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Arts & Culture

A Critical Look At Art History In High Schools



For many, the words ¨Art History” conjure up images of endless art slides and interminable lists of artists and movements to recognize. Many view the class as a mere exercise in memorizing artists, dates, and masterpieces, useful only for those who work in art and preservation. As such, the class is often taken in college as the students begin to specialize in their area of study.

However, this view of art history is a crabbed and incomplete version of what the course truly represents. At its best, art history is the study of art and its place in our world, a study that brings together history, politics, math, aesthetics, chemistry, psychology, and anthropology, to name a few. It is a synthesis of many subject areas that allows the engaged student a window through which they may catch a glimpse of how the many threads of science, art and sociology combine to create the world as we know it.

For this reason, I argue that Art History courses should be offered widely at the high school level, a time when students have not yet narrowed their focus to a single subject area. Far beyond being solely the arena of specialists, Art History offers an opportunity for anyone with an open mind to understand how the many forces of our world fit together into a cohesive whole.

To understand why art history is needed in high schools, consider the day of an average high school student such as myself. The day may begin with Spanish from 8 to 9:15, followed by Economics from 9:20 to 10:30, and so on for Calculus, English, Art, Biology, and Government.

Each subject remains carefully within the boundaries of its allotted time slot, not daring to venture beyond and bleed into other classes. When the bell rings at 9:15, Spanish ends and at 9:20 Economics begins, and we will not discuss Spanish in terms of Economics, nor will we discuss Economics in terms of Spanish. With very few exceptions, this is how high school works.

What is missing from this type of education is the ability to synthesize the information one has been presented. I may know a great deal about Spanish, and I may know a great deal about Economics, but I am unlikely to understand how the economic state of Spanish-speaking countries influences their culture and in turn their language.

This ability to put together the pieces that is so lacking in most high schools has become increasingly valuable in the job market. In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink makes a case for a quality he calls “symphony.” He says it is “the capacity to synthesize rather than analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect the broad patterns rather than deliver specific answers.” Pink argues that symphony will become an important quality in a job market where straightforward, purely logical jobs will be increasingly taken by computers and outsourcing.

It is precisely this quality of symphony that art history offers. To understand a work of art, one must come to understand all the factors that go into creating it. It is not enough to know the title and the artist; one must understand the political and religious climate, the technology and materials used, the cultural and economic state of the region the work was created in, and the mindset of the artist. To study art history is to see over and over again how technological advances or the rise of political ideologies is closely tied to art and perception.

In the words of Carmel High School senior Mehar Attar, “Studying art history provides an entirely different facet of human progression from which to draw greater conclusions.”

I took AP Art History my junior year of high school. Unsure of what to expect, I was daunted by the size and sheer amount of information contained within the textbook I received on the first day, which my class later dubbed Goliath, in hopes that we, like Verrocchio’s David, would be able to vanquish the behemoth. However, as we progressed further and further in the course, I was continually amazed as the information presented seemed to clarify things that I had already learned. It was like the dots of my past education were suddenly connected. For example, I had learned about the split in the Roman Empire and the Church in both history and confirmation classes before, but until I looked at the stylistic differences of art of the time, saw and understood the differences between east and west, learned of the stormy political climate and the various orders of monks, I had not truly understood what the Great Schism was, why it had to occur, or what it meant for people then and now. When I saw the geometry of the churches of the Renaissance and the perfect tessellations of mosques, I finally understood the application of the seemingly pointless ratios we did in math class, and even realized that these abhorred formulas had profoundly affected not only my life but the way in which all of humanity views the world.

Admittedly, not every student who takes art history comes away as enthused about the experience as I was. Nor am I saying that art history is for every student in high school. But I believe the class should be offered widely, and recognized for what it is. One of the major challenges facing art history at the high school level is a misperception of the class itself and what it entails. Rebecca Cesare, the art history teacher at Frankfort High School, talks about how an incomplete understanding of the scope of art history originally led to a class that is too short in length (a mere 12 weeks) to cover all the material required, much less enrich it with discussion, projects, and debate. Moreover, students who do not understand the nature of the course may take it hoping for easy AP credits, only to be confronted with highly challenging, sophisticated, and academic content that they were unprepared for.

However, if properly supported, art history is an incredibly important offering at any high school, one which provides the unique perspective of symphony to all the disparate subject areas that students had previously understood only as individual subjects. It gives students a new lens through which to analyze the increasingly connected world and a greater understanding of how a change in any one part must inevitably affect the whole.

Students, prepped with this kind of understanding, will find themselves better able to understand their place in the world, and be better equipped to change it as a result.

Lauren Ehrmann is a senior at Frankfort High School. She is a professionally exhibiting artist, a member of the Frankfort Arts Council and member of the Tuesday Night Inkers. Lauren is a recipient of the Wells Scholarship and will be attending IU Bloomington in the fall to study art history.

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