Art-Centered Approach to Diversity Education in Teaching and Learning

By Johnson, Lorena | Multicultural Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Art-Centered Approach to Diversity Education in Teaching and Learning


Johnson, Lorena, Multicultural Education


The cultural diversity embodied in our country's changing demographics presents a critical challenge to America's future. For educators, the changing demographics pose a difficult question: how do we educate our students to live, work, and succeed in a pluralistic society? The question takes us beyond the current debate about education reform that regards standardized testing as the singular solution to our present educational dilemma and reveals the complexity of the issues facing education in the 21st century.

My work as a visual artist and an educator has led me to explore the visual arts' capacity to translate difference into common bond and to examine art's power to develop students' intercultural competence. Through the years, working with K-12, college, and university faculty and staff, I have viewed diversity education as central to teaching and learning, "not just because some students may require new approaches, but because what and how we need to be teaching has changed" (Smith, 1998).

Do educators have the knowledge to meet this emerging educational challenge? Most Americans' knowledge about difference is often mediated by popular culture, which distills cultural differences into stereotypical cliches. Instead, what our students need is cultural knowledge. The visual arts are a natural place for the pursuit of the intercultural dialogue and knowledge our students require to succeed in the 21st century.

The visual arts are an integral part of my diversity education workshop curriculum. They provide new knowledge and strategies to help educators address the emerging issues and realities caused by the dramatic demographic shifts facing our schools and colleges today. An art-centered approach to diversity education in teaching and learning can provide students with the essential knowledge, experiences, and skills to function, learn, think, and communicate across cultures. Art-centered diversity education can facilitate students' intercultural competence in the following ways. It:

Exposes students to the voices, images, feelings, ideas, and experiences of diverse cultures;

Provides opportunities to broaden and enrich students' cultural knowledge of diverse peoples;

Facilitates the opportunity for students to communicate and to share knowledge and information across cultures;

Explores the cultural, historical, psychological, and political roots of students' own identity and examines the complex intersections and interconnections of race, gender, class, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation, 'ability, and age that comprise the American culture;

Develops critical thinking skills by providing students with activities that will enhance their capacities for imagination, intuition, reasoning, and evaluation, as well as contribute to achieving perspective, constructing and discerning relationships, and gaining self-awareness;

Develops skills to differentiate between "looking" at the surface of art and culture, and "seeing" beneath the surface to discover meaning and values in one's oWn culture and the culture and art of diverse peoples; and

Explores the impact of aesthetic norms on our inclination to favor the familiar, and to narrow our vision of others.

Art as a Way of Knowing

How do we begin? First, we must teach our students to view the arts as a source of knowledge, rather than ornamentation with no value outside the realm of entertainment or commerce. The poet Shelley believed the arts open a window on the world, transcending our narrow boundaries and creating new ways to interpret life (Avis, 1999). Oscar Wilde described the visual art's capacity to render visible levels of meaning not revealed by other ways of knowing when he said of James MacNeil Whistler's Chelsea Wharf, "there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it." (Gombrich, 1989). It is doubtful Oscar Wilde looked at fog quite the same way ever again. …

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