As a college sophomore, I took a required art history class, expecting it to be tedious and difficult. I was pleasantly shocked to find that it was neither. I discovered that artists didn’t paint names and dates. Instead, they painted ideas, and they did so in a way that made historical figures and events salient and memorable. History classes in middle and high school had only discussed the WHAT of the past. For the first time, I started to understand the WHY.
Consider an example: the Spanish Civil War.
A history textbook will tell you that the Spanish Civil War started in 1936 with a military coup staged by General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces. Franco was successful in overthrowing the Second Spanish Republic, ruling Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975.
Pretty dry, right? Now take a look at “Guernica,” a mammoth, 30-foot long painting by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.
Doesn’t looking at this painting make you wonder what the hell is going on? That’s the power of art – it makes you ask WHY.
So here’s the why: the painting is named for the town of Guernica, the capital of Spain’s Basque region and the first civilian population center to be carpet-bombed by aircraft. WHY, you might ask? Well, Franco’s Nationalists were fascists, allied with the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The Basques were receiving aid from the communist Soviet Union, which opposed the rise of fascism on both ideological and national security grounds. So, on April 26, 1937, in a joint attack by German and Italian warplanes, Guernica was bombed into rubble to show the rebellious factions of Spain, as well as the other nations of Europe, what fate was in store for anyone who stood against fascism.
”Guernica” was Picasso’s attempt to depict the agony and suffering inflicted on the innocent people of Spain. The screaming horse, wailing figures, and stoic bull represent various aspects of the event. The eye/light bulb signifies the importance of seeing and casting light on atrocity, rather than turning away and ignoring it.
The Spanish Civil War is only one example, but it underscores the problem with the way history is taught. The war wasn’t just an isolated regional conflict. It was a single front in a broader, ongoing battle between fascists and communists for the soul of Europe – a battle that would grow into World War II, extend into the Cold War, and frame political debates to this day.
Viewed in this light, history is useful. It’s relevant. What do communism and fascism advocate, and how do they influence politics today? Are these ideologies our only options? If not, what are the alternatives? Is it morally acceptable to target civilians with acts of war? Why or why not?
These are questions that are not asked in history class, because the focus of education is on memorizing and regurgitating the WHAT, without ever exploring the WHY. This is the reason we have a population with zero understanding of the major ideas that shaped, and continue to shape, our world.
If you have kids, or if you know kids, do them a favor: start talking to them about the reasons behind the events they’re learning in history class. And if you don’t know the WHY (you probably don’t), take the time to learn. School didn’t teach you, and it won’t teach them.
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