in the world and in people. Everyone has felt he or she was too cold, and also has felt one had to be cold to get along in the world. My students saw, through the penguins, that these opposites can be one: that warmth and coldness, kindness and severity could be together.
The fact that the Emperor Penguin is able to breed at all in such conditions is miraculous. During the summer months they feed extensively, building up adequate fat and nutrition for the severe winter months ahead. In Autumn, as the last fishing holes freeze over, they begin their 100 mile trek inland to a canyon where they find stable ice. After an elaborate courting duet, the penguins mate. The female penguin later lays an egg, but it is the male that will incubate it.
In what has to be a rapid transfer from female to male, the egg is placed on the top of the father’s feet and covered in a brood flap where the temperature is 80 degrees warmer than outside. The female penguins then begin their trek back to the sea to feed—to take in enough food so that they can nourish their chicks-to-be.
It is during the dead of winter and in complete darkness that the male penguins, while supporting the unhatched egg, fast nearly four months. They lose 45% of their body weight. I asked, “Do we respect these male penguins?” Smiling, Maria said, “Yeah, I do.” “Do you think they’re devoted,” I asked. Reluctantly, Tamika said, “Yeah.” Some of the young women in my classes, whose fathers have never been part of their lives, have come to the scornful conclusion that all men are no good and that the world cannot be counted on. I asked, “Are these penguins devoted, and also strong?” “Yes,” Tamika said thoughtfully. “What do you think?” I asked Manny. “Yeah,” he said, “Sure.” It was moving to see the class affected by these fine creatures, and—because of the opposites—using their respect for them to learn about the world and to question the rightness of their own cynicism.
When they saw what happens next they were visibly excited and moved. During this wintry period, the winds become blizzard-like, and in an effort to conserve body heat and protect the egg that rests on their feet, the male penguins huddle together. But they don’t just stand still. Each penguin takes its turn on the side where the wind’s assault is greatest, before walking around to the sheltered side. “Wow,” Ana said, “that’s really something. I’d probably want to keep my cold self in the center of that pack,” she continued. And with a genuine desire to know, she said: “How do they know to do that?” “Instinct,” Reinaldo said with respect. “Do you think,” I asked, “that there’s an instinctive feeling in each penguin that it will take care of itself by being fair to the other penguins?” “I guess so,” Ana said. Maritza added, “And probably more of them survive that way, too.” My students were seeing evidence for the fact that good will is strong, and it’s practical. There was a great deal of emotion in the class and a feeling of hope about the world because we felt the Emperor Penguins make kindness look strong. The result of this valiant individual and collective effort to preserve the egg is the hatched baby chick gratefully sitting on its father’s feet.
My students were also seeing what the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method shows: there is a difference between how the world is made and how it is run—how people want to use other people and the earth for profit. “The big mistake we make,” I told my students, “is to use injustices to obliterate the beauty of how the world is made and our obligation to be just to it. We have no right to do that.”
Students saw that it is contempt at the basis of our unjust economic system that has a factory owner blatantly dump toxic chemicals into a waterway because it is cheaper and he can protect his profits, and this same contempt has one student mock or shove another, has a teacher demean a student in front of classmates.
These lessons and others like them had a profound effect. Learning amazing facts about these creatures encouraged my students to have a wider interest in and greater respect for the world, including wanting to preserve and protect it for all the organisms living on this earth. They are more passionate about ethics. In a course evaluation at the end of the term, Juanita Sanchez wrote:
“This course made me realize how many different kinds of living things are out there. It taught me how to appreciate…things that I would have never noticed. At the same time it made me realize things I was doing that affected and sometimes harmed [other creatures] I was overlooking.”
Through the Aesthetic Realism method my students have come to love science, and learn it successfully; 96% passed the course. Many participated in a four-week after-school program restoring a damaged site in Inwood Park. They felt proud doing so.
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.
Read book reviews about the works of
Eli Siegel, Founder of Aesthetic Realism
© 2005 by Alice Bernstein. For permission to reprint please contact me by
email: Ajoybern@nyc.rr.com, or call (212) 691-2978