AP Art History: The Keystone in the High School Curriculum

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Authored by

  • Marsha Russell
    St. Andrew's Episcopal School
    Austin, Texas

This talk was presented by Marsha Russell at the AP Art History Faculty Colloquium on April 26, 2009. The colloquium convened 50 faculty members from top college and university art history departments to provide them with information about the AP Art History course and exam and to solicit their input regarding the future direction of the program.

Introduction

When I was given the opportunity to speak on the importance of the AP Art History course, I knew that I had some clearly defined thoughts on the matter. I also had a pretty clear picture of how fellow teachers might respond, thanks to the lively discussions we've had on the topic at College Board training events. To fully and faithfully address this topic, however, I knew what I needed most was feedback from those whose experiences and opinions both reveal most and matter most: students who had actually taken the class. So I wrote a note on Facebook that I would be speaking about this topic, and invited students to respond. Over the next several days, I heard from more than 60 of them, ranging in age from 17 to 33, living all around the globe and engaged in a wide variety of pursuits. I found several recurring themes in their comments—it is their voices that inform what I have to say. I want to discuss ways in which the course lends itself to making those who teach it become more effective teachers, and I'll explore ways in which the class helps to mold students into better scholars, better-equipped adults, and—at the risk of sounding over the top—better human beings.

High school juniors and seniors are typically enrolled in English, history, math, science, and a foreign language. Those who can may add an elective such as band, choir, theater, or studio art. To greater or lesser degrees, they all begin the year with difficulty thinking in abstractions, a propensity to see things in black and white, and a tendency to form snap judgments and dismiss what they don't instantly understand. They struggle with questions without clear-cut answers, and they constantly teeter between blind adherence to the attitudes and views of their parents and the powerful urge to rebel against any inherited wisdom. They may suffer from the exasperating myopia of the young, capable of placing importance on only those things that affect them in the right here and the right now. But they are funny and alive, imaginative and hungry to learn. They want ways to make sense of the world and something is always cooking.

Training the Critical Eye

So why is AP Art History uniquely well suited to coincide beautifully with the stage of intellectual and social development these strange and wonderful creatures are in? These students are taking their umpteenth history, English, math, and science courses, so they already know (or think they know) lots about those subjects. They have also pegged which ones they are good at, which ones they're not, which ones they like, and which ones they don't. They know—and talk about—who is good at what class and who isn't. But when they walk into AP Art History, all bets are off. They don't walk in "good" or "bad" at this class. It's likely that 30 out of 30 students in the room have little or no background in thinking critically about the images in the world around them. More than reading or writing, this class is about looking, and no one has ever taught them how to look. As a result, from day one students are on a level playing field, an important factor in establishing the culture of the class. As teachers, we can enhance that by taking them all out of their comfort zone; showing them images they've never seen, from cultures they know nothing about, teaches them an introductory analytical model that moves from the concrete to the abstract in ways they can master. The class is the great equalizer in groups with widely disparate skill levels, since the image is a "text" to which all students have access. Students of all learning styles are intrigued, particularly those who are more comfortable with visual stimuli than with auditory learning. As teachers, we can provide constant opportunities for students to go back and forth between concrete image and abstract thought, to negotiate the intersections of ideas and images, as we train them to look critically, situate culturally and historically, and speak and write thoughtfully about what they see.

Synthesis and Analytical Thinking

The overwhelming conclusion of those who responded to my query was that AP Art History made them better students across the board, improving skills and thought processes that proved valuable in high school, college, and beyond. Many discussed the benefits that came from synthesizing learning from disparate fields. One wrote, "Because [AP] art history links so many other disciplines and areas of knowledge, we learned how to . . . build mental networks of a lot of very different information in our minds . . . building principles on top of underlying information, learning to extrapolate, find patterns, [and] match core concepts." Because we have the advantage of knowing the other classes our students are taking, it is easy for us to talk with their other teachers both formally and informally about ways our classes overlap. It is natural for us to encourage that synthesis by making specific references to material we know they are learning during the rest of their school day.

