As Colby’s first distinguished bicentennial lecturer, Dec. 6, artist and educator Wendy Ewald didn’t hesitate to tackle the statement made by Colby’s most central visual icon, the official College seal. After describing traditional liberal arts education as “modeled on rhetoric” and “up through the middle of the twentieth century … for upperclass gentlemen and a few pious, indigent young men,” she went right to the Latin.
“The motto on the seal of Colby College—it’s right there,” she said, “reads ‘Lux Mentis Scientia.’ ‘Knowledge is the Light of the Mind.’ Which raises the question in our 21st-century, globalized world: ‘Whose knowledge?’ And ‘What kind of knowledge are we talking about?’
“It is no longer possible to speak credibly of a Western world with a superior set of cultural hierarchies,” she continued. “I would argue that, today, looking and listening are the light of the mind. The visual arts have long been a stepchild in higher education, and often ill-behaved.”
Ewald uses photography to help children understand their world, express their dreams visually, and challenge dominant adult-driven paradigms. She opens avenues for communication outside the linear thinking, analytical detachment, and earnestness that she says dominate American public education. She asks students to really study images—to decode them.
Introducing Ewald, President William D. Adams explained that Colby’s bicentennial celebration, “In Their Footsteps,” honors the College’s remarkable history but also looks to the future. “Footsteps, after all, move forward too,” he said. So Ewald and subsequent distinguished speakers this year were asked to consider the future of the liberal arts through the lens of their particular disciplines.
Adams said Ewald’s visionary teaching made a compelling topic for the inaugural bicentennial lectures in light of the College’s efforts “to make the visual arts a central piece of what we do.”
Ewald described projects in Appalachia, Saudi Arabia, and in an immigrant community in England, where she has used cameras to open up new realms of insight and communication among children and women.
In a one-room Kentucky schoolhouse full of what she was told were students with low IQs, she met Scott Huff. Huff made a photo essay he called “The Flying Dream” using an Instamatic camera. “Here he is taking off in his airplane, using the oil tank in the back of his house,” she said, projecting one of his photos. “He’s managed to figure out how to make the feeling of motion by grasping the tank top and putting out his legs and screaming.”
More than 30 years later, Huff is a West Point graduate who earned an advanced degree in engineering, Ewald said. She recently heard his mother say, with tears in her eyes, that seeing those photos so many years ago “was the first time she understood what Scott wanted for his future and where he was headed.”
Ewald praised a practice where a teacher starts a class in writing, public policy, or ethics by looking intently at a photo and asking, What’s going on? Where is the photographer? What may be going on outside the frame? “The specificity and details of the photographs lead to discussions of just what we’re looking at and what prejudgments we’re bringing to the photograph,” she said. “Ordinarily we look at a photograph for a few seconds to decide what it says, then move on. Taking a minute or more to study an image is so unusual as to be uncomfortable.”
Colby’s Bicentennial Distinguished Lecture Series continues with University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum Feb. 21, Colby President William D. Adams Feb. 27, former Mellon Foundation President William G. Bowen March 18, and Pomona College President David W. Oxtoby April 8. More information is available at www.colby.edu/bicentennial.