Magazine article Liberal Education

Liberal Education in a Visual World

Magazine article Liberal Education

Liberal Education in a Visual World

Article excerpt

THE PAST CENTURY'S technological revolution has returned images to a central place in our individual and collective lives. Photography became widely popular in the first halt of the past century, creating new visual forms of high art, mass advertising) and amateur entertainment. During the latter half of the twentieth century, innovations in digital imaging and network technologies have made visuals a primary mode of global communication in print, on screens, and online - becoming at times both the means and the message. Not only do we see still and moving images on the screens that surround us daily, but new tools make it simple for ordinary people to create, manipulate, and share images like never before.

The centrality of images is a fundamental shift, not a passing fad. More than a decade ago, the cultural theorist W J. T Mitchell identified a "pictorial turn" in contemporary culture; he predicted that images would reemcrge alongside texts as the primary sources of knowledge and meaning in the world, asserting that "the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem ot the image" (1994, 2). The acceleration of technological and cultural change over the past decade bolsters Mitchell's analysis, as new tools allow millions of people to post pictures to Flickr and videos to YouTuhe.

Many of today's college students are on the leading edge ot this wave ot images, at least when they are not in our classes. Unlike changes in print technology, which occurred incrementally over a period ot several centuries, the ways images are displayed and produced digitally change at an apparently accelerating pace. Each change increases our students' access to images and their ability to construct them. What doesn't necessarily increase is their ability to make meaning from this flood of imagery. College and university classrooms rarely help them with this essential task. As Carmen Luke has argued, the classroom might be the only place where today's students are not "blending, mixing, and matching knowledge drawn from diverse textual sources and communication media" (2003, 398).

It would be foolish for faculty or colleges to dismiss this visual revolution as a pop culture event. Many academic disciplines have rich histories ot using images to represent knowledge, ranging from chemistry, physics, and economics to cultural, composition, and communication stud ies. Emerging technologies have broadened the scholarly use of visual methodologies in new fields like hiointormatics and media studies and with new tools like geographic information systems and brain imaging.

Despite the writings ot theorists like Mitchell, the flood of images saturating our culture, and the ascendancy ot new visualization technologies in academic research, visual literacy continues to be marginalized in the national discourse about education, particularly liberal education. Greater Expectations, the 2002 report ot the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), for instance, contended that one of the core characteristics ot an "empowered learner" was the capacity to "effectively communicate orally, visually, in writing, and in a second language" (xi). In AAC&U's follow-up report, Liberal Education Outcomes (2005), however, references to the visual disappeared. As art historian James Elkins recently argued, this kind of oversight needs to end; higher education must "take up the challenge of providing a visual culture 'core curriculum' for all students. Images are central to our lives, and it is time they become central in our universities" (2008, 8). Visual literacy, in short, is a critical skill for twenty-first-century Students and ought to be a central component of a liberal education.

Visual literacy

Our eyes are a powerful conduit of information, processing diverse stimuli rapidly and, for the most part, efficiently. At a voting age, sighted individuals learn to "see" in ways that come to seem effortless and automatic. …

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