The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Works of Art as a Means of Education
by Professor Ernest Gardner, M.A.
Thursday, October 29th
At 10.30 a.m., Mrs. Creighton spoke on Family Life after School Age.
There are two ways in which works art may be pressed into the service of education. Either they may themselves be made a subject of direct study, or they may be used as a knowledge derived from other sources. I believe both methods to be extremely valuable, for children as well as for the advanced students; but the conditions in the two cases are different, and call for separate consideration.
It is clear that works of art, in themselves, offer an excellent field for training the faculties of observation, of memory, and of comparison. In this way they provide an alternative to nature study which, from the added human interest, may prove more attractive to some temperaments. At the same time, owing to the presence of this human element, and the uncertain factor of individuality in the artist, the study of art, and especially that historical and critical study of it which is most educative, is beset with many difficulties. These difficulties, and an intelligent method of grappling with them, are just what make a historical study of any art—say Greek sculpture or Italian painting—of great educational value. But they also make such study, if it be pursued in any detail, more suitable for the higher classes of schools or for students at a university, than for children. I think, therefore, that it would be wiser not to attempt any systematic treatment of such subjects at an early stage; but, by judicious comment and explanation, some of the principles of artistic development may well by brought out in connection with such works of art as are used in illustration or are hung up on the walls of the schoolroom. It is, of course, universally recognised that it is desirable to have good reproductions of works of art, whether pictures, sculptures, or buildings, constantly before the eyes of children. Even if these are not made the theme of any direct instruction, their familiarity will double their interest to the pupil, whenever he does come across them in his lessons or his reading. I leave aside for the present, as outside the scope of this paper, the aesthetic and moral influence which must follow from the constant presence of the most beautiful embodiments of the ideals of various nations and ages.
Perhaps also the lives of great artists, especially such as were especially characteristic of their age, might prove instructive; and such a subject would, of course, be more profitable if illustrated by good reproductions of their works, either exhibited at the time, or, better still, hung up on the walls of the room. It would clearly be desirable to take any such study of artists or works of art in conjunction with the period of history to which they belong—the Elgin marbles with the tale of Periclean Athens, or the portraits of Van Dyck with the Stuart period—but this is more a matter connected with the more indirect use of works of art for illustration.
There is, however, a branch of art which may conveniently be used for direct and independent study, and which, from the frequent opportunities it offers for observation, and the interest it gives to ordinary walks and excursions, may be placed by the side of nature study. This is English architecture, as it may be seen in the churches that are scattered throughout the country. Any child can learn to distinguish the main periods and styles, the most interesting features of transition, and the characteristic forms or ornaments. The advantages of this study are so obvious that I need not dwell upon them. Even if no systematic teaching be given, a few well-selected photographs of typical examples of the various styles, with a careful description written below, will give all that is needed for elementary knowledge. Such a set may be put in a convenient and accessible place, and left to work by itself.
The chief subject, however, which I propose for consideration is not the study of art in itself, but the use of works of art as illustrations of other teaching. If one interpreted this in the widest sense, it would include much of the use of diagrams or apparatus, such as is necessary for the teaching of natural science. I leave this aside, however, and refer rather to such illustrations as are used to supplement the teaching of literature, history, or geography. History, above all, lends itself to such illustration, by portraits of the principal characters, and by representations of the scenes of events, of buildings, clothes and arms, so as to help the imagination to realise the setting and appearance of the daily life as well as of the great political or social events of the period; and it is sometimes possible, in an apt illustration, to explain an allusion by a poet in a more vivid and convincing way than is possible by means of a lengthy verbal explanation. Such direct explanation of single passages, however, can never have a very wide application; and I think it is possible for art to supplement the study of literature in a far more general and more really instructive manner if the illustrations do not cling too closely to the letter of the text. This, however, is a matter to which we must recur later.
