Besides Chemistry, students in Vietnam consider History their least favorite subject. The history curricula have long been deemed “dull, uninspiring, and overloaded with lists of figures and historical events,” which sometimes makes history more like a memorization test. Most students and young people nowadays assume history is hardly relevant or useful to their daily lives, therefore, not worth their interest.
With the existing system in which students are rewarded for their ability to recall and recite mountains of facts perfectly, no wonder students feel so distant from their own nation's history. The subject deserves better than how it is dictated in textbooks — dry and being told from a single viewpoint that has been reinforced for many years.
This can change with the joining of the arts, especially when we are living in a visual age where popular culture and streaming platforms dominate the media. In photos, music, drawings, and paintings, history asserts itself appearing more visible and vivid to students, thus encouraging them to learn more about historical people and events depicted.
However, how interweaving arts into teaching history effectively is never an easy task. To give you an idea of which roles arts play in teaching history, here are some forms of arts both teachers and students can tap into.
Moving pictures and photography
In Vietnam's modern history, photographs are the most genuine "storytellers." Each picture preserves a "frozen" moment of that period, offering today and future generations a peek into the distant past.
During the Vietnam War, numerous reporters and photographers risked their lives in battle zones to cover the events and tell the rest of the world their stories through pictures. These images not only contain historical information but also provoke strong emotions toward the cruelty of the war. The photo “The Terror of War” by Nick Ut and the photo of a Saigon execution by Eddie Adams are prime examples of how photographs can act as a powerful tool in wartime.
These visual materials can hook students better than dry figures or long paragraphs. However, it's worth noting that how teachers interpret these photos also plays a crucial role in helping students remember historical events better without memorizing too many places and numbers.
Unlike photography which captures a moment as it is without any interpretation, movies leave room for creativity to recreate the past, using audio and visual elements to convey a more personal and empathetic look at historical figures and events. More importantly, movies tell an engaging story and feature fascinating characters, which can leave a strong impression on students.
Instead of memorizing all the dates, events, and casualties during World War I, young people are now more drawn to watching phenomenal history movies like 1917. If you want to dig deep into Vietnam's military campaign during Vietnam War, documentaries like The Vietnam War provide a different perspective that’s creative as well as dramatic.
Painting: A personal view on the war
The Vietnam War is often referred to as the first "television war" because that was the first time images from battles were brought to American living rooms. But for the Vietnamese of the time, the images of the war came not only from photographs but also from the sketches of artists in war zones or in hot spots on the battlefield.
Sketching is rough drawing artists make to "record" an event, thing, or person as quickly as possible. In peacetime, sketches serve as a lens for the younger generation to look to the past as cinema or photography. Each artist has a distinct style of describing things with their unique view on the historical events, so each collection of sketches is infused with personal memories and emotions, offering a fresh sight of the war.
Among the most influential war artists are Pham Thanh-Tam and Huynh Phuong-Dong. Despite pursuing the same mission - fighting and painting, the two artists have different ways of reflecting on the moments of life and war with their pencils.
Pham Thanh-Tam was born in a traditionally revolutionary family in the north of Vietnam. As a soldier, a journalist, and an artist, Tam devoted his time to sketching and painting.
With a pencil in hand, Tam quickly made sketches of the front's realities. Each sketch is like a slice of the artist's own memory. Just in some simple hasty drawing lines, Tam still managed to capture the spirit of soldiers during their daily lives, on the march, or on the battlefield.
Huynh Phuong-Dong's sketching style is quite different from Tam's. Dong graduated from the Gia Dinh Painting School (now known as the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts). After that, he joined the army and spent most of his youth serving as a soldier and a war artist on the southern battlefield.
The most important moments of the nation and the portraits of real soldiers, messengers, and heroic Vietnamese mothers were brought to life under his brushes
Meanwhile, American artist Peter Saul takes a different perspective and adopts a more cartoon-like style with vivid colors and whimsical touch. His work Saigon painted in 1967, is a very large painting depicting war-torn Saigon under American influence.
The painting looks quite chaotic at first glance. There are American soldiers torturing and raping the people of Saigon, a river of blood, a spiked American bomb, uprooted palm trees, etc. This painting expresses Saul’s strong condemnation of the war’s hypocrisies.
How to make history class less of a nightmare
Although history is not popular with students, it does not mean that young people are completely indifferent to the subject. The emergence of history-related content on social media platforms like YouTube and Tiktok has shown that the youth do care about history and find their own ways to learn about it. They just resist what they are forced upon.
That means we can engage students in history class if they adopt more creative teaching methods with the help of arts in general and painting in particular. After decades of conflicts, we are left with an invaluable art asset - a true witness to the country's turbulent past. These artworks are all preserved in galleries and archives, waiting for teachers to explore and exploit.
Translated by Bich Tram