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Landscape Professor Featured on "60 Minutes"

Harvard Professor Stilgoe teaches landscape history.

On January 4, 2004, "60 Minutes," the venerable CBS Sunday night news magazine, presented a segment on John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard. Professor Stilgoe told Steve Kroft, the "60 Minute" correspondent, he likes to take his students on walks to explore the built environment, and that's just what he did with Kroft, wander about the streets of Cambridge to look at the "urban ecosystem."

Stilgoe explained that Harvard students were accepted to the prestigious university based largely on abilities with words and numbers, but he wants to wake up their visual sensibilities, to truly see what's in front of them. Stilgoe likes to introduce this concept by showing his students slides of objects he knows they seen, such as the Fed Ex emblem on the company's trucks. We've all seen Fed Ex trucks, he told Kroft, but most people don't see the arrow between the E and the x. People don't see the arrow, Stilgoe continues, because our brains are conditioned to read the letters.

Stilgoe asserts the arrow is just one of an endless variety of objects our eyes take in but that our brains don't fully register. He wants his students to become acute observers, as he believes it one of nature's most useful learning tools. The speed of our lives, he contends, leaves little pause for close observation. He calls his students "visual illiterates," a result of programmed verbal and mathematical testing over the years, which he feels results in a lack of spontaneity.

Young people have so much of their activities organized, Stilgoe adds, that they've missed "a kind of self-guided ... growing up." Stilgoe tells Krott, "As far as I can understand, most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized; lucking into something, you know."

Stilgoe's life path has some of that "slightly disorganized" character. He was a small town boy, and his father built boats. Stilgoe became the first in his family to graduate from college and received his PhD at Harvard. He wrote Lifeboat, a book describing real life adventures at sea where people's survival depended on lifeboats. Among his other works are Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845; Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places; and Alongshore.

Stigoe, who teaches in the school of design, likes to give his students "vague" assignments and directions. He believes this promotes serendipity, which students admit makes them "nuts" and disoriented. He has students walk through supermarkets to observe packaging, placement, and the psychological power of color and images that marketers employ. He contends that color has become a secret science.

At the moment, Stilgoe is receiving junk mail under a few phony identities to see how direct mail advertisers tailor their messages to Blacks and Asians, an idea gleaned from his students.

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June 17, 2019, 8:38 pm PDT

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