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Art and World History


Art in the Teaching of World History in the STEM Classroom: India's Institutes of Technology as a Case Study

Rajeshwari Dutt


Figure 1
  Figure 1: John Gast, "American Progress" (Source: Autry National Center [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons).1  

     "You don't realize until you look closely at this painting, the problems with the idea of progress." This was the response of a student in my course on Technology and World History that addresses the now iconic painting "American Progress" by John Gast. We were discussing Manifest Destiny and the role of steamboats in westward expansion in this course which focuses on the role of technology in power relations from the fifteenth century till the present. Though the students in my mostly STEM 2 institute love anything to do with technology, time and again students told me that the best part of the World History courses I offer are all the visual imagery and especially paintings we discuss in class. I have found that not only do they enjoy the class, but the students' ability to recall and analyze an historical event also improves when I use visual arts in my classroom, confirming my belief that paintings and art in general is an effective way to teach World history to engineering and STEM students. The following is a case study in the ways in which art can help bridge the gap between high school and undergraduate history courses, particularly for STEM students in a non-Western classroom. It is based upon the evidence generated by my engagement with students at one of the newer Indian Institutes of Technology at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, 275 miles north of New Delhi, where I have been teaching world history for the past six years.

Education Policy and History Education in India

     Although Area Studies continues to define teaching and research in history in Indian universities, there is a growing trend towards adopting a world/global history approach, particularly in high school teaching. This is reflected in the textbooks designed by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) particularly for grades IX through XI (age group 14-17 years). In India, the IITs or Indian Institutes of Technology are regarded as the premier engineering institutes in the country with an undergraduate acceptance rate of only 2%. There is now more and more emphasis on producing rounded engineers and hence, humanities and social sciences form an important part of the IIT undergraduate curriculum. Despite the high caliber of IIT students, however, the nature of high school history courses does not prepare students sufficiently to grapple with world history at the undergraduate level. Because "streaming" happens quite early in the Indian education system, STEM students in IITs have had no exposure to the social sciences since grade X (usually age 16). This two—sometimes more—year gap between high school history courses and history courses taken as part of the IIT curriculum means that often learning begins from scratch. Since non-Indian history is such a minimal part of high school history curriculum, the problem becomes especially acute when teaching world history in an IIT classroom. The unfamiliarity of most students with non-Western history, landscape, culture and ideas (with the exception of stereotyped images that greet them on TV screens and social media) makes it difficult for students to "picture" world history.

     Further, most IIT students studied history in high school till standard X. After that most prospective engineering students opt for the Science stream. Some also join coaching institutes to prepare for the IIT entrance exams also known as JEE (Joint Entrance Exam). Thus, by the time a student joins an IIT he has been out of the history classroom for two years and possibly engaged in rigorous learning of Science topics to clear the JEE exams. Also complicating matters is the diversity of the IIT student body. IIT students hail from all different corners of India bringing in a rich diversity of linguistic and cultural variation. A quarter of the students come from rural areas where schools sometimes lack basic facilities.3 Teaching History—and in particular, World History—to such a diverse group is a daunting task.

     Added to the cultural complexity of such a diverse student body in IIT environments is the way History is taught in the Indian high school classrooms. In many schools, rote learning and regurgitation of facts still characterize the teaching and learning of History. Even in relatively affluent schools which have more sophisticated facilities and follow the NCERT textbooks, there are inherent challenges with the conceptualization of History. Most students are taught in their high schools in a very event-oriented way. The standard textbooks for high schools in India highlight discrete historical events such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Nazi holocaust. Each of these is treated as separate, watertight parts. In fact, the history textbooks at the high school level in India through Class X (after which STEM students are streamed) seem to better represent Area Studies rather than a Global History approach.4 Thus the West is treated separately, and India and China are examined as distinct cases with some acknowledgment of connection between Western and non-Western histories (for instance, nationalism in Europe is connected to rise of nationalism in India). However, there is a singular lack of a holistic approach where histories of the two parts of the world are inextricably intertwined at all levels making clear separation in the two histories problematic. The students had also been taught in a particularly Eurocentric way. The pivotal events in the students' minds are European revolutions and the main driving forces appeared to be European-led such as the Enlightenment and Industrialization. In fact, the Eurocentrism of high school history textbooks is at a quite literal level. It is not until the textbooks discuss the World Wars that even the history of the United States is discussed.

