Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art

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Certainly 2020 will go down in history as a groundbreaking year in education, forcing millions of students and teachers to switch to online learning and bringing school to a new digital era. Since every year we see more blended teaching and more technology use in school, we will have to say goodbye to some old-school situations that we remember from our school days. Ready for this nostalgic journey into the style of Proust?

Carrying Books?

Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art: Vincent van Gogh, The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin)
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Vincent van Gogh, The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin), 1888, Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The switch to online learning might see books slowly become digitized or substituted with online materials. That means no more carrying heavy rucksacks with all those textbooks, exercise books, and notebooks everyday. It’s definitely a positive change for the poor little spines of all the students who don’t get a daily lift from their parents. However, although at the first glance Camille Roulin might be holding a book, if you look closely you will see that in fact it is actually a frame of a chair on which he sits. He looks pretty exhausted after a long day of studying.

School Ass

Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Ass in the School,
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Ass in the School, 1556, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.

Sure, here we’re talking ancient history that I know only from the stories of my grandparents. They told me that if a child didn’t want to study and did badly on tests, they were sent to the so-called ‘ass-desk’. In other words this was a desk of shame. In extreme cases, they forced the child to wear ‘donkey ears’ as the ultimate symbol of their laziness and stupidity. We can see this practice has very old roots, as illustrated by this print from the 16th century. The text below this mockery of contemporary school reads:

“Al reÿst den esele ter scholen om leeren ist eenen esele hÿ en sal gheen peert weder keeren (If you send a stupid ass to Paris, if it is an ass here, it will not be a horse there. / Although the ass goes to school in order to learn, if it is an ass, it will not return [as] a horse).”

– translation from Nadine Orenstein, ed., Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, p. 142.

Was Bruegel‘s print criticizing teachers’ methods of punishing the naughty kids, or the system which produced stupid pupils, or maybe the stupidity running in the system of Antwerpian children? Either way, online teaching and modern methods will never permit sending anyone to the ‘ass-desk’ anymore. Thank heavens for that.

No Mercy for Mess

Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art: Francisco Goya, The school scene
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Francisco Goya, The school scene, 1785, Museo de Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain.

It seems that ‘some things never change’ as we hear in Frozen 2. Two hundred years after Bruegel’s chaos in class, Goya shows us a no less messy classroom. Books on the floor, nerds trying to study, boys crying, a dog jumping (who let the dog in?!). The central element of the painting is the exposed bottom of a naughty boy who is about to be whipped by the merciless hand of the teacher. Look at the teacher’s right arm, which is raised to give the first blow with a whip. Also check out his face, this is the face of coldblooded punishment. Well, I definitely won’t miss violence in online learning.

Pushing and Pulling

Online Learning? Back to the Old School in ArtHonore Daumier, Leaving school,
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Honore Daumier, Leaving school, 1848, private collection. The Art Story.

With physical distancing measures in place, we can forget the usual rushed exit from school. I still remember racing through corridors to pick up my jacket from the cloakroom and trying to mount the stairs as quickly as possible to be the first one out, ready to gossip with my friends on the way home. The same things happened in the 19th century, as Daumier captures here. There is no free space between the girls’ bodies (although they leave the building in a much more orderly manner than I used to). However, the Turkish boys below look exactly as we did on a Friday afternoon…

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Turkish Boys Let out of School
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Turkish Boys Let out of School, 1841, Louvre, Paris, France.

Exams by the Chalkboard

Online Learning Back to the Old School in Art online learning Albert Anker, The school exam
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Albert Anker, The school exam, 1862, Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Switzerland.

I know that chalkboards are already a thing of the past. In the online learning era however, cross-examination in the presence of the whole class will also be gone. All those enemies and friends listening to your answers and waiting for your failure or success. What stress! I remember my sweaty hands and shaking legs while waiting for the geography teacher to look through the register and fish out names for interrogation. In Anker’s painting, Swiss students had it even harder as there are at least eight adults listening to the poor boy.

Afternoon Studying

Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art: Maurice Prendergast, In the library (The Three School Girls),
Online Learning and Back to the Old School in Art: Maurice Prendergast, In the library (The Three School Girls), 1906, private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone who ever attended a boarding school knows that the library was not only a study space. It was also a place for long romantic dates, long snacking sessions, long afternoons of procrastination, and long naps. Yet, distancing means also fewer people in the library and more rules to comply to. Will students find a new space to integrate? Or will they only interact online? The future will tell.


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Online Learning? Back to the Old School in Art was first posted on September 1, 2020 at 5:00 am.
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