Obama’s daughter, Malia, to take a Gap Year

President Obama’s older daughter, Malia, has decided to go to Harvard University, but has chosen to take a gap year.  The university encourages its undergraduates to take a gap year before or during their studies and about 80 out of 110 now do so; it’s a growing trend.

It’s wonderful to see that America’s First family is endorsing this incredible opportunity for school leavers to get some life experience outside of the classroom.  It is a time which can be hard for parents but, as the President said “I’m not ready for her to leave … but she’s ready to go.  She’s just a really smart, capable person and she’s ready to make her own way.”

So, what will she be looking for in her year out?  Learning, but not in a classroom.  New life experiences, but in a supported environment.  Skills that will enhance the rest of her career and life.  Oh yes, and some awesome, fun times are a necessity.

Where to start your research and planning

globekh1124Like everyone else, she’ll be daunted by the incredible range of opportunities she has but you can squeeze a lot of experience into one year. The best place to read reviews is at www.gooverseas.com (hint: we get amazing AHA reviews).

The www.americangap.org is a great place to explore different options and has just published its 2015 National Alumni Survey which shows improved civic engagement, improved college graduation rates and improved GPAs* in college. She may already have attended one of the many gap year fairs organised by www.usagapyearfairs.org , and at www.interimprograms.com she can get great advice: they’ve been helping shape American gap years for 35 years. She could also look at the not for profit www.yearoutgroup.com which promotes the concept and benefit of well-structured year out programmes and is based in the UK where the concept originated in the 1960s.

Obama: “art history was one of my favourite subjects

Although the President made an off-the-cuff remark comparing earnings after technical training to those after Art History degrees, his hand-written note of apology shows that “art history was one of my favourite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

It is impressive to learn that the President went out of his way to meet Glenn Ligon, whose 1992 piece “Black Like Me No 2” hangs in his personal quarters along with this piece by Ed Ruschka.  Whilst it is pleasing to hear that the President values the subject and that it has given him joy, what he perhaps misses are the life lessons to be learned from studying art history.

Ed Ruschka, "I think I'll ..." 1983
Ed Ruschka, “I think I’ll …” 1983

First, you learn to observe – did you know there are courses for medics and police to improve their observational techniques using art?  Next, you need to understand the context of the piece of art. What was happening in the world at the time, both before and after?  History, philosophy, politics and literature will all help you achieve a deeper understanding of a piece of art.

Critical thinking is a key skill to unravel the complex tapestry of events that inform the arts.  If you want to understand Leonardo da Vinci you will learn about political power and dynasties, architecture, geography, engineering, science and, of course, “get up and go”.

The Last Supper
The Last Supper

As the great man once put it “it had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Malia has already interned twice in the film industry, so she has begun to go and “happen to things.”   Let’s hope that after her gap year, she too will look back and be glad to have done something which gave “a great deal of joy in [her] life that [she] might otherwise have missed”.

Euclid is on the radio again …

"School of Athens" by Raphael, Vatican Museum
“School of Athens” by Raphael, Vatican Museum

Director Nick has been musing on a BBC Radio 4 programme on Euclid’s Elements (you can download it here).

Euclid was the Greek mathematician writing around 300 BC who came up with the Golden Section which, in turn, had such a great influence on the Renaissance and the world of aesthetics and science.  He is the fellow in Raphael’s “School of Athens” demonstrating geometry or at least, thought to be.  Some argue this may be Archimedes of Syracuse.


Detail of man with compass, "School of Athens" Raphael
Detail of man with compass, “School of Athens” Raphael

The Elements is written in 13 volumes (less onerous than it sounds, a volume, in ancient terms, is like a book in the Bible).

It is amongst the earliest books to be printed in the 1480s in Italy, at the time of Leonardo.  It is also commentated upon by Britons, including Playfair in the eighteenth century.

Euclid proves through mathematics, things which are provable and always true (universal truths) – these, in turn, are used by Renaissance man as an indication of God’s presence.  Many Churches, from Chartres Cathedral to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy, employ the Golden Section for its Divine implications.  Painters too, like Piero della Francesca, use the Golden Section and in today’s world of science, the Golden Section appears within cell structure and nature.

The Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, Florence
The Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, Florence

This video is worth 4 minutes of your time – when did you last see Donald Duck and Greek architecture together?

One thing that strikes me is that Euclid’s geometry is based on 2-dimensional geometry but when one speaks of the geometry of a curve, i.e. the curvature of the world, or indeed, 3-dimensional geometry, not all of Euclid’s truths apply. These later two are non-Euclidian geometry.

Most amazing of all is that Euclid’s mathematics is born of a society which needed to solve building problems in emerging city-states.  How do you mark out a perfect square foundation the size of half an acre, with right angles and so on?  You do it with a stake, a pole and geometry which will always give you the right answer.  On paper, we do the same with a ruler and a compass.

