Oral History as Intergenerational Dialogue in Art Education

By Porte, Angela M. La | Art Education, July 2000 | Go to article overview
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Oral History as Intergenerational Dialogue in Art Education


Porte, Angela M. La, Art Education


History lives through its people: For children to have a sense of self they must have a sense of what came before them. ... By talking with community members, children can then learn to appreciate the richness of their neighborhoods, the wide experiences of its peoples and the influence of past history on their lives. We have only yet begun to uncover the treasures within our own community! (Architecture in Our Barrio, 1992, p. 7)

Discussion about art between art educators and their students is constantly changing. In response to the growing multicultural composition of communities in the United States, dialogue in contemporary art classrooms has expanded to include the art or artifacts of many cultures. According to Young (1990), multicultural issues in art education have become more significant. However, many students are still limited to learning about art from the few available classroom resources, i.e., books, computers, and other media, typically from a Modernist perspective. Garber (1995) asserts that an essential element to understanding art from diverse cultures is the context provided by cultural knowledge.

Studying an artifact from another culture

"is a longitudinal process that involves learning about the history, language, stories, images, politics, spirituality, and life experiences of persons in the culture studied as well as an assimilation of the culture so that it becomes part of the student's way of thinking and valuing" (p. 218).

Methods from oral history and from material culture studies presented in this article can contribute to this dimension in the teaching and understanding of the art and artifacts of diverse cultures. These methods enlist volunteers from local communities who have direct experience with relevant historical and cultural contexts.

Knowledge Across Generations

A large demographic group of potential older adult volunteers, baby boomers, will soon begin to retire and will become the largest, most educated population over age 65 ever in the United States (Dimensions: Baby Boomeys' Education,1990). The oral histories of these older adults, elicited from interviews, storytelling, and discussions about art, can become a valuable asset to art education. Their lives and their experiences of how the past relates to the present offer an alternative to children's education that was at one time commonplace. In the recent past, grandparents and older relatives shared a much larger role in the everyday lives of children, but these family relationships have eroded during the last several decades. However, older adult artists and community members from local historical societies, senior citizens' groups, and other area organizations can help reestablish a link with the past Their interpretation of art related to local history and culture in art classrooms serves as a personal authentication of the past. Sharing this particular knowledge represents a living association between the past and the present for young people and between generations within a community. Although many older adults may lack a formal background in art, they can identify motifs, symbols and literary themes by their familiarity with events from history, myths, and Biblical stories (Kauppinen,1988). Life experiences and ways of thinking and valuing may differ in many ways between generations, but when shared, can foster insights into the historical and cultural contexts of art and artifacts that enrich the study of art.

Many art educators have advocated a role for older adults in the art education of young people. Some have speculated about the advantages of bringing generations together and a few have suggested possibilities for doing so. Erickson (1983) noted that art historical inquiry can be enhanced by interviewing older acquaintances or relatives about a period of time or place while studying relevant artwork or artifacts. She described art history as an inquiry process, beginning with familiar artifacts such as Coke bottles or music cover illustrations to encourage young students to become more conscious of and curious about their surroundings and cultural heritage.

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