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Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves

Pairing the Visual with the Written

    When he was a child, Thomas Cahill visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There he saw "an accurate model of the Parthenon with its exciting and boldly colored frieze of gods and heroes."  Cahill at once understood "that ancient Greece had not been a collection of tasteful white marble statues but a place on fire with color." Though Cahill’s Jesuit teachers capably taught the classics, their methods were "verbal … not visual.”  At the Met, Cahill connected "these astonishing figures that now lived along Fifth Avenue and the brilliant colors of Homer's metaphors."1 1
    As Howard Gardner’s work ( has promised, pairing visual with written sources can create a learning experience far more powerful than the sum of its parts.  By pairing visual and written documents in our classes, we can give students a taste of Cahill’s insight. 2
    Students learning for the first time about 19th century industrial labor can start with images rather than a text.  From world history textbooks or the web, teachers can, for example, cull images of a young European woman at work in a 19th century mill, 2 a lone laborer in a British coal mine,3 workers near a large steam hammer,4 residences for working-class Londoners,5 the painting "The Strike" by Robert Koehler,6 New York clerical workers,7 children playing near a dungheap,8 the Spinning Jenny,9 iron production in Silesia,10 images of kimono clad Japanese silk factory workers,11 William Hogarth's "Gin Alley,"12 and  Germans storming a Berlin arsenal in 1848.13  3
    Ask that students describe the images and, in discussion or writing, make some guesses about the relationship between industrialization and the workplace.  After describing housing conditions, child labor, women in the workforce, and the physical dangers of industrial life, have students read documents dealing with these issues—for example, "The Testimony of Young Mining Workers"14 and "Marx and Engles on Bourgeoisie and Proletarians."15 Once they have both seen the images and read the documents, many more students are willing to participate in discussion. 4
    Analysis of just two images is enough to provoke useful discussions.  Teaching 19th century imperialism, begin with an image of opium in British warehouses awaiting sale in China16 and follow this with an engraving of a Chinese “opium den.”17 Then, have students read the "Letter of Lin Zexu to Queen Victoria."18 Taken together, these three sources highlight issues of political authority, trade, social responsibility, global commerce, and Confucian notions of social harmony.  The resulting discussions move back to the 16th century sugar trade and forward to contemporary drug trafficking. 5
    Another comparison dramatizes the gradualism and unevenness of 19th and 20th century technological change. In The Human Web, William McNeil and J.R. McNeil contrast the development of dense electronic communication networks in many regions with their near-absence elsewhere. "As of 2002,” they write, “half the world's population had yet to make a telephone call."19 Students can come to a deeper appreciation of the McNeils’ point by starting with Gerald Danzer's Discovering World History Through Maps and Views.20 Begin with map R15, "The Diffusion of Industrialization."  Have students compare this map, which depicts the diffusion of industrial processes from early 18th century Britain, to “Satellite Photo of the Earth at Night."21 The similarities between the patterns in the first source and those of the second surprises students and provokes discussion of broad economic patterns in recent world history. 6
    Graphic images can also deepen and assess student understanding of complex texts.  When students read Lynda Shaffer's "Southernization"22 and Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez's "Born with a "Silver Spoon": The Origin of World Trade in 1571,"23 I ask that they prepare maps to illustrate the points in each article. If students glide over unfamiliar details while reading, this can be a particularly useful assignment.  By the time they are done, they know where Manilla is located and what made ghee valuable. This lesson also rewards students who give some thought to cartography: a Mercator projection is not the best choice to illustrate either article. Again, Danzer is a great source for students and teachers. Map R2 ("A World Map Centered on the 90th East Meridian") makes a good template for visually describing Shaffer’s argument, while map R3 ("A World Map Centered on the 90th West Meridian") can illustrate Flynn and Giraldez. Once they have finished their maps, they can exchange and compare their work.  What data or ideas did each map include?  What was omitted?  Which cartographic choices do the most justice to the arguments of the two articles? Such visual reinforcement, I have found, improves their reading comprehension. 7
     Pairing visual and written sources can lead students to the historical insight—and, perhaps, to the excitement Thomas Cahill found at the Met.   Isn't that our daily hope? 8

Wendy Eagan
Walt Whitman High School



1 Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (New York: Random House, 2003), 7.

2 Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, Volume II, second edition (Mc-Graw-Hill, 2002), 841.

3 Bentley and Ziegler, 845.

4 Bentley and Ziegler, 848.

5 Bentley and Ziegler, 856.

6 Bentley and Ziegler, 863.

7 Bentley and Ziegler, 860.

8 John McKay et al, A History of Western Society, fifth edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 798.

9 McKay, 729.

10 McKay, 741.

11 Peter Stearns et al, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, Volume II, third edition (Addison Wesley, 2000), 806.

12 Stearns, 706.

13 Stearns, 709.

14 McKay, 754-55.

15 Bentley and Ziegler, 864.

16 Stearns, 799.

17 Bentley and Ziegler, 918.

18 Bentley and Ziegler, 919.

19 William H. and John McNeil, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History (W.W. Norton, 2003), 316.

20 Gerald Danzer, Discovering World History Through Maps and Views, updated second edition (Pearson Education, 2004).

21 Kevin Reilly, Worlds of History, Volume II (Bedford St. Martin's, 2003), 544.

22 Lynda Shaffer, "Southernization," Journal of World History Volume 5:1 (Spring 1994).

23 Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, "Born with a 'Silver Spoon': The Origin of World Trade in 1571," Journal of World History Volume 6:2 (Fall 1995).


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