Does a Big Mellon Gift to Skidmore College Point to the Future of Liberal Arts Education?

"A picture says a thousands words," goes the old adage. And now, judging by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Skidmore College, we're wondering if the interpretation of images may herald the future of liberal education.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the grant itself, some context is in order. The proliferation of social media, smart phones and tablets has made images the predominant form of communication for many segments of society, particularly those around college age. After all, these kids grew up on social media, which for some purists, is a bad thing. Teachers complain that students can't put together a complex sentence. Proper grammar is considered a lost art. And do they even bother to diagram sentences anymore?

Rather than complain about the juggernaut of modernity, Skidmore rolled up its sleeves and said, "Well, let's make the most of it." So the college created “Project VIS,” which, despite sounding like a top-secret research project studying extraterrestrial life, is actually an initiative "to advance strategic, pedagogical, and liberal learning goals in the area of visual literacy and communication."

According to Skidmore, the project will "help expand and focus Skidmore’s efforts to help students both create images that can effectively communicate their thoughts and evaluate critically the complex meanings embedded in images. The college believes these proficiencies are fundamental to critical thinking and responsible citizenship in the 21st century."

That goal reminds us of an earlier generation of media literacy efforts that aimed to get college students to think more critically about the images from advertising and entertainment that Americans were bombarded with in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as teaching them how to work with such visual medium. 

Where today's images are coming from has changed and expanded, but the stakes are just as high, if not higher, given the degree to which screen time shapes the consciousness of young people and how visual our society has become. 

So how is Skidmore going to use the Mellon money? The grant will create three unique initiatives to serve the project's overall goal:

  • The John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative, an interdisciplinary center where the stories of human life are translated into documentary forms. The center will include a summer “Storytellers Institute” that will afford students the opportunity for an intense and focused period of documentary study with faculty members and outside experts.
  • A new, interdisciplinary academic minor in Media and Film Studies that will explore the function and structure of written, aural and visual communication systems.
  • A "Visualization Forum" that will both overlap and reach beyond the network of faculty involved in the Moore Collaborative and the new minor to enhance, increase and diversify the number of coached visual projects across the curriculum.

In total, these initiatives come across as a bit arcane and cryptic to these old-fashioned eyes. But that's the point, isn't it? Given the ubiquity of images in our lives and students' need to "achieve a more sophisticated understanding of visual communication," as Skidmore President Phillip A. Glotzbach put it, new forms of learning are required to adapt to our image-saturated modern world.

Now if you'll excuse us, we have a fax coming in.