Marshall McLuhan as Educationist, Part 3: On Educational Institutions as Maginot Lines


circa 1939:  A French officer points in the direction of Berlin, from a fort on the Maginot Line.

circa 1939: A French officer points in the direction of Berlin, from a fort on the Maginot Line.

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 3 and additional excerpts from this essay will be published in future postings.

Educational Institutions as Maginot Lines

McLuhan used the metaphor of the Maginot Line, the French static line of defensive concrete fortifications and tank obstacles, built between themselves and Germany and Italy before World War II, comparing it to the change-resistant educational system and its reluctance to adopt new media and methods. The advancing German armed forces simply diverted around the Maginot Line, attacking France through Belgium, thereby outflanking the French defensive positions and making them useless. Similarly, students avoid the change-resistant educational system by dropping out:

“We relate everything to the fixed point of change. An educational  system that tries to hold a line is making the Maginot Line mistake. What happens to Maginot Lines is that people ignore them and go around them. The dropouts are just people who are going around the Maginot Line of our educational system, looking for some other source of entry into the territory of their times”. (McLuhan, 1966, p. 41)

The attack metaphor is apt because the new media do indeed attack the prevailing communication environment of schools, both in McLuhan’s day and in our own; they do so by diverting the interests and attention of students away from the books, classrooms and lectures with which institutional learning is still bound up. That the educational status quo cannot win this conflict is suggested by comparison with the transition from the orality-based learning of the early medieval era and the Gutenberg era of book-centric learning in classrooms. McLuhan notes:

When the printed book first appeared, it threatened the oral procedures of teaching and created the classroom as we know it. Instead of making his own text, his own dictionary, his own grammar, the student started out with these tools…Today, these new media threaten, instead of merely reinforce, the procedures of this traditional classroom. (McLuhan, 1957, p. 25)

Just as today’s media-focused students are diverted from book learning by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting, and smartphones, so in McLuhan’s time they were diverted by TV, movies, rock and roll music and radio.

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