At U Penn this year, incoming Freshmen are taking a twist on the old classic summer reading project. Instead of reading a novel together, they are looking at a painting, Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic. This painting is rich with historical and cultural meaning, and opens the door to study of many topics, from American history, to medical practice and history, to psychological studies, and oh yeah, art history too. I love this painting and spent weeks in an art history seminar in grad school (ehem) dissecting it. The university is using the project as a way to create community bonds between the local arts organizations and the students, between campus and community.
But I love it because it foregrounds the importance of visual literacy, something that I have always felt is ignored in our culture (it’s not one of the three Rs), yet which is becoming increasingly important in our world where we’re swamped with imagery. Learning how to evaluate what you see and interpret meaning from images is not innate; it is a learned skill. Reading, in my mind, is no longer just about interpreting the syntax of spoken and written language. It’s heartening to see a major university embracing a visual expression as a way to explore and read about larger historical and cultural issues.