The Toronto School of Communication: An Introduction


Toronto in the 1950s, looking north on Yonge Street

It was Donald F. Theall, Marshall McLuhan’s first PhD student in English Literature, later English and Communication scholar, and President of Trent University who coined the term Toronto School of Communication, as he himself relates:-

“In 1983 in a lecture to an audience in Paris at a UNESCO sponsored symposium on McLuhan, I coined the phrase “The Toronto School of Communication” to describe this phenomenon as an analogy with what at that time was widely known as “The Cambridge School of English”. There was a deliberation in my doing this, since McLuhan as an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Cambridge was associated with this movement during its major impact on literary studies, literary theory and the connection of popular culture with those subjects. Intuitively (and most probably consciously), therefore, McLuhan viewed the multidisciplinary project that he and Carpenter started as the establishment of a “school of thought” which would have a substantial future impact (or perhaps more precisely it should be called “a school of perception” since both McLuhan and Carpenter became more concerned with percepts than concepts)”.

However, it is to be noted that others, notably David R. Olson and Derrick de Kerckhove, attribute the origin of the term “Toronto School,” though not “Toronto School of Communication”, to Jack Goody, so perhaps both Theall and Goody should get credit, the latter for “Toronto School” and the former for its expansion to “Toronto School of Communication”.

Image Description Under ConstructionDr. Donald Theall

Theall goes on to name the foundational figures of the Toronto School: Marshall McLuhan, Ted Carpenter, Harold Innis, also adding Eric Havelock later:

“The point at which to begin then is the coming together of McLuhan and [Ted] Carpenter within the context of Toronto in the late 1940s, a marriage of a softer, non-behavioural social scientist, a forerunner of the human sciences, with a historian of literary education and of contemporary poetry and the arts. Within this encounter, Innis ultimately played a secondary role, since the ways in which they supplemented and complemented Innis used some of his insights, but critiqued and transformed them through principles and methods derived from archeology, poetry, the medieval, Renaissance and post-Enlightenment arts, aesthetic criticism and anthropology”. The entire essay can be downloaded as a pdf from ( ).

The book on the Toronto School of Communication is yet to be written (although, please note the collection of essays identified below), but a number of essays available online discuss the idea in broad strokes:-

By Derrick de Kerckhove: “Havelock, McLuhan and, to a lesser degree, Innis, all addressed the issue of the structure of the communication medium itself. They have gone much deeper into the analysis, and that is where the strength of their most interesting conclusions is found. While Innis, owing to his early training in the staple theory, remained primarily concerned with the networking aspects of the ecology of a given medium, Havelock and McLuhan paid closer attention to the distinguishing features of the media themselves. They were looking for possible effects of media deep into the mechanics of the writing system or the electronic medium in question”. (essay available as a pdf from )

By Ana ViseuThe Toronto School writes extensively on the effects of any technological change, and particularly on the effects of the change from “oral” to “written” societies. These thinkers advocate the idea of writing as the basis of western culture, or as McLuhan puts it: “By the meaningless sign linked to the meaningless sound we have built the shape and meaning of the Western man” (Olson, 1994, p. 5). The print technology – that arose from this new representation system — is associated with the “suppression of poetic consciousness, and the victory of the written word, the logos” (Kroker, 1984, p. 114). (essay available from )

And by Elihu Katz“McLuhan and his later adherents proposed to understand media as vehicles/engines of (a) change (b) in the mental processing (c) of individuals (d) in the long-run (e) as a result of unique technological attributes of the different media. This combines with the emphasis laid by Innis and developed by his followers on conceptualizing media’s ultimate effects as (a) change (b) in social organization (c) of societies and institutions (d) in the long-run (e) in response to shifting media ecologies. Either of these approaches thus posits that the introduction of new media technologies is destined to bring about thoroughgoing and long-lasting change.” – From  Watson, R., & Blondheim, M. (Eds.) (2007). Jerusalem & Toronto: Hebrew University Magnes Press & University of Toronto Press, p. 4.

The Toronto School of Communication Theory

11 Responses to “The Toronto School of Communication: An Introduction”

  1. Please, write down the exact source of this brilliant article, if it’s possible.
    I need it for my doctoral research.
    Konstantin Vekua


  2. For more clarification-the source of this part: “In 1983 in a lecture to an audience in Paris at a UNESCO sponsored symposium on McLuhan, I coined the phrase “The Toronto School of Communication” to describe this phenomenon as an analogy”….. etc.

    I know, that it’s from the article of Donald F. Theall, but I’m interested in the source of the article itself (bibliographic address). Unfortunately, I can’t find it anywhere.


    • The online source of the article is provided in my blog posting. It is a pdf document you can find at . Unfortunately, the person who published that article online does not provide a source for it. I know it’s not from any of Don Theall’s books on McLuhan, because I own them all and have checked. So, it’s probably a journal article from somewhere and unfortunately I don’t have time now to go hunting for the source at present. But, I agree that it has to be found. The sources for all the other quotes in my blog posting are provided. I’m sorry I can’t help beyond that…….AlexK


      • Thank You for your answer.
        At least, I could indicate the link of your blog posting in my doctoral research, It already goes well. Unfortunately, I’m writing from Georgia now and can’t check farther a concrete information in some library of Canada, or Usa, etc.
        But anyway, thanks a lot for your assistance.
        I think, I’ll return to Your sources often during my research work and who knows, what can be constructed from this between our countries and universities.
        With the best wishes,
        Konstantin Vekua


      • Konstantin, I will do some looking as soon as I have time. Unfortunately, I am very busy right now. I know who owns that website where the article is posted. I personally knew Donald Theall, who was Marshall McLuhan’s first PhD student in English Literature at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately, Don died in 2008. See . Best wishes for your research. If I can help in any way, please let me know…….Alex Kuskis
        (by the way, my parents were Latvian)


      • Very glad and grateful, Dr. Alex, but please, don’t disturb for it, as it’s really hard period in this moment for the universities.
        Yeas, I read about Dr. Donald, during researching materials about him and his works. Peace and light to his soul.
        So, we have many common points according to our roots, as our people have not few similarities in the history of last centuries.
        Greetings from sunny Georgia.
        Konstantin Vekua


      • Yes, the angry bear eats its smaller neighbors unless they stay very quiet. But music is not quiet and we must make music. Stay well and keep in touch……..Aleksandrs Kuskis


      • Especially, when the music can be polyphonic. And as You can know, Georgia has the classic tradition of vocal polyphony, which is the mirror of people’s character too-the ability for accepting differences in individual sense and of the multiculturalism in general.


  3. Beautiful. Let’s talk on Facebook. I wish I could buy Georgian wine in Canada.


  4. Each empire, who tried to eat us, annihilated himself in the end. They don’t exist, but we are still alive. The right comprehension of moral health from our roots and ancient inheritance are helping us in this, which ones’ observant eye can perceive also in this video.


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