"God the Geometer", 13th century manuscript, frontispiece of the Bible Moralisée of Blanche of Castile
“God the Geometer”, 13th century manuscript, frontispiece of the Bible Moralisée of Blanche of Castile

Why is it important?  It raises the thought that there may be natural laws to aesthetics or rules of beauty and that, as Keats says, “truth is beauty and beauty truth”.  Euclid reminds us that he was only dealing with two dimensions and that there is so much more mathematics to be had.  Euclid also reminds us of the fluidity between the arts and the sciences and this is the sort of cross-curricular knowledge that is at the heart of AHA.

6 weeks that will change your life: the AHA Gap Year Course

Minerva FB hero
Piazza Minerva, Pantheon in the background, Rome

An overview: what is it & who is it for?

  • a 6 week course across Italy (4 week option in late summer)
  • study Western civilisation through art, architecture & sculpture
  • stay in Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Siena & Verona
  • for 18 – 22 year olds
  • for those of every academic background who seek a cultivated mind

“If I could relive something in my life, it definitely would be reliving my experience with AHA.” Mia, 2015

St Mark's Square, Venice
St Mark’s Square, Venice
  • gap year, undergraduate & post degree students
  • historically, a third are arts and architecture students, a third are doing other humanities and a third are scientists (usually doctors)
  • students who realise that a cultured, educated mind is a mark of distinction in whatever career they pursue
  • students join individually rather than in groups
  • we are a British organisation but we attract students from across the globe

We take students aged between 18 and 22 from every academic discipline. They join because they want to understand why art is important. AHA is the only organisation dedicated to studying the wonders of art at first hand in the company of brilliant, unstuffy tutors who bring art to life. Importantly, we offer the chance to experience Venice, Florence and Rome for meaningful periods of time with shorter stays in Naples, Siena and Verona.

Botticelli's Primavera, detail
Botticelli’s Primavera, detail, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Why should you join?

We want you to have a real, visceral experience of art. So, all of our teaching is on site in small tutorial groups, where we foster discussion and argument. On site study permits all sorts of practical insights such as scale, real colour, and in the case of architecture, actual space.Lav teach for YOG

Furthermore, how wonderful to study the creativity of others and find inspiration. This is where an educated mind becomes a cultivated mind; it is a maturing process in terms of character and intellect. What better way to spend part of a gap year en route to higher study.we have amazing tutors

  • we offer privileged access to the treasures of Italy – The Sistine Chapel and St Mark’s Venice, to name but two
  • a six week course with AHA is similar to 2 years of University study* representing astonishing value
  • AHA extends intellectual horizons and gap year students do not “switch off”
  • no obligatory exams but possibility of US college credit**
  • how can six weeks in Italy not be fun?

There are no exams on this course because it was born out of an ideal of a gap year, where students sought to embellish their minds through travel, experience and broader horizons. However, don’t imagine this course is a breeze. We work hard, not least because everyone has travelled a long way and there is much to see and do.
Students are over 18 and as such they travel as independent adults on a course where accommodation, travel, special museum bookings and excellent tuition are dealt with by AHA. Thus, you make the very best use of your time.

  • University style teaching in tutorials of 9 or fewer students
  • AHA studies art in context to include music, philosophy, literature, poetry, politics, theology and aesthetics
  • AHA proves broad academic interests to universities and employers alike who look for sentient, interested, interesting students and employees
  • we offer travel and pastoral oversight in one gap year experience

* Though comparisons are admittedly imprecise, it is interesting to note that most universities offer 4 hours contact time with a tutor per week in the arts. An AHA course of on site study would represent just shy of 2 years of university study. So, an AHA course is a mighty asset in one’s education.

** On a purely elective basis, students can ask for assessment which could be used to apply for college credit. It comprises a tutor report, attendance record, creative work (film, drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, poem or play), project (2,000 words), image recognition paper and a multiple choice paper.

What do you get?

15.07NthGuggArguably, Italy has more significant art than any place on earth and so we study painting, architecture, sculpture, textiles, gardens, mosaics, drawings and decorative arts over the following periods:

  • the Ancient World
  • Romanesque
  • the Renaissance
  • the Baroque
  • Classicism
  • Modern and Contemporary

Within these periods we study:

  • Painting techniques (fresco, oil, tempera, etc.)
  • artists: their biographies, significances, influence and patronage
  • connoisseurship and collections
  • art criticism and propaganda

Naples Sunrise
You will be in some of the most beautiful cities in the world:

  • Venice – The Renaissance and modern
  • Castelfranco – Palladio’s Villas
  • Verona  – The Gothic, ancient and the court at Mantua
  • Florence  – The Renaissance
  • Siena  – The Gothic and politics
  • Naples  – Ancient Pompeii, The Baroque and modern
  • Rome – Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque and modern

We break up the course with day visits to a selection of the following:

  • Padua – for Giotto
  • Pasagno – for Canova
  • Emo and Maser – for Palladio
  • Mantua – for The Gonzaga Court
  • Vicenza – for Palladio
  • Pisa – for the tower
  • Arezzo – for Piero della Francesca
  • Bomarzo – for the first monastery
  • Pompeii or Herculaneum
  • Vesuvius

Venicetaxi for YOGThe programme is very carefully designed to be both chronological and thematic in order that students can fathom such large swathes of history.

