Marshall McLuhan as Educationist: Institutional Learning in the Post-literate Era, Part 1

22Oct13

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Marshall McLuhan (Image: Robert Lansdale Photography/University of Toronto Archives)

This is an excerpt from a copyrighted article of the same title published by me, Alex Kuskis, in (2011) Explorations in Media Ecology, 10(3&4), pp. 313-333. This is Part 1 and additional excerpts from this essay will be published in future postings.

“Not all of McLu is nu or tru, but then again neither is all of anybody else”. – John M. Culkin, S.J. (Culkin, 1967, p. 51)

Marshall McLuhan is best known as the father of media studies and prophet of the information age, less known as an English literature professor and literary scholar and scarcely recognized at all as an educationist or educational theorist.

His friend and colleague Neil Postman defined an educationist as: “… a person who is seriously concerned to understand how learning takes place and what part schooling plays in facilitating or obstructing it” (Postman, 1988, p. 83). McLuhan certainly was an educationist, but he disavowed being called a theorist of any kind; Eric McLuhan writes that his father’s attitude regarding theory was that when you: “Begin with theory, you begin with the answer; begin with observation, you begin with questions” (McLuhan, E., 2008, p. 26). But although he didn’t start by looking at theories formulated by others in his probes, the published results of his own educational investigations can arguably be considered as theory, especially when he repeated recurrent themes learned from his probes over and over again. Griffin (2009) provides the following intentionally broad definition of communication theory: “… it is “an umbrella term for all careful, systematic, and self-conscious discussion and analysis of communication phenomena” (p. 2). Substitute the word “education” for “communication” and it seems clear that McLuhan was formulating educational theory consistent with this definition, although it is debatable how “systematic” his analyses were.

The failure to recognize McLuhan as a serious educational theorist or educationist, his name being absent from most educational theory textbooks and research journals, is unfortunate, because his ideas on education and learning represent a considerable body of commentary and criticism on the educational systems and practices of his day, as well as throughout history. The author of this article, while studying at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), one of the Canada’s best faculties of education, at McLuhan’s own university no less, for two graduate degrees including a PhD, heard McLuhan’s name mentioned by professors but once over 10 years and that was by an external professor, Dr. Robert Logan, cross-appointed from the Physics Department to teach about computers in education. None of McLuhan’s writings on education were assigned for reading by any other professor and none of his ideas were presented for discussion by anyone but Dr. Logan (who had personally worked and collaborated with McLuhan). It is true that Marshall McLuhan was a controversial figure at his university, as many advanced thinkers are; but that does not explain the wholesale neglect of his contributions to educational thought by faculties of education in general.

Since McLuhan found so much to be critical of in the educational practices of his day, he points us in the direction towards which he thought education should go in the future. Some of his ideas have come to pass, though not necessarily as he envisioned them, but many have not. The Internet as a learning platform, perhaps the most powerful educational platform ever devised, makes many of McLuhan’s ideas about education achievable.

McLuhan was, of course, a lifelong practicing educator, spent his whole career as a student or faculty member in the universities of three countries and wrote his Cambridge doctoral dissertation on the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe and the trivium, the three subjects (grammar, logic and rhetoric) first studied in medieval universities; education, along with literature, was what he knew the most about. Some of McLuhan’s earliest published writings as a student at the University of Manitoba were on education, published in the student newspaper, The Manitoban (“Public School Education” (1933) and “Adult Education” (1934)). Of course McLuhan’s educational theories integrate with his probes and ideas on the changing nature of media environments. His perception was that when communication environments massively shift, as from a print-based culture to an electronic one, education must necessarily follow, since education is all about communication. It would make no sense for the educational media environment to be substantially out of synch with the prevailing world media environment, a view that is upheld by many present-day educational theorists:

  “Technological innovations deeply influence our educational system. What we teach has always been embedded in how we teach. Now our teaching is also inextricably associated with technology and the traditional transmission model of teaching that some have practiced for so many years no longer answers to the demands of our knowledge-based society.”  (Laurillard, & McAndrew, 2003)

McLuhan’s insights and critiques on how the new media were affecting the educational enterprise and the necessary changes that were required to maintain the relevance of educational systems placed him alongside such educational reformers of the 1960s and ‘70s as Jonathan Kozol, John Holt, Paul Goodman, Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Lloyd Dennis and others and his essays were included in educational anthologies of the time along with theirs (Gross & Gross, 1969; Stevenson, Stamp & Wilson, 1972). In a 1967 article explaining the relevance of McLuhan’s ideas on media and education to teachers, Professor John Culkin of Fordham University, a distinguished educationist himself, wrote:

McLuhan’s relevance for education demands the work of teams of simultaneous translators and researchers who can both shape and substantiate the insights which are scattered through his work … McLuhan can help kids learn”. (Culkin, 1967, p. 72)

Neil Postman acknowledged McLuhan in his classic “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969), where he calls him “… one of the most dangerous men around at the moment” because “he seems to be subverting traditional assumptions” (p.16). And, in a 1960s textbook on the history of education, the author, after explaining some of McLuhan’s ideas, asserts that: “McLuhan throws down a challenge that no educator should ignore” (Gillett, 1966, p. 291).

But very few educators have taken up that challenge and that kind of substantiation and examination of McLuhan’s ideas on education has not happened to any significant extent, although this is starting to change. There are few studies on this aspect of his work, which perhaps suggests the conservatism of the educational establishment in North America, its resistance to change and its unwillingness to consider criticisms from commentators outside the academic discipline of Education.

This essay, along with further work on retrieving the educational thought of Marshall McLuhan, including a book and collection of his lost and neglected educational writings, is intended to retrieve this important aspect of his work. If McLuhan’s writings and lectures on media anticipate the Internet, social media and global consciousness, his work on education and learning anticipates today’s use of instructional media, online, collaborative and experiential learning, constructivism, as well-as lifelong learning and other current trends in education. McLuhan and George Leonard noted in 1967 that: “The little red schoolhouse is already well on its way toward becoming the little round schoolhouse” (McLuhan & Leonard, 1967, p. 25), foreshadowing the arrival of the most powerful learning platform yet devised – the Internet. Traditional classrooms and the global village would give way to a global “classroom without walls”. This is a story that needs to be told, because everyone interested in education can benefit from it. 

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2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan as Educationist: Institutional Learning in the Post-literate Era, Part 1”

  1. Dear Mr. Kuskis,

    I have written a 50th anniversary review of McLuhan’s Understanding Media. I would very much like to post it on your site. Would you consider publishing/posting it on this site? If you are interested, I would be happy to send you a copy of it for your review. Please let me know.

    Sincerely,

    Christopher Nowlin

    • Sure, Christopher. Send it to me as a Word file attachment to alex dot kuskis at bell dot net. I will read it and consider it for publication on the McLuhan Galaxy blog. Thanks for your interest…..Alex


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