The Relevance of Vaults and Visitations

“…something rich and strange”—Shakespeare

“…enter the past imaginatively”—Flannery O’Connor

“…emotional and intellectual sympathy with ways other than ours”—Jacques Barzun

Many good things come from watching good teachers in action. First is fascination: how do they do it? Second, curiosity: what are they doing? Third is interest: I want to take the rest of this class. Last, to another teacher, is applicability: how can I assimilate what these teachers do well?

All of the above came into play as I observed Mr. Roke, a teacher of Western history, in his classes. He taught at a public school whose students were mostly the children of military personnel stationed at nearby military bases, cycling in and out of the school according to their parents’ tours of duty. He had been there for about twenty-five years when I visited.

His classes had a strong orientation to the visual and to art history as well as to memorable stories linked by ideas. The classroom itself was a museum of cuttings, pictures, old student art, and bric-a-brac amassed during his career.  Every few weeks the classroom would undergo a complete change in displays from floor to ceiling, coinciding with the period being taught. Out went the gothic cathedrals and coats of arms; in came the Bernini sculptures.

Mr. Roke gave lectures with slides and filmstrips. When he used a filmstrip, he disregarded the tedious recorded lecture accompanying it, and used his own lectures, which were far more interesting. What he couldn’t show in photos and slides he often produced on the blackboard. I remember particularly an illustration in three-color chalk of a quadripartite rib vault that formed a part of one lecture. Other examples came from the decorated walls of the classroom, so that by the end of each historical period, the decorations had become familiar to the students.  Students took notes on these lectures.

(The quality of recorded lectures accompanying “media” stuff varies vastly and scandalously, from the likes of Simon Schama on the high end to performances of appalling paint-peeling dullness on the other. How often do those ordering these “materials” actually listen to and criticize the words accompanying the pictures as a part of the decision to purchase? Vetting such things should be mandatory.)

One particularly fine demonstration of what he had accomplished occurred during a discussion of an assignment in class to compare and contrast a Renaissance and a Baroque painting of the Visitation. His students were making intelligent comments on what distinguished the two pieces. Mr. Roke told me that one former student of his, in a thank-you note penned a few years later, said that he was able to take his parents to an art museum and comment on the pictures they were looking at.

A dreary critic might ask why students were being taught “content” such as Baroque Visitations in a history course taught in a public school whose curriculum needed to be “secular” and “relevant.” The answer is that in being made alive to the past in their present they were becoming fledgling critics taking art and history seriously. The focus on art, though unusual, was at least a focus, and it enabled Mr. Roke to confer some coherence on his subject. It held together and permitted students to achieve coherence in their own thinking when they wrote about the past. It presented them with the unfamiliar so they would be prevented from relying on thought-clichés and caked wisdom in place of doing real and actual thinking. It gave them a sense that history is more than a maze of multiple-choice questions. It helped prepare them for their own future work, to which one hopes they will bring an organizing intelligence, a sound judgment, and a sense of clarity and vividness in communication, all of which good history teaches.

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