We also teach the context of art, so we touch on the following where relevant:

  • Music
  • Political theory
  • Economics
  • Philosophy
  • Theology
  • Poetry
  • History
Torre del Mangia, Siena
Torre del Mangia, Siena

We build a solid foundation of the terminology of art and history:

–           architectural; vocabulary & descriptive terms

–           classical or biblical narrative; myths & stories

–           geographical; Italy and Europe

–           basic datelines, significant families and Popes

–           general themes; politics, propaganda & patronage

Sistine ceilingThere is also time for:

  • Drawing; there is always someone to help and encourage craftsmanship
  • Marbled paper making
  • Italian classes in manners and comportment (2 sessions at the beginning of the course)
  • Mask making in Venice
  • Gondola rowing lessons
  • Visits to concerts and the Opera and the football
  • Occasional cooking classes

I hope you will agree this course aims to make the most amazing use of your time. Quite simply, we want this to be the greatest experience and a true education.  Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook to see why people love our courses.

To read more independent reviews on: gooverseas.com.

“It’s been two months and I’m still obsessed with how amazing this trip was.”  Livvy, Gap Year course 2015

5 essential tips for planning a Gap Year

  1. DON’T leave it all to the last minute ⏰

Start planning now and enjoy the process. Search for gap year bloggers, gap year courses and reviews online (try www.gooverseas.com ). Make lists of your favourite travel bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (we’re @ahacourses, if you were wondering 😀) and follow them, see if it’s something you would enjoy.  And keep your mind open – it is all about broadening your horizons.

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This is your chance of a lifetime so discuss it with your parents but don’t expect them to do all the research for you.  Check out www.yearoutgroup.com for different ideas on what you can do during your year with experienced and trusted providers.

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2. THINK about your 52 weeks in detail

A whole year means you can do several different things. Consider all your options and decide what will suit you best.  You have time to do that gap year course, visit that idyllic beach and fit in some work experience or volunteering, it’s just a matter of planning your time and your budget.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 16.00.42It is also worth thinking about what you want to get out of your gap year.  Universities will be impressed if you have learned transferable skills and matured e.g. critical thinking skills, knowledge of a new subject, experience of a different culture.  They will be less impressed with a tan!  It may be useful to think about how relevant your experiences are to the course you want to do.  And, of course, after a gap year, some people find that they wish to take a different course.
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3. BUDGET now, don’t panic later 

Many people pay for gap year travel by working for part of the year, asking for Christmas and birthday presents to be in cash from parents, godparents and grandparents, or some may have savings.

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There are also scholarships and bursaries to be had if you plan ahead and research your field. AHA have an annual scholarship for a 2 week summer course each year. If you are at an HMC school you can apply for a Bulkeley-Evans gap year scholarship.  Ask your careers department if they know of any scholarships or travel awards that you might apply for. Gateway Gap Year Awards (Murray Edwards) are available for Cambridge applicants “who would benefit significantly from a gap year before embarking on their studies at Cambridge.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 15.26.17If you have your heart set on a year out, you have to be determined … see this list of what NOT to do, if you are saving up for your year out.

4. PERSUADE other people a gap year is worth it

  •  recent research suggest that those who take time off after school come back to academia with much better motivation having explored and developed their identity, built resilience and learned tolerance.
  • YouthTruth research from the US show that 40% of high school students didn’t feel they had developed the skills and knowledge for college-level classes: it doesn’t make sense to start a college/university education if you aren’t ready.
  • explain that this a year out not a year off: you want to continue to learn but not in a classroom and not necessarily for a qualification.  This is about learning about you and the world and your place in that world.

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5. Ready to start planning? Double check the details 🌍

  • check your passport will be valid for your trips (some countries require you to have an additional 6 months validity after the end of your trip)
  • find good travel insurance and always read the small print
  • learn to pack lightly!  Generally the advice is to pack, then remove half the clothes and take twice as much money but this brilliant video will help lighten your load too 👜
  • make sure you know what local customs are: we have found that a large scarf is the perfect cover up for heads, shoulders, legs (when your shorts are too short) for some churches and that only tourists order milky coffee in the afternoon in Italy!

