A new school year is beginning, and I’m thinking about how to teach cultural history. There are a lot of reasons to get “meta” right now, as a cultural historian. (Specifically, I’m a professor of Art History and Visual Studies.)
First, there’s mode of delivery, and the cultural implications of that. If “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan famously said, then the digitization of my content this Fall is going to transform my message in culturally significant ways, whether I like it or not. (This, in fact, is a huge topic that I might tackle in a subsequent post.)
Second there’s the shape of what’s possible, when it comes to my students. Some of them will be tuning in from across the world, and others will be right in the classroom with me. Some will be juggling school with full-time, “essential” jobs, while others will be laser-focused on their studies in the absence of other distractions. What will this mean for our sense of co-learning and community?
And third, there’s the question of “canon” – of which historical content to include, or exclude, in the inevitable survey courses for my discipline. That’s the question I’m preoccupied with today.
Or course for decades the shape of our cultural “canon” has been debated, and Humanities courses have been written and rewritten to reflect emerging understandings. This was going full-swing when I was an undergrad, and the change has only accelerated since. (I think of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon and its curmudgeonly rep among the Lit students when I was in school.) The moment we’re in right now has given that debate a new urgency and unprecedented visibility, so that even bastions of traditional thought are reimagining their curricula. And the push for change sometimes feel so strong that there’s little chance to reflect.
Here in the Fall of 2020, though, as I reimagine my curriculum for an audience that is both far-flung and near, both digital and actual, and in all cases emotionally bruised, I have to make some quick decisions. And I have to make sure they’re grounded in the best and deepest truths I know. So here are some concepts I’m relying on as I think about how to teach cultural history (and specifically, art history) in our turbulent time.
1. Every human being who has ever lived was created in God’s image. Therefore every human culture in the history of the world reveals something about God.
This truth reminds me that a narrow approach to the teaching of cultural history shortchanges God. The rustic and bespoke can teach us as much about God as the powerful and grand. Also, cultural efflorescences from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition can reveal irreplaceable aspects of God’s character that we should not ignore.
2. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
This verse reminds me that the human struggle has always borne the same outlines, from the moment people with a God-consciousness blinked into the world. We’ve always loved and lost; we’ve always fallen prey to the same temptations; we’ve always been cruel to each other; we’ve always yearned for the sublime. This fact might seem depressing, but it also means we can learn from history. And it means it’s possible to forge bonds of empathy across both time and space.
3. There’s originality, and then there’s Originality
This point isn’t theological; it comes from the Art Historian Richard Shiff. Around twenty years ago, when I was still a student, Dr. Shiff defined “originality” for the textbook Critical Terms for Art History. His thoughtful essay has stuck with me ever since. As Shiff pointed out, there are two kinds of originality. There’s the “innovative” kind, when someone comes up with something “new,” and there’s also a deeper kind—a sort of “going-back-to-origins.” Moreover, this deeper kind can appear to be “innovative,” because it derives from an endlessly generative, universal source. Thinking about “originality” in this latter way helps me connect the art world’s mania for novelty with my faith in the timelessness of God. And more importantly, it helps me show my students how all the beauties of world culture are complementary, rhyming, and connected—derived as they are from the same molten-hot, life-giving core.
I have two little kids doing distance learning, and I’m recovering from cancer treatments. I’m not going to be able to make my cultural survey courses this year as good as they can be. But if I can, I’ll aim to stay grounded in these truths: the God-likeness of everyone; the repetitions of history; and the timeless Source of truth and beauty. Then, by God’s grace, I’ll hope to muddle through.
For further thinking about art history and theology in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/art-and-theology-a-review-essay/