For purposes of illustration, it is possible either to use large wall-diagrams, photographs, or lantern slides, or to have cuts inserted in the text-books used by the pupils. The first plan has the advantage of allowing the teacher to give any necessary explanation or comment, and also of concentrating the attention upon one picture at a time, and so impressing it upon the memory. The chief objection to it—in the case at least of lantern slides, which are otherwise the most convenient form—is that it does not give much time for the impression to sink in, and if a good many slides are shown at once—a thing which there is much temptation to do, when the room has once been darkened and the lantern got into working order—the memory is likely to be confused by the mass of material rapidly passed before the eye. Photographic enlargements, if large enough, are the most satisfactory of all; but they must always be so expensive as only to be available in limited numbers; and large diagrams produced by the other processes are often neither accurate nor artistic. Illustrations in books, on the other hand, are constantly before the eyes of the pupils when they want them, and in these days of cheap reproduction, can be liberally supplied, especially if black and white line blocks will suffice; half-tone blocks are of course more expensive, and, in England at least, less satisfactory; this is a matter in which we are far behind both America and continental countries. But even under the best conditions, a fully illustrated text-book must be too expensive for class use. An example of a good book of the kind is the illustrated edition of Green's History of the English People. Collections consisting only of illustrations are useful; but these too can hardly be made so cheap as to allow every child to have a copy; copies for class use may be employed, but are not so convenient. Probably a judicious combination of all these methods of illustration is advisable; and in order that such may be provided, it is most desirable that lists of material available for illustration in various subjects should be drawn up by experts. The Teachers' Guild has done something in this direction, but not systematically enough to be of much use; each department requires to be carefully worked up by an expert. This has been done, for classical things, in the pamphlet by Prof. P. Gardner and Mr. Myres on "Classical Archæology in Schools," which contains select lists of diagrams, photographs, lantern slides, etc., available for teaching purposes. Similar publications would be very useful in other branches.
Whether illustrations by exhibited on the wall or inserted in books, the same principles must guide their selection. Here, especially in representing objects, scenes, or persons of a bygone age, there are two courses open. We may either use illustrations reproduced as exactly as possible from monuments or documents contemporary with the events to which they refer; or we may use the version given by an artist of some subsequent age, including of course modern times. Either course is defensible; the one things that must not be done—and that I have seen frequently done in modern series of illustrated classics—is to take a scene from some ancient monument and hand it over to an ignorant draughtsman to modernise. He will not understand its conventions, but will probably reproduce some of them in a misleading way, and surround them with a setting, drawn in quite modern style, which makes the whole unintelligible and absurd. To good historical pictures, on the other hand, there can be no objection, any more than to historical plays well mounted: both alike stimulate the imagination, and are often a real help to the realising of the life of a past age. But such pictures must be used with discrimination, and in most cases require comment. If they are archæologically accurate, such accuracy ought to be pointed out; if, as is more likely, there are defects in it, these too should be indicated. This is especially the case with older pictures. Old pictures which give in too much detail the surroundings of the artist's own day should probably be avoided with children, unless they deal with contemporary subjects; to take an extreme example, I do not think it would be advisable, as an illustration of Homer, to give a Florentine version of the return of Ulysses. I am inclined to think the same objection applies to a purely conventional archaism, such as that which Raphael employs when he shows the fisherman of the Galilean lake clad in the togas of Roman senators. On the other hand, I do not think there is any harm in employing Greek vase-paintings of the fifth century B.C. to illustrate Homeric tales, or other Greek myths. I must confess to having done it myself; but here, too, explanation is necessary. The dress and surroundings of the heroic age of Greece were probably almost as unlike those of the age of Pericles in Athens, as those of Florence in the fifteenth century. But in the case of the Greek myths, what we want most to realise, for educational purposes, is how they were thought of by the Greeks of historic period, through whose literature they have descended to us; and the Greek of the fifth century certainly did not picture the heroes to himself in any other garb and surroundings than those with which he was himself familiar. We are then justified in using the products of Greek art at its best to illustrate the Greek myths as well as Greek history; but explanations must be given and, above all, false explanations must be avoided. I remember noticing in an "illustrated classic" an Attic beaked warship, taken straight off a vase of about 500 B.C., and labelled "ship of the time of Homer," which is about as if a modern ironclad were labelled "ship of the time of the Armada"; and this same ship, with its peculiar conventions of drawing, was set afloat on a modern naturalistic sea. The unfortunate school-boy who used that book would either, if he had a healthy sense of humour, laugh at the whole thing as absurd; or, if he were more docile and receptive, accept a totally false impression, and thereby create for himself an unreal and unconvincing picture of the Greek fleet at Troy.
