Critical Thinking in Times of Distraction

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The following was a speech delivered at this year’s Class Day. 

“Five hundred years ago the printing press replaced pen and ink as the communications technology of Europe.” Instead of manuscripts artfully copied and produced by monks and scholars, where illustrations illuminated the language, word and image were separated for the first time by the printing press. Within decades millions of printed volumes flooded the western world, and these books not only changed how people communicated, they reshaped what they communicated, hence what they thought and what they taught.”

Several years ago, the pixel replaced the type slug as the world’s communication technology of choice, and The World Wide Web joined the laser printer to restore the old balance of image and word that the medieval scribes had taken for granted.  Being able to work with this marriage of image and word is essential in a highly technological world, which is without borders or boundaries. Among the many skills we can now give students is the ability, not only to read critically, but also the ability to process complex visual information.

We are now accustomed to meshing words and images. For example, the verbal “crawler” at the bottom of the television screen occupies the same visual field as the visual footage of an entirely different news story. Viewers are asked to make sense of words and image that are unrelated. Looking at the connection between words and images leads to a number of questions.

Do such media images act as supplements or “illustrations” to words, or vice versa?

What relation lies between word and image, and how does it insert itself into our consciousness? Furthermore, does the blending of word and image lead to the same level of close reading and critical thinking that only a text would?

How have words and texts changed the way we view the world of information?

Two genres that by design combine word and image are comics and graphic novels, and their very form reinforces not only the written word but also the images that illustrate the words.  Basically, a comic book is a series of words and pictures that are presented in a sequential manner to form a narrative that may or may not be humorous . Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, the comic book contains everyday language, slang, and idiom, as well as color and a sophisticated interplay between text and image. The history of comic books points out that “traditionally occupying the fringes of pop culture, the comic book is actually a valuable historical text that comments on how young people and adults alike identify with cultural and political issues.”

The graphic novel genre is one of the most fascinating in literature, and it too occupies the combination of word and image space.  Its positive qualities are impressive, especially when the topic is as difficult as the Holocaust, as in Art Speigelman’s Maus  or Marjann Satrapi’s Persepolis.  Both authors  mesh the worlds of word and image so very well, thanks to their ability to “speak the unspeakable” and by using to perfection the popular maxim, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Persepolis, which many of you have read, is about the author’s coming of age in Tehran, living through part of  the Islamic revolution in Iran and its aftermath; Satrapi draws very simple images, which somehow convey a great depth of emotion and graphic weight. The contrasts between light and dark are very effective in communicating the message of its words.

Satrapi’s drawing style is bold and vivid. She paints a thick inky black-on-white, in an affectedly simple  pastiche of East and West; there is also a degree of paranoia, for example,  the child dwarfed by looming parents, would-be rescuers dwarfed by giant policemen guarding the locked doors to a movie theater that’s been set on fire — but when Satrapi depicts a schoolyard brawl, it’s straight from Persian miniature.”

In both Maus and Persepolis, creativity and courage are intertwined, and each has underlying themes of what it means to be human, reinforced by the clever combination of the word supporting the image and vice versa.

You, our students, need to have the visual literacy that comes with an educated mind and eye to know when you are being manipulated by the media and other forces that want to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator.  You need the ability to read closely and critically, to discern the well-crafted, good image from the tawdry, and to develop the capacity for independent thinking, and clear, effective writing.

You all need to pursue your educational choices with passion, perseverance and an open mind.  Our world  needs young people to think critically, to question assumptions, and pre-conceived ideas and fuzzy thinking.

It is important for you to understand the word and the image, but mostly to be open and ready for other ways of seeing and other ways of thinking. This is the best use to which you can put your education and the best way to be in the new world. That’s what the faculty at Green Farms Academy are excited about and dedicated to imparting. And today we honor you and how well you have learned this lesson.

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1 Response to Critical Thinking in Times of Distraction

  1. Helen says:

    How are you giving students the ability to process complex visual information? What classes do you offer that engage students in this effort? In which classes do students learn about meshing image and text? This is indeed a highly valuable skill for modern literacy, but no member of your faculty have any expertise in this area of design. What IS the difference between a well-crafted image and the ‘tawdry’? And who is qualified to make this distinction?

    It’s nice that you reference these wonderful pieces of (sort of) contemporary art, but what do they have to do with what’s being taught at GFA?

    I would agree that independent thinking and clear, effective writing do need to be developed.

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