If you’re not quite ready to start planning … you can start dreaming.  Remember, no one ever regrets taking a gap year – they just regret not taking one.



A Day in the Life of an AHA course

Part 1: The Morning Session

The timetable said we would “begin our exploration of Rome with an introductory walk and a Church crawl via the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.”

That doesn’t begin to describe our delight as we ventured out amongst the ochre-coloured buildings of various ages, over the Roman cobbles. And already the learning begins …

MBell street view
Roman street (Photo: Michael Bell)

The cobbles are called “Sampietrini” which translates as “little St Peters”: they were mined from the surrounding volcanic hills by the ancient Romans, so some are 2,000 years old.  I’m amazed when I see from some repair work that they are shaped like little teeth, the root going down into the earth.

Our hotel is in the charming and lively Campo Dei Fiori, the old flower market. It now holds the most tempting selection of food you can imagine from stripy aubergines to freshly chopped salads and huge, whole Parmigiano Reggianos. I can’t wait to buy our picnic lunch …

Campo dei Fiori market


We are heading towards the Piazza Navona, when the tutor diverts us into an imposing courtyard and asks us to look up (a phrase we’ll hear a lot).  Around the upper levels are niches filled with extraordinary statues which we are encouraged to explore with our eyes … is that a pair of dolphins at the feet of one figure … what does it all mean?

Statue in the Palazzo Spada courtyard (Photo: Michael Bell)

A “forced perspective”

We learn that this is the Palazzo Spada bought by the Cardinal Spada in 1632.  The stucco work in the inner courtyard is full of symbolic devices: dolphins at the feet of a female figure signify Venus, who was carried ashore by them.  Our tutor then points out an arch in the courtyard which goes through to another courtyard.  We are all enjoying the lovely long vista to a distant statue, when someone in the other courtyard steps into the vista.  Suddenly it feels all “Alice in Wonderland” – what’s going on?

It turns out that what we thought was a life size sculpture at the end of the vista is only 60 cm tall! Cardinal Spada commissioned Borromini to work on his palazzo and it was he who, with the help of a mathematician, created the forced perspective optical illusion in the arcaded courtyard (see title photograph).

In it, diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create the visual illusion of a gallery 37 metres long (it is 8 metres) with a lifesize sculpture at the end.  We are amazed: to think that Borromini was working in the 1600’s, over 400 years ago with no engines and no electricity.

The “pièce de résistance” of the Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona, Rome
Piazza Navona, Rome (Photo: Michael Bell)

But the Palazzo Spada’s clever tricks are just an aside on our orientation: we push on to Piazza Navona.

Moving from the tight-knit street to the glorious Piazza gives a sense of space and freedom that delights. The sun gleams on the dome of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which we learn is the titular church of the Pamphilj (Pope Innocent X’s family).

Everyone is drawn to the central fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), built in 1651 by Bernini and topped by the Obelisk of Domitian. It is stunning. The water looks so clean and we’re told you can drink the water from all of Rome’s fountains … it’s delicious.

Fontana alle Quattro Fiumi, Piazza Navona

The sculpture on the huge fountain is impressive and amusing when you see that it drains through a fish’s mouth.   Examining it in detail, it seems extraordinary that anyone could create it out of marble: it is truly monumental.

The square itself is humming with people, busy restaurants and the man selling helium balloons who has them on his fishing rod so they float high in the blue sky, advertising his wares.  As we absorb the Italian background hum, we notice the different shades of ochre and pink that the surrounding buildings are painted, the false windows on the house opposite the Quattro Fiumi, and the evidence of past wealth, politics and a fascinating history over many centuries.

The Romans invented concrete …

The Pantheon, Rome
The Pantheon, Rome

Covering a few more “sampietrini” we come out into a square, Piazza della Rotonda, with an incredible building to one side. Another obelisk to mark the spot and what looks like a triple row of huge columns* announces the grandeur of the Pantheon.

Our tutor explains a little of its history but nothing prepares you for the immense, circular space behind the columns, the open hole at the top, the “oculus”, allowing light and weather into this ancient place. And then we’re told the roof was made of concrete … in 200 AD! The Romans invented it but the art of making it was lost when the Empire fell and not “re-discovered” until the 1800s. To hold the weight the wall is over 6m thick and it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

Pantheon Rome 2014-06-25 14.46.48
Oculus, The Pantheon, Rome.

Built on the site of an earlier building (like everything in Rome, it would seem) it was completed by the Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. He kept the inscription from the earlier building which reads “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit” or “Marcus, Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”.

We have learned so much in such a short time and already it is lunchtime. It’s not far to a restaurant where the owner greets our tutor by name and we know that we’ll be eating like the Romans do … with such a lot to discuss.

*It is actually 8 in the first row and two groups of 4 behind.