Marshall McLuhan as Educationist, Part 2: The Disconnect Between Education & Student’s Lives

 A 1950s classroom
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 2 and additional excerpts from this essay will be published in future postings.

The Disconnect Between Education and Student’s Lives

Since at least the 1950s, McLuhan saw a disconnect between the information environment that existed outside of schools, which was electronic, image and visually-biased, requiring involvement in depth, simultaneous rather than segmented and linear, and tending to retrieve aspects of the learning conditions of oral cultures that had been obsolesced by writing long ago. Writing in 1964, he noted that: “Today, the ordinary child lives in an electronic environment; he lives in a world of information overload” (McLuhan, 1964b, p. 52). Television had become the primary source of learner information and knowledge about the world, with movies, radio, popular music, and to some extent, computers, contributing to the electronic media ecology. He opined that: “Any moment of television provides more data than could be recorded in a dozen pages of prose” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 52). Children could not help but be conscious of the “Niagara of data” they were exposed to outside of school, compared to which their “nineteen century classrooms and curricula, where data flow is not only small in quantity but fragmented in pattern” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 52), undermined their motivation to learn. The result was school dropouts, both psychic and physical:

“The youngsters coming out of a highly integral electronic environment go to school and are confronted by a fragmented, specialist environment of subjects and hours and instructions which baffle them. They know that this form of fragmentation does not correspond in any way to the world they’re living in… When the school fails to make sense of their environment, they drop out, either physically or psychologically. The psychic dropout far outnumbers the physical dropout which also is on the increase.” (McLuhan, 1966, p. 40)

According to McLuhan, physical dropouts are bad enough, with large numbers of disaffected students, perhaps as many as one out of three or more, physically leaving the educational system before graduation; however, arguably worse are the “psychic dropouts”, those who remain in the system, just going through the motions of learning, engaged in shallow rather than deep learning, perhaps just learning enough to pass the tests and get their diplomas. Students could only be alienated when some of them, often the brightest and best, came to sense that:

“Our classrooms and our curricula are still modeled on the old industrial environment. They have not come to terms with the electronic age and feedback. What is indicated for the new learning procedures is not the absorption of classified and fragmented data, but pattern recognition with all that implies of grasping interrelationships”. (McLuhan, 1964b, p. 53)

McLuhan was especially dismayed by what he saw in the Canadian educational system of the 1950s and 1960s:

“Canada is still almost entirely a 19th century country… Its educational system is anachronistic: students are still being processed through the old fragmented specialist chopper and they might as well be on a carousel… in some entertainment park. Our youngsters at school are reacting to this, and dropping out of school is one response… When the school fails to make sense of their environment, they drop out, either physically or psychologically. The psychic dropout far outnumbers the physical dropout which also is on the increase”. (McLuhan, 1966, p. 40)

McLuhan also writes that: “Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it” (McLuhan, 1964b, p. 199). The school system, because of its intrinsically conservative nature, tends to move with change rather than ahead of it. Indeed, it can be argued that the educational system moves behind the changes that occur in the rest of society and has done so for decades. The educational system has been likened to an amoeba with “an uncanny ability to ingest a new idea … without changing [itself] very much” (Gardner & Barnett, 2003). Amoeba-like, it simply absorbs all media and reform initiatives, and flows remorselessly onward, remaining essentially unchanged.

Maxwell Public School in Windsor, Ontario was built in 1928.

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