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ON LEARNING TO SEE WHAT IS NOT THERE PHILIP W. JACKSON* On a green lamppost across the street from my house in Chicago there are two metal signs, one above the other. The top one says "NO OUTLET"; the bottom one says "ONE WAY." The NO OUTLET sign, which is yellow and diamond-shaped, refers to an alley that runs perpendicular to the street itself. The ONE WAY sign, white and rectangular , contains an arrow that points eastward, making it clear that its reference is the street, which runs east and west, and not the alley traversing it. Both signs, each with black lettering close to a foot high and easily visible from my living room window, have obviously been put there to direct traffic. The intended meaning of each is crystal clear. One day as I was staring out the window at that pair of signs from the comfort of my easy chair, their message underwent a significant change right before my eyes. I suddenly saw them as referring not to streets and traffic patterns but to life itself. Life, they cautioned, offers NO OUTLET, save death, and its events move in one direction only— ONE WAY, just like the sign says. There it was, neatly arranged in stanzaic form: "No outlet/One way," a tiny poem of four words whose title might well be "Signs of Life." A small work of visual and verbal art erected by the Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department for my personal delectation. To make it official, all it needed was a third little sign beneath it that read "Courtesy of Richard M. Daley, Mayor." I don't remember now the circumstances surrounding that sudden transformation of meaning, whether it was a bright or cloudy day or what kind of mood I was in at the time, but I do know that from that day forward, whenever I chanced to look across the street and allowed my eyes to light on those signs my thoughts would catapult into a state of revery that had little to do with the pattern of traffic outside my window. Instead of thinking about genuine blind alleys and one-way Presented at the National Art Education Association, Atlanta, Georgia, March 23, 1991. *Department of Education, University of Chicago.© 1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/92/3504-0788$01 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 35, 4 ¦ Summer 1992 499 streets, I would begin to muse upon the human condition and upon our inexorable progress toward the big "STOP" sign at the end of the road. "How far away is that sign?" I would ask myself. "Will I reach it in a block or two, or might I, like Frost's famous traveller who peered out at the snowy woods from his horse and buggy, have miles to go before I sleep?" I will spare you further ruminations along these lines, not only because they begin to sound gloomy but also because what I want to concentrate on today is not the substance of what those signs now prompt me to think about when I look at them. My focus, instead, will be on the event of seeing them differently, on the sudden change that took place that day when I looked out and saw the two pieces of metal not simply as street signs but as conveyances of a deeper message. I want to consider what perceptual shifts of that kind have to do with education in general and with education in the arts in particular. My thesis, as most of you can probably guess, is that the ways of looking at the world that my brief anecdote illustrates are not only valuable as a means of enriching our lives but are absolutely essential to the achievement of our humanness. Further, I want to argue that education in the arts, broadly defined, provides an indispensable means of helping us develop our capacity to see the world and all of its objects as crucibles of unexplored meaning. This may sound like a familiar thesis to those of us who already love the arts and have made them a significant part of our lives. And...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 499-510
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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