My son hates social studies. No matter how much I drill him on the subject, he could care less about James Madison, the Bill of Rights, the abolitionist movement, or even more-contemporary figures like Arthur Ashe. This is more than unfortunate; it's a problem.
That's because he's a fourth grader attending public school in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And at the end of the school year, he and every other fourth grader in Virginia is going to be tested on the subject, with an emphasis on the history of the Old Dominion.
The problem isn't the subject matter; it's the way that it's presented. There's little or no attempt to engage his imagination. Facts alone don't begin to tell the story of why these figures are important and why we should know who they are, much less admire them. I also know that this disconnect between history and the imagination is far from universal. His cousins, who are the same age, don't have this problem. They live in Mexico City, a place where art and history seem inseparable. Because they can see and even touch the history of the place they call home, they are more apt to want to read about it.
It's also true for me. I remember when I first saw a reproduction of Diego Rivera's (no relation) painting of Emiliano Zapata, the leader of peasant and indigenous forces during the Mexican Revolution. Rivera's painting, which conveys both Zapata's peasant origins and his nobility, made me want to learn more about the revolutionary leader and the times that produced him. It grabbed my imagination and the rest of me soon followed, so much so that a reproduction of the work hangs in my home.
I'M NOT THE only person who has made the connection between art, imagination, and the heroic. This spring a show sponsored by Arts for Amnesty International opened in Washington, D.C. The exhibit features the work of artist Tom Block, who depicts both prisoners of conscience and those working for their freedom and the dignity and human rights of oppressed people around the world. After its debut in D.C., the exhibit will travel to locations throughout the country.
If there's a word that summarizes the work exhibited and the people depicted, it's diverse. Some of the people painted by Block, such as the Dalai Lama, are known around the world. Others embody anonymity, such as Albanian refugees and Algerian civilians. There are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and people with no particular religion.
One of the most fascinating subjects is a man who dared to criticize the system of which he was part. Jose Gallardo was the youngest brigadier general in the history of the Mexican army. As such, he was in a position to know about that institution's abuse of human rights. He wrote about the abuse in his master's thesis and called for reform of the army. For his troubles, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison on trumped-up charges. President Fox released him in March after Amnesty International and other groups brought attention to his case.
Block's charcoal drawing of Gallardo in an officer's uniform staring out from behind prison bars captures the price of following your conscience in a way that words can't. Similarly, the suffering of an Albanian refugee, an old woman bearing a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa, is depicted in a disturbing manner—not in the debased modern sense of upsetting one's sensibilities, but rather in that it makes you think about things you'd rather not.
In his new book Carpe Mañana, Drew University theologian Leonard Sweet writes about the importance of what he calls "image-based literacy"—that is, an appreciation for the way images shape the way people think and feel. However well Arts for Amnesty International works as a fundraiser, it does succeed as a means of getting inside the viewer's imagination and, from there, perhaps to his or her conscience.
Images like these are not a substitute for words. But they do provide at least a partial answer to the question, "Why should I be interested?" And as I've discovered with a 10-year-old of my acquaintance, that's more than half the battle.
Roberto Rivera is a fellow of the Wilberforce Forum and a contributing editor for Touchstone magazine. For more information about the exhibit, see www.artsforamnestyinternational.org.