Students also made much of their growth in analytical thinking. One wrote, "Learning to analyze art helped broaden my world view; . . . it was an entirely new system through which I could understand history and the humanities. . . . It helped me develop better analytical reasoning skills, which I use in real life as a computer systems analyst." It is gratifying to observe how effectively my students move from their discomfort with abstract thinking early in the year to their facility with it as time passes. This transition is critical in a high school classroom. The examination of images in different contexts concretizes the abstract and personalizes the impersonal for our students, helping build a bridge in their intellectual development. One observed, "Seeing LeNain paintings [of peasants] alongside the over-the-top [Rigaud] portrait of Louis XIV tells more about class issues in 17th-century France than any history book could begin to explain." Students learn to visualize historical developments, systems of thought and belief, social relationships, and economic realities, making these complex issues real and worthy of their consideration. The course also provides an engaging, effective, and digestible way to introduce theoretical perspectives, as we observe images through the lenses of Marxism or feminism, for example, and compare contemporary works addressing issues such as race, gender, or class with images from the past.

Increasing Visual Literacy and Cultural Appreciation

Beyond helping to make our students more academically successful, AP Art History serves important functions by reaching students who might never take an art history class in college. It also works in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways to make all students better equipped to live as adults in our increasingly visual world. Students learn and practice every single day the value of using what you know to deal with what you don't know. One student wrote, "It would be unthinkable to raise a generation of young people who lack the ability to read closely and think critically, . . . and . . . it is equally unthinkable to raise them without an ability to apply basic analytical tools to the images they are shoveled constantly on billboards, web pages, television, movies, . . . and clothing . . . To simply ingest these images without understanding fundamental concepts about their creation, their messages, and their intentions is like believing everything you read." Another wrote, "The information I took from my art history class informed every other part of my education. But more than that, the skills I took from that class inform the way I learn to this day . . . In order to understand everything I see, I have to unpack the images, understand the context, the creator, the motivation, the intent and purpose of the image. Without my high school art history class, I don't know where I would have learned how to do that."

Perhaps the most rewarding conclusion I drew from reading comments by former students was that the class has an undeniable impact on their quality of life, that it engenders personal growth, and makes them, in their own words, better people. Students who are not artists gain an understanding and appreciation of the creative process, and students engaged in other Fine Arts classes begin to perceive parallels and intersections in creative expression across the board, in ways that the arts in general operate in similar nonverbal ways. Many who wrote talked about how valuable it was that we spent time exploring other cultures. As they gain an appreciation for utterly different cultures, students want to learn more: they begin to overcome that self-centered tunnel vision that's just part of being a teenager. Others discussed the importance of the class in helping them avoid hair-trigger conclusions, since it encourages the postponement of value judgments, fosters a willingness to investigate further and dig deeper, and provides an object lesson day after day that most things in life involve more than meets the eye.

A Rice graduate and composer may have summed things up best:

I often say that [AP Art History] was the single class that most improved my quality of life. It gave me a strong grasp of history—a visual timeline that has well organized everything I've learned about the past. It helped me be culturally competent in an area I might not have explored otherwise. It's hard to pin down the value of that competence, except that being knowledgeable about things that matter has earned me respect from people that matter. It gave me a seat at the table of the Great Conversation, you might say. It multiplied my list of Beloved Things that Fill Me with Wonder, which feels like a significant personal wealth. What [it] does is turn our culture's treasures into our own personal treasures, giving us a stake in our tradition and history.

Conclusion

A course demanding this level of instruction is a gift to a high school teacher. It ensures that we never grow complacent. Since our charge is to teach a class that approximates the college survey, we must work to stay current with what's happening in our departments. The AP Art History exams our students take serve as our single most valuable tools in communicating new directions in the field of art history. If we aren't staying current, that is clear to us every year through our students' exam scores. Unlike colleagues who grow content with what they know, we must constantly learn more, not only about what we teach but about the theoretical and methodological approaches with which you teach: this intellectual stimulation is exhilarating and ongoing. Gaining access to the meaning of the visual world also makes our students feel like members of the club, and the fervor with which they begin to use their eyes is almost palpable. AP Art History is good for the teachers who teach it, for the college art historians who inherit the growing numbers of AP students, and for society at large.