Art as a Teaching Vehicle

     A good number of studies have demonstrated that art can be an effective teaching tool in history classrooms fostering important skills in historical thinking such as interpreting and analyzing evidence and making historical arguments.5 My argument is that visual arts is especially crucial for communicating essential historical skills to engineering and STEM students, particularly in non-Western classrooms. In his seminal 1988 essay, "Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education," Richard Felder posited that engineering students were overwhelmingly visual learners. "What must generally be added to accommodate all students," he wrote, "is visual material—pictures, diagrams, sketches."6 I would argue that visual material becomes even more important to teach the history of unfamiliar cultures. For instance, an American student might be better able to grasp Chinese or Indian history if he were shown maps, photos or films on these cultures. The problem is particularly acute in countries such as India where many high schools do not have high-tech audio-visual facilities or even internet connections. Often what comes to the students' minds when they are attempting a history test are the black and white pages in the textbooks rather than any "picturing" or "imagining" of the landscape, society or culture of foreign countries. It is no wonder then that history does not succeed in inspiring or exciting interest among the vast majority of the high school students, particularly those with a scientific or an engineering bent of mind. It is in this context that visual art becomes an effective tool for teaching world history in an IIT or similar institution.

     The term visual art encompasses various creative media including drawings, sketches, paintings and photographs. Here the focus will be on how these media can help in teaching particular episodes/periods/processes in world history. These points of history are not exhaustive but are used as illustrations of broad methods of using art which can be usefully applied generally to the teaching of world history in the non-Western classroom. To create some semblance of logic to my selection of these moments I have chosen episodes/processes which pertain to the history of the Americas (broadly, including both North and South America) and its intersection with world history. 7 I also focus on the Americas because of the greater unfamiliarity of most IIT undergraduate students with the history of that continent than, say, Europe. I would like to include a caveat: while some of the images I will discuss in this essay are very familiar to many instructors in the West, that awareness is not universal, and they are certainly not universally known to STEM and non-Liberal Arts students and instructors globally.

Ancient Civilizations of the World

     Home to the Indus Valley/Harappa civilizations, Indians often look askance at "ancient" civilizations in other parts of the world. In my classroom at IIT, I have encountered many students who had never heard of Teotihuacan or Chichen Itza (except a minority who had watched Apocalypto). Here was a double challenge: getting students interested in other civilizations and at the same time fostering a nuanced understanding of these often much mis-represented civilizations. Ancient Maya history is especially apt for a teaching strategy which includes visual media because of the very richly detailed etchings on stelae, tablets and murals. The students in my classroom found the images of bloodletting and taking of captives particularly fascinating. However, detailed analysis of these images also helped us move away from the stereotypical view of Maya as bloodthirsty savages to the role played by rituals in legitimizing institutions such as kingship. The Piedras Negras Stela 11 (not pictured in this essay due to copyright issues) depicts a captive sacrificed and then bloody footprints leading up to where the ruler sits on a throne. This stela is thus a fine example of how accession rituals were tied to captive sacrifice. In the same way, the Bonampak murals while they portray war and captivity are also great tools to explain the social stratification within Maya society. Rather than being a detriment, I found that the "foreign-ness" of the Maya images aroused student interest and also allowed to students to grapple with the question of how to "read" these images as primary documents.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Scene from Bonampak Murals (source: Elelicht, 2006, Copy of Bonampak Painting in Chetumal, Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 29 July 2019)8  

Conquest Period

     The familiarity of most high school students in India with the Age of Discovery is limited to a relatively facile understanding of Vasco da Gama's sea voyage to the Western coast of India. For instance, high school narratives of De Gama's voyage leave out much of the violence of Portuguese expeditions. However, even this superficial familiarity is missing in terms of the European conquest of the Americas. While maps of sea routes are very helpful in making students understand how the Portuguese and Spanish competed to find routes to the Indian Ocean and consequently led to Portuguese arrival in India and Spanish Conquest of the Americas, art—and in particular, paintings—can help students delve into questions such as how Conquest was legitimized and justified by European powers. One of the key components of my lecture on the Spanish conquest, for instance, revolves around Dutch painter Jan Van der Straet or Stradanus' work, Discovery of America (ca. 1587-89) which shows Amerigo Vespucci encountering an indigenous woman after landing in the Americas. The richly detailed painting has evoked historical debates on metaphors of conquest (the masculine conquistador vs. the feminine native) as well as on images used at the time to legitimize conquest (such as the scene of cannibalism in the background).

