August 19th, 2008 by mrpowell2
A distinctive component of the HistoryAtOurHouse curriculum is a combined art appreciation and history program I call “History Through Art.” Given that HistoryThroughArt involves art, which many parents perceive as an important way to enrich their children’s education, the inclusion of this art component in the HistoryAtOurHouse curriculum seems to be quite a draw. However, many parents think of HistoryThroughArt as an Art History program, which it is not. So it seems like a good idea for me to clarify the nature of this unique program.
The main purpose of the HistoryAtOurHouse curriculum is to provide an integrated narrative presentation of the history of Western civilization. Unlike social studies, history presents the past in an orderly, logical manner–as a flowing, causal progression of events. By studying history, students learn to see that civilization progresses (and regresses) in certain ways, and that the present is the product of a vast (but graspable) chain of human choices and actions. They also learn to see human beings (including themselves) as historical figures, not merely acting with limited short-range consequences, but living within a broader social context with the ability to shape the world around them.
To be sure, such broad lessons are learned gradually, and mostly implicitly. Also, much of what students learn in history is filtered through the prism of their own personal experiences and self-perception. Nonetheless, thanks to an extended study of the record of human life on earth over the course of their education, children who study history are able to experience a vast world beyond the scope of their day-to-day lives. Consequently, they emerge from their education with a more stable perspective on the changing world around them, and an ability to reason abstractly about the flux of politics and culture.
Not only do students who are properly taught history know a lot, but they are able to use the past as a productive aspect of their thinking in the present. This ability, which I call “historical-mindedness,” takes a long time to develop, and must be cultivated throughout a child’s education. That’s one of the reasons HistoryAtOurHouse is designed as a history curriculum for 2nd all the way to 12th grade.
One of the challenges in fostering a proper connection between the past and the present in students’ thinking early on is to draw a connection between history and children’s own values. This can be done by emphasizing certain parts of the story of the past for audiences of a certain age. For instance, nothing is more enthralling about ancient history to a seven year old boy than a comparison between his own life and that of a Spartan boy (who would begin mandatory and essentially life-long military training at that age, and become an indoctrinated member of a military collective). Similarly, children like to focus on the concrete details of the life of a European serf during Medieval times down to the rules governing the disposal of even a scrap of bread, because they can relate that kind of detail to the rules and laws that govern their own lives.
Sometimes it’s the details that grab their attention; sometimes it’s the big picture. Another way to encourage children to integrate past and present is to highlight events that have shaped the world we live in today. The lasting significance of 1492, 1607, and 1776 are readily graspable at a surprisingly young age. A six year old can understand that modern America came to be because of a huge migration of European people and ideas, that England is America’s “mother country,” and that we became independent from England in the name of the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Another key way to foster “big picture historical-mindedness” is to discuss the record of certain ideas through time. This is especially important when talking about the story of democracy in Ancient Greece and the story of the Roman Republic. These examples, when combined with those of English and American political history, help students to make proper use of the terms “democracy” and “republic.” Since these terms are in common usage today (at least, the former is), they are able to see the relevance of studying history–especially when their knowledge of the past allows them to correct their parents or politicians on TV!
Art is yet another tool that can help students develop a proper historical awareness. By its nature, however, it is uniquely valuable, because it accomplishes two things at once: it engages students with vivid perceptual concretes and guides them to think “big picture” thoughts.
Through art we can see history. The great artists have the ability to collect information about costumes and customs, people and events, and the skill and imagination to present them so that we can visualize the past. This gives us a direct, sensory experience of something that otherwise would only be abstract and distant. Thanks to Alexandre Cabanel, for instance, the sensual despotism of Cleopatra becomes palpable. Thanks to Jean-Leon Gerome, we are immersed in the frenzied gore of gladiatorial combat. In cases such as these, a “picture” is indeed worth far more than a thousand words.
What is more, the greatest of visual art contains a dimension that no other presentation of the past can match. It provides the viewer with a visual experience that is specifically tailored to relay a conceptual message–a theme. For instance, Gerome (one of history’s best painters) presents the death of Julius Caesar in his painting of that title.
Gerome does not merely depict the death of Caesar as a journalistic fact, he creates a logically ordered scene that proposes to interpret the meaning of this event for the Roman world. By subtle use of light and contrast, Gerome focuses the viewer’s attention not as much on the dead Caesar as on the jubilant group near the center of the image. In so doing he draws our attention to a single figure among the revelers who have just murdered Caesar. This individual is not celebrating like the others. His sword is not raised, and he is looking towards the statue to the left of center. Thus he beckons us to investigate the identity of the statue, its place in the hall (now empty except for one brooding figure), and thus by a succession of logical steps, to the full import of the assassination of Caesar for Roman history.
To understand what Gerome is saying in the painting, we must weigh and combine all the pieces of his composition. And once we have, we are left with a deep sense of foreboding for the future of Rome, despite the celebrations of the moment.
Thanks to this type of sophisticated visualization, and through a proper process of art appreciation, we are able to literally see the meaning of history, as interpreted by the artist. Of course, we must also study the actual events to determine whether or not the artist’s theme is historically correct. But even if it is not, or a certain bias has been introduced, the ability to visualize that perspective can help one clarify the correct point of view.
This is History through art–history enhanced and enriched by the unique means of visual integration.
(In part 2 of this series I’ll discuss a unique feature of the HistoryThroughArt program in relation to Ancient history. In this part of the curriculum rotation not only do we view more modern art that depicts the distant past, but we are able to view art that was created in the ancient world, which provides us with yet another kind of valuable insight.)