The accepted rationale for college-level art history classes is that they teach you “how to look at art.” I’ve always found that irritating. The implication—that observing, analyzing, and interpreting art are skills that must be learned—is somewhat insulting, suggesting that those who haven’t received the right training can’t relate to visual art.

Academic material and vocabulary can be useful when applied to a piece projected on a classroom screen or hung on a gallery wall: you can identify the general style and period, describe the composition, palette, tone. But too often, students’ opinions are barely altered versions of what’s in their professors’ lecture notes or the pages of their assigned reading. There’s no room to decide how you feel about a work—only to learn why it’s important. Are we being taught how to look at art, or how we should look at it?

Betsy Williamson considers that question in her show “Mining the Textbooks of Art History,” running through July 21 at ARC Gallery, 2156 N. Damen.

“Kids go into class and they regurgitate what they’re told,” Williamson told me in a telephone interview. “I’ve looked at a lot of art-history textbooks, and they all basically say the same thing about an object and use one specific piece as a stand-in for a specific time period. They all use the same image. So everyone learns one or two things about this piece of art—but on an intimate level, critical thinking isn’t really happening.”