In a multimedia world, art is a literacy as basic as reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic.


One of the many reasons I enjoy being an educator during this time of unprecedented change is that the potential for revelation is great. To do my best revelation-hunting, I locate the eye of a hurricane, park, and look around with an open mind. When I do that, revelations come frequently.

One such revelation has helped me understand an important shift underlying the Internet revolution in education — a change so pervasive and infused into our experience that we often miss it entirely. I am referring to the fact that the multimedia environment of the Web, as well as much of what we experience through our computers, requires students to think and communicate as designers and artists. The age of art has arrived, leaving behind the text-centric world that has guided us for so long. The language of art has become the next literacy — the fourth R. We need not linger any longer over whether art should have a permanent and central place in our curriculum. It should. And we need to move quickly to prepare students to be literate in the world that they are inheriting and shaping.

I had an amazing experience a few years ago that helped me fully appreciate art's new importance in education. I was watching a student struggle at his computer to create a multimedia presentation for a language arts project. He wasn't struggling with the technology — like any info-age kid, he could click around with ease. It was the aesthetics that seemed insurmountable. As I watched him clumsily cramming together video clips, graphics, sounds, buttons, and a few words, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: He was trying to create art, and no one had shown him how. In the process of fumbling with the medium, he was losing his sense of what he wanted to communicate in the first place.

And this wasn't an isolated incidence. I have watched it happen again and again — across grades and throughout the curriculum, from science to social studies, where term papers and reports yielded to Web pages and PowerPoint presentations.

Art and the Digital Age
Multimedia communication has become ubiquitous in a short period of time because of two fairly recent developments. First, in the same way that word processors opened up the world of the writer, multimedia technology has opened up the world of the artist. Today, anyone who can move a mouse can jump in and give it a go. Second, the Web has carried multimedia communication throughout the global world of the Internet, so that a shift away from text-centric communication and toward pictures, diagrams, sound, movement, and other more universal forms of communication seems inevitable.

The convergence of these two developments has earned art a permanent place in the common experience of life for us all. For that reason, art should be included in the common experience of school for all students. Those who do not grow up to create art for a living will nevertheless use it, manage it, interpret it, or interact with it in ways that simply did not exist 10 years ago.

The Long and Winding Road
For years, passionate believers in art education have tried to sell it based on a number of good reasons: It improves self-expression, and who can argue with a child's need for expression? There is a strong — perhaps even causal — correlation between being active in the arts and improved cognitive functions as measured in standard curricular areas. The arts are motivational, inducing students to attend school and be receptive to learning. Finally, art increases our understanding of the depth and breadth of humanity, inducing not only cultural awareness but also personal growth.

Despite these compelling reasons to teach art, educators and parents alike often see it as tangential, soft, or not entirely relevant to preparing children for work and citizenship. This is why art is the first to go when money gets tight. To keep this from happening, art must be considered the fourth R: a literacy as solid as reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. When was the last time a school board discussed cutting those subjects from the curriculum? When art is considered a literacy and is as embedded in the curriculum and in our cultural psyche as the other three Rs, it will become self-perpetuating and unquestioned. Fortunately, the ever-expanding world of multimedia and the Internet gives us the opportunity, rationale, and a broad base of support to make that happen.

What Can We Do?
How do we facilitate the coming of age of art in our schools?

Rename art and get subversive. First — and I'm only half-kidding — we need to rename art. The word comes with too much baggage. Being an artist implies a life of penury, emotional pain, and public misunderstanding. We need to demystify the nature of art and see it all around us, from the designs that underlie our tables and automobiles to the aesthetics that imbue our Web sites, to the public sculptures that transform buildings from structures into monuments of public expression. I suggest that educators invent a Trojan horse for their fourth-R programs. Call it, say, visual literacy. Roll it into the literacy portion of the school's curriculum, and let it evolve. Everyone will thank you for being "visionary and proactive."

Hire more art teachers. Second, we need to anticipate that the shift from text-only to multimedia environments will cause both excitement and anxiety in our schools in the short term. Teachers will find that they cannot guide and evaluate students' multimedia projects as effectively as they can the text-based projects that they are used to. To help, we need more art teachers working across the curriculum with content-area teachers. The most pressing need right now is to develop design skills, graphic literacy skills, and skills that knit together pictures and words into unified presentations. Once we better understand how video, sound, music, and animation communicate ideas effectively, and once the technology that supports these activities becomes more affordable and less specialized, art will become the fundamental literacy for understanding both old and new media.

Increase fourth-R literacy requirements in teacher education programs. Of course, this means that ultimately, just as art becomes every student's fourth R, it should also be addressed in every program that prepares teachers for the classroom.

Declare an "Art, the Fourth R" day. Schedule one day in the school year when art is infused throughout content areas, when mathematics, language, and science teachers work with art teachers to enhance communication across the curriculum. With luck, in the near future we won't need an Art Day any more than we need a Reading, 'Riting, or 'Rithmetic Day.

Advocating for Art Literacy
My purpose in calling art the fourth R is simply this: The other three Rs are literacies in that they facilitate learning and expression in particular content areas. In a multimedia world, this definition of literacy also exactly captures the role of art.

Beyond facilitating learning and communication across a wide spectrum of activities, art skills also translate into real-world jobs. Each of the thousands of cable channels, CDs and DVDs, and the millions of incipient Web sites requires graphic designers, musicians, choreographers, videographers, creative consultants, and many other "artistic" professionals. Artists will finally have their day.

As with all changes in education, the Internet turns out to be not just a revolution in media and methods, but in literacy as well. Kids must become fully literate, and that literacy must include art, the fourth R.

This article was adapted from Educational Leadership, v. 58 no. 2 (October 2000), pages 16-19, with permission of ASCD.


Art Literacy Resources