Understanding the Old to Appreciate the New


There’s a really interesting movement happening right now in university musicology classes (that’s the study of music history, music making, and music in general). In fact, I’m told, it’s happening across a lot of disciplines. Remember your “Intro to…” classes in university? Maybe you took “Introduction to French Poetry”, or “Introduction to American Politics.” So long as the topic was in the humanities, I bet dollars to donuts your class was at least largely taught in chronological order. I.e., “let’s start with the Roman Empire and work our way forward.” Well, apparently, this is falling by the wayside.

What’s the deal? Well, basically, a lot of younger/newer profs have fascinating ideas and theories about teaching thematically instead of chronologically. There are tons of reasons for this, some of which are rooted in dismantaling the patriarchal/colonial roots of the “traditional” education system (yes yes yes), and others of which come from the development of more nuanced and creative scholarship across disciplines (plus, better and better understanding and acceptance of the different ways people learn). I applaud any experimentation in higher learning, and I’ll leave it to scholars who know much more about all of that than I do to make our universities better. 

An Ode to Chronology

What this has got me thinking about is the virtue of things presented in chronological order. Someone once told me that everyone sees time in one of two ways: either, time is cyclical, always moving in circles; or, time is a single straight line. When I told my husband this (in the context of a rant about “how can anyone possibly see time as anything but straight!”), Ryan responded: “it’s just one long march toward death.” At least we’re on the same page.

Personally, I love when things are organized chronologically. I adore the calendar – daily, monthly, yearly. I particularly enjoy a perpetual calendar that spans several months with no breaks between the 31st of this month and the 1st of the next. It’s so satisfying to see one long string of days. Similarly, I still recall the thrill of making study notes of overlapping chronologies in many of my studies – from high school to music school to law school. Ah, so this was happening in Russia while this was happening in the United States! And this led to this! And this to that!

Which brings me to my point. When we organize and think about things chronologically, we’re able to build our knowledge in the same way the actual things and events developed: day by day, year by year, impact upon impact. While it can be marvellous to group things by theme, it can be awfully hard to start like that, because we have no grounding for our learning. Everything grows out of something else – such is the nature of creation and innovation. And you simply cannot appreciate the newer thing without understanding the older. 

The issue with this method, and I’ll be blunt, is that the older things are, the more boring they tend to be to us modern learners. Obviously this is an exaggeration and a huge generalization, but the reason it often holds true is that the farther away we go from today, the more we need to extrapolate to connect with what we’re learning because it’s less and less like the world we’re familiar with today. Even though people are people, and our struggles and hopes and loves are universal (and have been since the dawn of human kind), it gets trickier the older you go. 

Chronological Study and the Fine Arts

Obviously, this is incredibly relevant for the study of the arts, which is, at its heart, a highly chronological field (or, at least, historically has been). The reason I love studying all of the fine arts chronologically is two-fold. First, artists were all so incredibly impacted by the artists who lived immediately before them and during their lifetimes (often including their own teachers and friends) that we simply cannot discredit the immense weight of influence, inspiration, and intimidation, and the impact of those forces on what the latter artists created. Second, art is a reflection of human experience, so we must, must understand what was going on in the world directly before and particularly during the creation of any given work. We simply must know what the artist studied, what came right before them, and what was happening around them. 

The tricky part is knowing how to start. Does one begin right at the dawn of human creation, in ancient times? Or does one start with the Greeks? Is it better to learn all of the forms at once and move slowly through the eras, or is it easier to delve into, say, the history of visual art from cavemen forward? Should one move slowly and diligently through the periods, making sure to deeply understand each before advancing, or is it better to quickly move through the whole of history to get the basic hold of things, then go back to gain deeper knowledge throughout?

My friends, I would like to be a bit of a bore and advocate for the classic survey approach. It’s not sexy. It’s not creative. But it’s damned effective, especially for adult learners. Start at the beginning for any given art form and casually and quickly move through the eras until you hit modern day. Get a nice lay of the land. See how one era comes out of the era before, and make cognitive links between people, events, and works of art. You have so much time to go deeper later (let’s call those your 200-level courses). For now, grab one good library book, Google as you go along, and get the basic idea. That one long stream of days and years and eras you’ll hold in your mind at the end will truly be your foundation for loving the fine arts.