My understanding of art history is tenuous. At best. But one thing I’ve learned from the popular science writer Jonah Lehrer is that a revolution in 19th-century painting coincided with the advent of a disruptive new technology.* That technology was the camera, and the artistic innovation that it encouraged was Impressionism. With the emergence of the camera, Lehrer writes, “painting lost its monopoly on representation.” Once the static could be captured by a mechanical device, the painter’s comparative advantage resided in his or her ability to convey the fleeting, sensory-laden character of everyday experience. Representation gave way to impression, symbol, and expression.
There may be a lesson here for academia, and historians in particular. Educationally related technological breakthroughs of recent decades—yellow lined paper, VHS players, Laserdiscs, PowerPoint, the insulated thermos mug—could be harnessed by the lecturing professor in the traditional classroom. DVDs and YouTube allowed the professor to illustrate her points with a vivid film clip, or to catch a rejuvenating 45-minute nap. However, the larger cyber universe won’t be so easily tamed. The internet, as we have been told, is a genuinely disruptive technology. There will be no napping.
None of this is news. Dan Allosso has been writing about the radical and generally positive impact online learning is likely to have. I wrote something myself a couple of years ago. And nearly every day, someone pronounces the end of the university as we know it. Usually, that person is Kevin Carey, but not always. Online learning clearly presents a challenge to the way things have been done. (If you doubt it, ask yourself whether you are capable of giving a better lecture on a particular topic than anyone in the world—or check out Jonathan Rees’ blog.) It’s concurrence with an increasingly untenable college cost structure should be worrisome to all of us.
Setting aside the daunting tuition and student debt issues, the parallel rise of the camera and Impressionist painting offers us an example of how a disruptive technological change can result in the sort of transformative change that Allosso, Carey, Rees and others been talking about. Like the Impressionists, we need to capitalize on the ephemerality and distinctiveness of each classroom situation, every day. We also need to presume that the seats bolted to the floors in our lecture halls and classrooms will not be occupied because a professor happens to be standing in front of them delivering the same lecture—one now easily recorded and distributed—he has been giving for the past 15 years. Because of the web’s capacity for delivering knowledge to us in the comfort of our homes or our carefully guarded Starbucks tables, the live lecture’s marginal utility as a means of conveying static truths to a passive audience has diminished, maybe forever.
History teachers need not wholly despair. For years, pedagogical experts (don’t smirk, there is some truth to the designation) have been telling us that students need to be actively engaged in order to learn better anyway. Until now, many of us have been able to evade the implications of that insight because our anecdote-riddled sixty-minute accounts of past events have been so, well, engaging. But like the 19th-century artists who found that their value as purveyors of verisimilitude had faded, we too need to develop creative ways to use history to expand our audience’s understanding of the world. That’s a cliché I know—like telling a baseball team that it needs to win one game at a time. And this process will prove challenging for people like me who have always seen ourselves as doing our job best when we represent the past most faithfully. But it may already be past time for us to think seriously about painting water lilies.