A Guide to Teaching Art History to Active-Duty Military During a Time of War


For starters, if someone’s phone vibrates and he reads the message, pay no mind. When someone is late and quietly tries to slide to the back and pick up on the discussion, it’s not a big deal. If she asks for something to be repeated that you went over before her arrival, nod and ask another student to answer the question; the repetition is good for everyone anyway. Don’t ask where they were or why they’re late. Just let it go. If several evenings pass and someone hasn’t shown up, send an email or call; they might have needed a day or two, just a little time away. If they don’t answer, if they don’t return the call, let it go. If they don’t return at all, give them an incomplete and wait. It’s not going to be a problem to wait. When they do return, don’t ask where they were or why they didn’t call. They are well-trained US Military; they are Navy personnel, Chief Petty Officers, Seal Team Six. They’re not negligent. Honest to God, they’re not indifferent. 

When calling roll ask where they’re from. They’re from all over the country, and more than a few friendships can ignite in a small class of people who discover they come from just a few towns away from each other half a world away from here. Let them talk about it; laugh as they laugh about common experiences. It will pay off later both here and abroad.

Let them know this is the most important class they will take. After they’re done laughing, tell them that while it may seem benign, that nothing they’ve trained for will help them here and nothing you’re going to do will ever be used on their job, art preceded us all, preceded war, preceded the invention of gunpowder and even politics. Show them the cave art from France. Play them the ancient South African chant still used today to warn villagers of nearby dangers. Show them the painting Rembrandt made of the crucifixion several dozen wars ago. Tell them that the most beautiful artifacts on the planet can be found between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. They’ll already know you’re talking about present day Baghdad. They’ve been there. Show them some of the Iraqi artwork; they can talk about it with you. You won’t have to remind them that literature, visual arts, architecture, music, is what we live for. Instead, play them Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or Bach’s Cello Suite Number One in G Major played by Yo Yo Ma. They’ll get it. 

Do not play protest songs. Do not show anti-war slogans. They already agree with those sentiments, of course. They’re not political. Not one of them is interested in war. None of them desires to shoot anyone, hurt anyone, confront anyone. And when you talk about propaganda art, let them comment and stay silent. You have no need to say much here. They’ll carry pretty much every conversation anyway. Remind yourself you are teaching some of the most disciplined, respectful, hard-working, dedicated, and motivated individuals any professor can possibly hope for. Point them toward the art; they’ll tell you why it is beautiful and significant and can be the salvation of humanity, and always has been. They’ll see the cherubs’ fingers touch and they’ll cry. They’ll hear Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and sit quietly long after class ends, thinking. Remembering. Let them be.

If you are teaching at sunset and somewhere on base a trumpet starts playing “Colors” as the flag descends, stop teaching. Let it play out. They’ll explain if you ask. When someone needs to keep stepping out, don’t skip a beat. If someone stands up in the back of the room and wanders around or stares out the window for a long time after the trumpet stops, let it go.

When someone says they’ve been notified they’re being deployed, do not apologize; do not say “stay safe.” Do not pretend they’ll be fine. Even if they make it back there’s a high chance they won’t be fine and a significantly higher chance they’ll return with a strong desire to kill themselves. Simply thank them for their service and tell them you look forward to seeing them when they return. When they do they will come to see you; they always do. For God’s sake, remember their name. Give them your cell phone number and tell them it would be great to get coffee together and catch up. Let them know they really can call. They won’t but give them your number anyway.

If someone’s spouse emails to tell you your student will not be coming back to class anymore, thank them politely and apologize for their loss–you will have already received a letter from the administration. Do not reply with what a fine student your student was—that’s predictable and uninteresting. Instead, repeat the student’s name and say you will inform everyone else.

And have that discussion about beauty—ask them if they think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or if it can be an objective essence. They’ll all insist that it is in the eye of the beholder. Then put the cheapest, ugliest statue of Madonna or Christ or whatever deity you choose on the desk. Ask them what is beautiful about it. When you’ve separated the ones who find the gaudy plastic ugly from the ones who find the symbol of Mary or Christ beautiful for what it represents, show them that defining “beautiful” is not so easy; show them that what one person finds beautiful may have absolutely nothing to do with the medium. They’ll be no need to extend the metaphor or talk about other cultures, other religions, other perspectives—these people have been around the block; they’ll get it.

Then show them pictures of some of the world’s greatest buildings and ask them their favorite architecture. They’ve been to Dubai, Baghdad, Karachi, and Istanbul. They’ve been to Syria, the mountains of Afghanistan, the border of Pakistan. They’ll talk about structures you’ve never heard of; they’ll be enthusiastic and want to share it with you and recall it with colleagues. Then you’ll see how very much they already appreciate beauty and human accomplishment; you’ll quickly come to see that they very much understand what humans are capable of.

Better than anyone, they are acutely aware of what humans are capable of.


Iraqi Artist Abbas Muhi al Deen

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