This brings us to the most serious question in connection with the use of contemporary illustrations for historical or literary teaching; there is no doubt that such contemporary illustrations, whether they be Egyptian or Assyrian bas-reliefs, or Greek vase-paintings, or the figures on the Bayeux tapestry, or early wood-cuts, often strike those who are not used to them at first sight as comic, and as certainly to a great degree unintelligible. I believe this is far more the case with grown-up people than with children, because they are more familiar with modern methods of artistic expression. I have found—and I believe my experience is not unusual—that an intelligent child is prepared to accept any genuine and honest attempt at the portrayal of a figure or a scene, and that he will often grasp the meaning of the artist, while a grown-up person is unable to see anything but the uncouthness of the design or execution. Nevertheless, a certain amount of preparation and explanation is needful before such illustrations can be rightly appreciated and understood. This does not mean that some general acquaintance with the history of art and the conventions of the various styles is necessary to children before they can use such illustrations with profit; but it does mean that such a general acquaintance is necessary to the teacher, and I think it should be insisted on as part of the training of all teachers who are called upon to teach any subject for which the use of such illustrations is desirable—all teachers, that is, on the "arts" or humanistic side. They will then be able, incidentally, to impart a good deal of their knowledge to their pupils, and to enable them to use intelligently illustrations of various styles and ages, instead of regarding them merely as ludicrous or meaningless, or, at best, as interesting. The value of acquiring the faculty of thus seeing things aright, whatever be the style in which they may be expressed, is hardly inferior, even as an intellectual training, to the acquisition of different languages. It must not only add immensely to the pleasure of observation and the appreciation of works of art of all kinds, but also widen the intellectual horizon, and do much to counteract the narrowing influence of local surroundings.
So far we have been considering works of art mainly as used in illustration of other studies. In these days of universal reading, this is probably the way in which they will be most extensively used. But it was not always so. In primitive times, the picture chronicle preceded the literary record, and in Egypt and Assyria the paintings and reliefs do more than illustrate the written text; they supplement it and make it far more vivid and real to us. With the advance of literature and art, their provinces came to be more widely separated; but the sculptures or the vases of Greece, if only we know how to interpret them, have hardly less to tell us of the life and thought of the people than we can learn from the literature itself. In Roman times, the carven chronicle is again in vogue. The column of Trajan, for example, tells us more than any book about the campaigns of the emperor, and of the manners, dress, houses, and character of the Dacian peoples whom he subdued. The Christian church adopted freely so admirable a method of instruction; and the scenes depicted upon the walls of early churches were the chief means of familiarizing the people with tales of scripture or other legends, and of keeping before their eyes, and therefore before their minds, the truths these legends symbolized. For children, at least, this method has great advantages; often a series of sculptures or pictures, if well chosen and intelligently commented on, will offer as good a theme for a lesson or a series of lessons as any book. Unhappily, our churches now offer but little material for such instruction; but we still have museums and picture galleries; and these, if visited under proper guidance, may give us invaluable help. Here again, the teacher needs some knowledge and preparation. And such visits to a museum should not, as they too often are, be regarded as a mere treat, or a showing off of curiosities. The ordinary lesson should have so familiarized the children with the notion that statuary and pictures can teach just as well as books, that when they go to a gallery or museum, they do not feel that they are departing from the ordinary routine of instruction. This may, perhaps, seem a high standard for teachers to aim at; but I do not believe it is unattainable, and the regular teacher's instruction may easily be supplemented by the help of others—and many such exist—who have made a special study of such teaching.
If treated in this spirit, I believe that an intelligent use of works of art among the ordinary subjects of study may be a most valuable supplement to the general intellectual training. It has the advantage, now universally admitted for nature study, in training the eye to observe and the mind to classify visible and tangible objects; it has also the advantage derived from the study of books, in bringing the mind directly into touch with the great ideas and imaginations of other days. Moreover, it serves to bridge over the gulf between the two, and to mitigate the impression of the scientific mind that humanistic studies deal too much with what is unreal and intangible, or of the literary mind that scientific studies are lacking in human interest. A judicious use of works of art, both for illustration and for separate study, may serve as a compromise on which all may agree, and so advance in some degree the solution to the problem of conflicting educational ideals.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008
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