Huffington Post blogger C. M. Rubin published a column just yesterday (7/24/12) entitled “The Global Search for Education: Art in Education” focusing on the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, part of Oxford University. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/c-m-rubin/arts-education_b_1696867.html?view=print&comm_ref=false>. Rubin spoke with Professor Robert Hewison author of Ruskin and Oxford: The Art of Education, and also with Dr. Jason Gaiger, the current Head of the School and a Fellow of Oxford’s St. Edmund Hall. I found this blog to be extremely illuminating for several reasons, and so I’m going to present selected excerpts and then share my thoughts and impressions about these passages.
"Ruskin believed that everyone had visual as well as verbal capacities that needed to be developed in order to become a complete human being, and that the apprehension of truth depended on the power of observation," explained Hewison. "His concern for art education applied to the development of the power of the hand and eye for everyone, not just people who hoped to become professional artists."
The development of students’ visual AND verbal capacities is among the key concepts involved in the University of Michigan’s ArtsEngine as they seek to determine best practices for integrating the arts and art-making into the research university. Actually making art, participating in the practice of the arts, is re-emerging as an important component within higher education. This kind of thinking, promoted by Ruskin and by his American counterpart John Dewey, is not new, but it is fascinating to me that we are now re-discovering the power of personal experience as a component of higher education. This same idea is what’s behind the push for Engaged Learning methods, getting students to actively engage not only with their field of study, but to participate in its practical application through community service, internships, and undergraduate research projects. It’s learning by doing, rather than just learning by sitting while listening-reading-writing. Of course, there’s still a lot of sit-down activity that must, and always will, take place in the university. But when intellectual knowledge is grounded in practical experience—in practice—it can become far more meaningful for the student.
What is it, after all, that artists do better than most people? They see the world differently, and then communicate what they’ve seen in a visual form. Cultivating the powers of observation—learning how to see beyond your own preconceptions—is an important element in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the world and in developing creativity. Art educators have promoted the idea of “visual literacy” for years, and as a photography instructor and scholar, I’ve written about the idea of “reading” a photograph in order to fully comprehend its message. Visual literacy is not something that is innate—just because you can see something doesn’t mean you understand it, and moreover, what we think we see definitely colors our understanding of what we’re actually looking at. The relationship between the hand, eye, and brain is one of the most complex and fascinating processes and is not yet completely understood. But what we do know, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be artists, is that making art causes us to look at and understand the world differently.
…although they study here at the Ruskin, they also belong to one of the colleges, whether it be Christ Church or St. Edmund Hall or one of the others. Students here are being trained to be artists. However, because they are studying at the University of Oxford, their experience is different from that of students at some of the London art schools who can sometimes be trapped in a fine-art bubble where they only encounter other art students. Our students share college facilities with people who are studying a range of subjects across the University. Art is as much about ideas as it is about physical materials, and here at Oxford, students have direct access to a treasure house of ideas. The University is an incredible source of knowledge that artists can draw on and allow to feed into their art practice.
…An underlying question here is whether visual intelligence is valued in the same way as verbal intelligence in secondary schools. The Ruskin is perhaps unusual in that, as well as a strong portfolio, students need to get the same high A level grades as for any other academic subject at Oxford; the same criteria apply whether you want to study fine art, medicine or law. At the Ruskin, 25% of the BFA degree is in the history and theory of art, which means that a substantial part of the program is academic as traditionally conceived. We tend to attract students who are both verbally and visually gifted
I love this model of art education. The insistence on high academic standards for all students in the University, artists or not, and the expectation that art students will not only make art but study its history and theory to a significant level (not merely a cursory Survey of Art History 101 course) is admirable. At Oxford, the door to the art department clearly opens in both directions. Students of other disciplines are invited in to partake in the benefits that art-making can provide, while art students venture out in order to enrich their own education and art practice with knowledge to be found in the wider University. This is an admirable model and one that American universities would do well to study.
It troubles me when the arts are treated as something supplementary or merely ancillary to the university's core activities. My own view is that the arts are just as intellectually rigorous, just as demanding and just as exacting in their standards of excellence as any other field of learning. The students here at the Ruskin don't feel they have any less standing than their peers working in other subject areas. As I mentioned, there is a substantial academic component to the BFA degree involving the study of art history and theory, but the studio-based component of the degree has its own intellectual value. Art does not have to rest upon the traditional methods of academic learning in order to justify itself as an independent mode of enquiry. Perhaps the appropriate comparisons are not to be made with other humanities subjects. The sorts of activities that take place in the studio are quite dissimilar to the largely text-based research that takes place in the history faculty, for example. But there may be points of commonality with the forms of research that take place in science labs or among mathematicians. We need to recognize that there are many different forms of rigorous intellectual enquiry (like studio art) that don't involve sitting down and writing essays.
I have long been a proponent of the idea that art students should be held to the same standards of academic rigor as those in other departments. But, as the preceding quote illustrates, this is not because I devalue the thought process inherent in art-making as any less worthwhile than traditional forms of academic thinking. What I do believe, however, is that artists should be able to articulate their thinking, to hold their own in conversations of history, theory, or philosophy, and to be equipped with the background knowledge and information to make those conversations possible. For far too long we have left the “thinking” part of art to the art historians, content to keep the “doing” part of art contained within the studio. We have not sought to share our own knowledge gained through the practice of art in a way that can be communicated to those concerned with more traditional scholarly pursuits. Written language as found in scholarly research and writing is the coin of the realm in universities. Yes, the mode of enquiry conducted in the studio does have value, but the artist should then be able to speak and write about the discoveries that have happened in that way.
I’ll end with a last quote from Dr. Jason Gaiger:
One of the advantages of the collegiate system is that it allows students to make connections across disciplinary boundaries and thus to acquire a much broader sense of what constitutes knowledge. I strongly endorse providing greater support for the arts at school level. Drawing and painting are not just about producing beautiful objects. They are also about learning to look, and to learn to look is to learn to understand.