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AP Art History-- A Multidisciplinary Approach to Educational Growth
Mary Lanctot, 6/8/2010

Mary Lanctot has been leading our AP Art History class on line since our youngest daughter Hannah took the course her senior year, back in the 2004-2005 school year -- and I warn you, this course was so involving and intriguing that Hannah continued with art history studies in college, and eventually ended up majoring in fine arts with a focus on painting (along with sociology, and work in Judaic studies ... but don't worry-- she also has a fine fulltime job for the fall, after just graduating this May!). Mary is also the mother of three always homeschooled young people-- her youngest is graduating from her high school years now. Mary is a dynamic, encouraging, and very motivating teacher-- highly recommended!  -- Editor, Susan Richman

 It is difficult for me to speak quantitatively and rationally about the discipline of art history.  I can effuse enthusiastically at length, or offer up brilliant and beautiful masterpieces that literally take one’s breath away.  But even these attempts at communicating the depth and breadth of this potentially life-changing curriculum fall far short of revealing its true power. 


As a college student, I was a passionate academic being.  Every semester when the thick, newsprint course catalog came out (along with the requisite thrill of choosing next term’s offerings), I would gawk in joyful paralysis at the resplendent array of opportunities, giggling at the sheer volume of possibilities—a newly-born gourmet standing with only a single plate at the mother-of-all buffet-tables.  I changed my major nearly every semester.  How could I possibly decide between literature, religious studies, history, anthropology, psychology, art…?  Even though, I promise you, I read the course booklet as thoroughly as any of its editors; not once had I stopped and perused the art history offerings. 

I was forced into my first art history class—a survey covering Renaissance through Modern—a requirement supporting my interest in studio art.  The class was demanding, inspiring, profound, and I was, by semester’s end, completely smitten.  I had found my own Rosetta Stone.  In this singular discipline I could work with oh-so-many academic “languages;” a practical secret that has kept me passionately and meaningfully connected to the study of art history ever since. 

Art history follows the development of the human race from prehistory until modern times.  Students of the discipline function as forensic scientists; evaluating evidence (art) and distilling from it all sorts of historical, political, economic, religious, social and personal meaning.  The study is an absorbing journey that exposes universal themes and profound connections on so many levels.  Perhaps my students, in recent course evaluations, say it better:


 I truly find [art history] to be one of the most fascinating subjects to be studied--every work of art is like a picture in the storybook of the world, telling us more about the culture it reflects and the values that particular culture held.

You learn to look at a painting or building and recognize its distinguishing features and what they mean. It allows for a deep understanding of history in a way that’s likely never been breached by any other teacher you’ve ever had. It also provides a visual timeline, linking each part of history not only to the one before and the one after but to dozens of different points and eras.

With its focus on conceptual, visual, and cultural analysis, art history cultivates critical thinking.  It is a subject that invites classification, comparison, and connection.  It requires that students translate abstractions into the concrete.  They learn to think and to write quickly, clearly, and impressively; a practical academic tool that equips them for college and beyond. 


Art history also teaches visual competence.  This proficiency can be vital to experiencing our own pervasively visual culture in a healthy way:  those versed in visual awareness are able to see beneath the gloss of popular imagery (advertising, television, movies, computer imaging, etc), understand its visual power, and place it in relevant social context.  Visual literacy—learning to look well—also serves to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.  One of my students shares her epiphany beautifully:

When you look at a cloud, what do you see? A smallish, white fluffy-looking thing that floats through the sky. It’s nice. It’s even pretty, but hardly out of the ordinary. Until you stop and really look at it. Until you can see the colors within the colors, the beauty hidden in the normal everyday things. It’s this new perspective that artists throughout history and cultures have brought to the world.

Art history is a magical, multifaceted study that offers the potential for unlimited academic and personal growth.  It opens students’ minds, eyes, and hearts and it provides them with a body of knowledge that functions for a lifetime.  Very often, former students kindly take the time to remind me of this beautiful truth by sending me cards from significant monuments or museums around the world, and I know how important their knowledge of art history remains to them.  It is a curriculum that truly keeps on giving, even in completely immeasurable ways. 


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