eakins-the-gross-clinic.jpgWhile I’m absolutely, positively in favor of colleges that assign their incoming freshman class one book to read, I’m intrigued by what the University of Pennsylvania is doing this year.

As Real Clear Arts reports, “Instead of reading a common book, to be discussed on campus, freshmen have been asked to study and be ready to discuss a painting, The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins.

“The goal, according to Penn’s site, is to “introduce students from the start to the critical skill of interpreting visual material. This choice also reflects a celebration of art in Philadelphia and cultural activism on the part of our citizens, and underscores the importance of the arts in civic life.”

It’s a cool idea, one I could see spreading to other campuses.

14 Responses to “Is a painting worth a thousand books?”

  1. Reading this just caused me to have a University of Chicago flashback! We had to read Plato’s The Apology the summer before first year.

  2. Jim Seybert says:

    This is great !! They’re encouraging students to teach their right brain that it can lead the way now and then. The left brain won’t like it but what a valuable lesson. I teach my clients a few exercises that can do the same thing – and this is one I am going to add to my arsenal for upcoming retreats.

  3. ChrisCav says:

    This idea of “sharpening visual skills” has been around for a while at the graduate level, especially in the field of medicine.



    Nice that UPenn sees the value at the undergraduate level even if they got the idea from Pitt. 😉

  4. denise says:

    Great idea, elementary art teachers have been doing this for years.

  5. Dan says:

    sounds amazing, a real spin on summer studies. imagine asking students to “think” and not just simply get through a required reading?

  6. I think it’s great! And I’m glad freshmen are being exposed to the invaluable resources available. However, I would like to see the arts used more broadly, across different disciplines. For example, at the University of Miami, the medical school, physical therapy and psychology departments are starting to consider incorporating visits to the museum on a more consistent basis. At Harvard Medical school the incorporation of art and readings about visual literacy are de rigeur (sp?).

  7. eileen says:

    Great idea! I hope they allow transformative fair use of the painting in the fine arts department! Also, this program underscores your point in AWNM about attention to detail for honing med students’ skills – I’m sure it works for all professions and it a great “slow skill” that students need – and faculty and staff will benefit as well!

  8. Hope says:

    On a slightly divergent tangent I’ve just started reading Every Patient Tells A Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis, by Lisa Sanders, M.D. who makes the case for doctors being better listeners and observers with a number of patient stories about misdiagnoses. Apparently doctors are under enormous pressure to “do procedures” versus taking the time to: “Examine, observe and listen”. It’s an interesting book!

  9. mark fraire says:

    Careful, this approach to educate today’s business minds might force them to begin to feel and emphatize, heck almost care about more than “$$hareholder value…….”

  10. Sarah says:

    Great idea!

  11. Mindy says:

    This piece of artwork is a particularly excellent choice for the students at the University of Pennsylvania, as it is deeply intertwined with the history of the city, depicting a prominent surgeon at a prominent teaching hospital, painted by a prominent artist. The realism was shocking when it was first debuted.

    The painting was sold in 2006 and was nearly moved to a new museum in the south. The uproar in the city about losing this important piece of history was amazing; there was a big fundraising drive to keep the piece in Philadelphia. I had just moved to the city, and the news coverage made for a great way to learn about the history of the teaching hospitals in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    This is going to be a great exercise for those students!

  12. Michael says:

    There is a lot of criticism regarding “The Gross Clinic”. What comes to mind first is Michael Fried’s monograph. I would recommend reading books about the painting to learn a huge amount about cultural paradigms of seeing.

  13. Jason says:

    Just say your presentation at Ted.com and jumped over here to check it out.

    I am born and raised in Philadelphia, PA and heard about this painting hrough some press it got here. My initial reaction was most likely the same as yours – Good for them!! Thinking outside of the box and what not.

    At the same time as I applaud them for that, I also question the motivation of Penn. The summer reading is supposed to be, in theory anyway the thing the brings together the students with conversation about opinions on the complexities of the content. I am familiar with this painting and as intricate as it is, I doubt that there are more then a few varying opinions about it.

    I guess i am saying to Penn: If you have the guts to push the status quo, push it harder next time.

    You’ve got access to an ambitious group of intelligent students about to go into their second year at your school.

    Why don’t you ask them what the next years’ class orientation should consist of?

    They did it themselves less then a year ago.

    Anybody interested in jumping in, please feel free to scold or better yet add to the conversation. I prefer the later but am always up for a little heated discourse as well.

  14. Kathryn says:

    Painting, books, dance, music, theatre all have marvellous gifts to offer everyone. But, painting is different because it does not tell a story or narrate over a period of time. Story and narrative are certainly implied especially if there are historical or mythological references, but painting captures a nanomoment in happening or event which can be significant or not. A painting can seem like a record of an event or even an emotion but the viewer can choose to imagine what has happened, is happening and might happen. Through wonder and imagination each painting has the potential to have a different story. A painting such as ‘The Gross Clinic’ is not just about the content we can see. It is also about those things which are not there…content in absentia!