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Stradanus, Discovery of America (source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)9  

     Paintings because they are made rather than taken (as in a photograph)—a point also made convincingly by Tim Brooks in Vermeer's Hat 10 —convey a great deal about the prevailing mind-sets and mentalities of the time. Using Stradanus' painting allows discussion on topics such as the ways in which conquest was justified as well as the prevailing notions about native populations in the Americas. Stradanus' painting is particularly effective because there is a lot going on in the image. My engineering students immediately picked on the navigational instruments on the person of Vespucci which provided a convenient entry point to discuss the technological breakthroughs—including caravel ships like the ones in the painting—that allowed Europeans to travel large distances over oceans and establish colonies in far flung areas. The astrolabe and the lateen sails on the ship can also act as segues to discuss the influence of Islam on European maritime expeditions in the Age of Exploration. While in the forefront Vespucci dominates the scene, lying in the hammock is a naked indigenous woman who (in later inked versions of the painting) is wearing a gold headdress. This is a useful entry point to discuss the allure of the New World, with its promises of fecundity and wealth. The rest of the Edenic setting is rife with metaphors of voluptuous excess including the macabre scene of natives roasting a human leg. Discussion of this painting led my class to debate how native groups are represented as "savages." This had particular resonance in my class since tribal groups in India often face similar sorts of stereotyping. Examining the painting as a document also allowed the class to realize that historical documents and images are not expressions of reality but rather representations of reality often with real issues of material and political power at stake in their creation. Following this logic further, students can be asked to grapple with higher end historical questions—such as the nature of historical documents and images as sites of power negotiations.

Colonial Period

     The understanding of colonialism among Indian students is naturally based upon their knowledge of India's colonial experience under the British. Exploring colonialism in the context of the Americas—and in particular, in Latin America—provides an important understanding of the commonalities and differences in colonial experiences at the global level. In particular, students of colonialism in India are better exposed to questions of caste than of race or ethnicity. Unlike Latin America which saw large scale demographic shifts and racial/ethnic mixing as a result of Spanish colonialism, India experienced colonialism that had important impacts on prevailing categories of caste and class. Examination of the colonial period in Latin America thus provides Indian students with a useful comparative perspective on colonialism.

     One of the main tools I use in my classrooms to discuss Spanish colonialism in Latin America is the genre of Casta paintings produced primarily in colonial Mexico. These were sets of paintings that portrayed the social consequences of race mixing. The Casta paintings provide the perfect entry point to discuss the complex racial mixing that resulted from union of African, indigenous and Spanish elements. Paintings are particularly useful here as the understanding of caste in India is very different from that of casta in Latin America. The Caste system in India refers to the rigid hierarchies mainly practiced in Hinduism where society is commonly understood to be divided into four main classes: the Brahmins (priestly class), the Kshatriyas (warrior class), the Vaishyas (merchant class), and the Shudras (laboring class). Outside these four was a fifth class, that of the dalits or untouchables. On the other hand, the Sistema de Castas in Latin America revolved around the question of limpieza de sangre or purity of blood. In this system pure blooded Spaniards were at the top of the social structure while mixed race and Africans occupied rungs lower down the social ladder.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Casta painting showing opulence in a family where racial mixing has resulted in a mestizo progeny (source: Public Domain, Wikimedia commons)11  

     Casta paintings are particularly useful for delving into questions about the nature of colonial projects—and the anxieties associated with them—because these paintings were meant in many ways to be prescriptive. Casta paintings not only depicted unions and progenies of racial mixing, but also the colonial view of the social consequences of such unions. For instance, a painting entitled "de español y negra nace mulata" (Spanish father and African mother produces mulata child), depicts a dysfunctional family scene where the African mother with a raised cane in her hand is about to strike her mulata daughter and the Spanish father tries to grasp her arm to stop her. In another painting entitled "de negro y india nace lobo" (African father and Indian mother produces lobo child), there is a similar scene of violence, but the perpetrator now is the African father who attempts to beat the mother while the lobo child cowers under his mother's clothes. At the same time, the casta paintings (like the one above) also depict scenes of opulence which would have presented a scene of allure to European buyers of these pieces of art. In fact, according to Christa Olsen, the major market for casta paintings was the elite including Spanish administrators and visitors.12 In the above painting, the orange trees and the burro—introduced by the Spanish into the Americas—can also be used as entry points to talk about the Columbian exchange as well as the Spanish attempt to recreate Spain in the Americas. This also provides a useful way of comparing with British colonialism in India, where the colonizers did not intend to settle in the same way that the Spanish did in the Americas. The casta paintings are also effective in introducing the concept of mestizaje that is usually completely unfamiliar to most students in the Indian (and I suspect, most Asian) classrooms. Using casta paintings to shed light on Spanish colonial rule in the Americas also provides the instructor with an entry point to discuss the varied forms, methods and depictions of colonial enterprises in different parts of the world.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

     India never experienced the kind of slavery that characterized seventeenth and eighteenth century transatlantic history. While many students in India are aware of contemporary racism in countries such as the United States many are not familiar with the historical roots of such discrimination. Here discussion of transatlantic slavery serves to show the role of unfree labor in the growth of European plantation economies as well as the ways in which commodity chains (including of slaves who were in the words of Lisa Lindsay "captives as commodities"13) tied together three different continents: America, Europe and Africa. Transatlantic slavery because of its transnational nature is particularly apt to convey to students the importance of global or world history. One of the main images I use in my classroom in India is the interior plan of the Brookes slave ship which became an iconic image of the horrors of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. The minute attention to detail, the design of the ship optimizing the number of slaves it could carry become particularly effective to talk about the deliberate (often driven by economic calculations) nature of treatment of slaves in the eighteenth century. Although the sketch is not art in the sense of a painting from the same period, visually it conveys the experience of the slave trade effectively—even viscerally—to students who have very little familiarity with the topic.

