Marshall McLuhan Still Has It Right (for Education)


A North American Classroom in the 1950s

by Tom Paterson – lifelong educator, Prince George, BC

Nearly fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) in which he introduced the concept that the medium is the message.  He described how a change in the medium of the delivery of information, has a transformative effect on its society.  Historically, going from oral to written delivery resulted in changing how information was gathered shared and passed on.  In McLuhan’s time, TV was transforming the transmission on information and the western world.

“ …the medium is the message can, perhaps be clarified by point out that any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment.  Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes… By Plato’s time the written word has created a new environment that had begun to detribalize man.  Previously the Greeks had grown up by benefit of the process of the tribal encyclopedia.  They had memorized the poets.  The poets provided specific operational wisdom for all the contingencies of life – Ann Landers in verse.  With the advent of individual detribalized man, a new education was needed.  Plato devised such a new program for literate men.  It was based on the Ideas.  With the phonetic alphabet, classified wisdom took over from the operational wisdom of Homer and Hesiod and the tribal encyclopedia.  Education by classified data has been the Western program ever since.”

McLuhan correctly predicted the way that TV and video enveloped our western society, but it didn’t substantially change the way that education was done.  TV and video and other audiovisual media were definitely incorporated into educational practice, but it didn’t fundamentally transform it.  Perhaps it was because who it was that had their hands on the remote.  It remained in the hands of the teachers to when and where it was used.

As we look forward to innovations in education we are now in the midst of determining how another technology will impact educational practice; ICT’s – Information and communication technologies.  Personal access to ICT’s by most students which eventually will allow personal choice of programming and self-directed learning may finally bring about the completion of McLuhan’s predictions.

“Now, however, in the electronic age, data classification yields to pattern recognition, the key phrase at IBM.  When data move instantly, classification is too fragmentary.  In order to cope with data at electric speed in typical situations, of “information overload” men resort to the study of configurations, like the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s Maelstrom.  The drop-out situation in our schools at present has only begun to develop.  The young student today grows up in an electrically configured world.  It is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns.  The student today lives mythically and in-depth.  At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information.  The subjects are unrelated.  They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint.  The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the “mythic” world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted.  As one IBM executive puts it, “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade one.””

Our entire society has embraced the use of ICT for personal and the workplace except for the application of education.  If you are a betting person, don’t bet on educational delivery with dodge this transformative technology!

ICT, the newest medium allows personal access to more information than any humans have historically been able to access, plus the ability to contact more people than anyone ever could.  The message is the ability as individuals to self-determine, freely associate, and play a role in our own future and knowledge acquisition.  This message is a sharp disconnect from our traditional curriculum of classified data.  Welcome to the world of Personalized Education!

“The world communication net, the all-involving linkage of electric circuitry, will grow and become more sensitive. It will also develop new modes of feedback so that communication can become dialogue instead of monologue. It will breach the wall between “in” and “out” of school. It will join all people everywhere. When this has happened, we may at least realize that our place of learning is the world itself, the entire planet we live on. The little red schoolhouse is already well on its way toward becoming the little round schoolhouse.

Someday, all of us will spend our lives in our own school, the world. And education – in the sense of learning to love, to grow, to change – can become not the woeful preparation for some job that makes us less than we could be but the very essence, the joyful whole of existence itself.” -Marshall McLuhan & George Leonard, The Future of Education: The Class of 1989, LOOK, Feb. 21, 1967, (Vol. 31, No. 4), pp. 23-25.

4 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan Still Has It Right (for Education)”

  1. I agree with you entirely, Dr. Broady. I am working on a book on Marshall McLuhan on Education. If you would like to receive a copy of my just published article on Marshall McLuhan as Educationist: Institutional Learning in the Post-literate Era, I would be happy to send it by email……AlexK

    PLAYBOY: Might it be possible for the “TV child” to make the adjustment to his educational environment the medium of print be totally unassimilable for him?
    McLUHAN: Such a synthesis is entirely possible, and could create a creative blend of the two cultures — if the educational establishment was aware that there is an electric culture. In the absence of such elementary awareness, I’m afraid that the television child has no future in our schools.
    – Playboy interview, 1969


  1. 1 You know nothing of my work « designingaustralianschools
  2. 2 Ghost in the Wire: The Education Crisis « My Educational Technology Blog
  3. 3 McLuhan: TVs could blow the classroom to bits | FHS Media Studies

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