Italian Renaissance Art Techniques or Perfectly Ironic Classifications of American History? 

Two Italian Renaissance art concepts, “sfumato” and “chiaroscuro,” I think, are meant to express the sometimes educationally inexpressible — that most human experience is complex and hazy rather than simple and clear, and that educators need to spend time developing students’ ability in discovering the important ideas among the trivia.

Sfumato can be spotted in many pAmerican History in Digital Ageaintings of the period — it’s the haziness in the background that helps the artist simulate distance, the idea that there’s something back there that is unclear. I often explain the idea to students by talking about the human categorization of the natural world, i.e. what is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable? And is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

It’s Not Always About Categorization

What humans are doing, I explain, is forcing categories on natural phenomena. For most human phenomena, like gender identity, religious belief, or political leaning, the categories are not clear. So, while Republicans are oranges and Democrats are broccoli, most Americans are in fact tomatoes. This, I think, reveals the essence of sfumato — accepting complexity for what it is, and refusing to falsely simplify it.

In the classroom, sfumato could destroy a curriculum by itself, reducing focus and sending students walking away confused. What educators must do is employ chiaroscuro. In the Renaissance, it was a bit of an innovation for an artist to actually paint an area of a painting black. This is seen as Renaissance realism, in that not all things in our view are visible. Education, I believe, is the careful choice of the visible, and the in-depth and relevant study of the visible.

Teaching American History: The Challenge

For K-12 educators, American history can offer an especially overwhelming challenge. Contemporary American society and its institutions often expect Social Studies teachers to cover everything in minute detail, and with a great deal of certainty about facts and interpretations.

It is with this particular challenge in mind that I invite educators to join me as I teach the course, American History: Managing Complexity with Digital and Non-Digital Tools. The course will guide participants by offering a number of examples of both digital and non-digital ways of managing student focus on many eras of American History. Participants will also be guided in using the course models to create organizers and activities of their own, to be adapted to their chosen content areas.