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Brookes Slave Ship (source: Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)14  

Westward Expansion

     While the influence of North American culture is quite apparent in India, there is a surprising lack of understanding of the history of the United States.  The violence of Indian removal and westward expansion are some of the salient historical processes that students are largely oblivious about. While maps, particularly showing how gradually the United States expanded westwards, are important to give students a sense of the historical evolution of the country, these maps don't really convey the justifications, methods or consequences of westward expansion. A key painting that allows the instructors to delve into these questions is John Gast's iconic "American Progress" (see figure 1) which shows the figure of Progress (visualized as an angel) moving westward with people following on their horses and wagons. The painting provides an important way to illustrate the idea of Manifest Destiny but also the consequences of the expansion—dispossession of indigenous populations and the near extinction of species such as the bison (seen fleeing from the approaching exodus). The telegraph wires and railways in the painting become particularly apt for discussion the role of technology in the westward expansion—and by extension, the industrial revolution as a macro-change in world history—an aspect that I found particularly resonated with the engineering students. By making students "read' the painting in all its details provides enough entry points to discuss a wide variety of important historical issues—role of technology, ideologies of expansion and colonization, historical teleology and the effects of dispossession on native populations and the environment.  


     As world history becomes an important area of instruction in non-Western countries, newer strategies of communicating historical skills must be devised keeping in mind the needs of the students. This article has presented strategies that worked with engineering students in India in the hope it may serve as a part of a broader conversation on art as a tool for world history instruction that can inspire the development of newer and more effective methods to build essential historical skills in all our students at home and abroad—be they in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or engineering.

Rajeshwari Dutt is an Assistant Professor of History at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi. She specializes in the history of nineteenth century Latin America and circum-Caribbean (in particular, Yucatán, Belize and Mosquito Shore). Her first monograph Maya Caciques in Early National Yucatán (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 2017) examined the Maya headman as an evolving political figure in nineteenth century Yucatán. Her second monograph Empire on Edge: The British Struggle for Order in Belize during Yucatán's Caste War is under contract with Cambridge University Press. She has published articles in The Americas, Ethnohistory and Hispanic American Historical Review. She can be reached at


1 Accessed July 29, 2019.

2 STEM refers to a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum focus. It is currently championed and well-funded by the U. S. Department of Education above all other more balanced curriculums (  It is criticized by educators who argue that "The well-rounded education of human beings needs to include lessons learned both from a study of the physical world, and from a study of humanity (" Accessed 29, July 2019.

3 For analysis of availability of these facilities across Indian schools see: NCERT, "Eighth All India School Education Survey," 2009 available at: Accessed 29, July 2019.

4 High school textbooks issued by the NCERT are now fully downloadable at their website: Accessed 29, July 2019.

5 For a useful historiographical description of works that engage this issue see: Yonghee Suh, "Past Looking: Using Arts as Historical Evidence in Teaching History," Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 8, no. 1 (2013), 135-153.

6 Richard Felder, "Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education," Engineering Education, Vol. 78, no. 7 (1988), 677. Although Felder has revised many of his arguments since, the importance of visual teaching continues to remain one of the mainstays of his work.

7 While I have focused mainly on how to tackle student unfamiliarity with topics in world history using examples from the history of the Americas, similar strategies can easily be applied to foster understanding of European and other Asian developments that affected world history. Two books stand out in terms of the visual material they provide for these contexts. The first is Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat (2009) which uses Vermeer's paintings as a window into seventeenth century global connections. The second is Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts (2000) where photographs of famine victims in late 19th century particularly in India and China provide a compelling visual narrative of the effects of liberal ideologies on the "making of the Third World." See: Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2008); Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London and New York: Verso, 2001).

8 Link to Creative Commons license:

9 Accessed 29 July 2019.

10 See above, fn.7

11 Accessed July 29, 2019.

12 Christa Olson, "Casta Painting and the Rhetorical Body." Rhetoric Society Quarterly Vol. 39, no. 4 (2009), 307-330.

13 See Lisa A. Lindsay, Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Jersey: Pearson, 2008).

14 Accessed July 29, 2019.

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