Marshall McLuhan & The Child of the Future: How He Might Learn (1964): A National Film Board of Canada Film [Video]


Marshall McLuhan as Educationist

Few media or education scholars or the general public will have viewed this National Film Board of Canada 58-minute film that features Marshall McLuhan and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. It has only recently been converted from its 16 mm film format to digital format and made available on the Internet. Jerome Bruner is cited by McLuhan in his writings in connection with the reform of an outmoded legacy educational system derived from and structured by Gutenberg print technologies and culture. He also cites other educational theorists such as John Dewey, Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman, among others, when writing or speaking about education.

Marshall McLuhan’s importance as an educationist, that is, “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) has been insufficiently recognized. That is because the McLuhan revival has principally been attributable to media and communication teachers, scholars and practitioners and they do not concern themselves much with education. But, John Culkin, SJ wrote that McLuhan can help kids learn” (Culkin, 1967, p. 72) and an education historian insisted that “McLuhan throws down a challenge that no educator should ignore” (Gillett, 1966, p. 291). It increasingly appears that Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on reforming education are gaining greater traction and recognition in the Internet Age, just as his ideas on media have found new life and application today, rather than in the television age during which they were formulated.

Notes on The Child of the Future

… traditional teachers like herself were now being relegated to a formalist past – that a new partnership of discover was being forged between pupils and teachers which would be mediated by technology. To help explain the neo-progressive curriculum and “discipline-based” learning to educators, and to explore the future of education, particularly in regard to media technology, the NFB produced The Child of the Future: How He Might Learn (1964).

Both Marshall McLuhan, author of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967), and Jerome Bruner, author of The Process of Education (1960), appear in this film. After watching two 9-year old boys, playing on a carpet with a road-race set, McLuhan observes, “the worm’s eye view is the most involving.” He suggests that education is “heading into a period of total involvement,” an assessment shared by Bruner who demonstrates a “playground philosophy of physics” with a class of grade 5 students. As the children send weighted cars down a ramp and measure how far they travel, Bruner comments, “The kind of learning they’re getting is a kind they can use.” A parade of educational gadgetry is displayed, all of it operated by eager children, some of whom appear to be no more than five years old. The audio-visual aids include 8 mm film loops and projectors (heavily invested in by the NFB), “automated” typewriters, and a language lab. In one classroom, educational filmstrips are synchronized with radio broadcasts; in another, children produce their own animated films; in yet another, high school students record their screen play of the war of 1812 with 8 mm cameras.

Dr. Jerome Bruner

The film surveys the contemporary use of television in school classrooms all over the world. In one school, a television character, Mrs. “Rhonda Loganbeel”, teaches “algebra over the airwaves”; in another, a Spanish telecast is beamed into a school classroom from an airplane overhead. In a Japanese classroom, students are filmed welcoming television into their school: “The kids made a television room for their new teachers, TV images”. McLuhan is critical of this use of television, but he is not especially clear about other possible uses: “It’s like treating the motor car like the horseless carriage,” he remarks. “You shouldn’t use new technology to replicate the old. A huge wastage of opportunity.” The media guru delivers a final, enigmatic missive in the film: “The child of the future will program consciousness just as we program curriculum.”Excerpt from Low, B.J. (2002). NFB Kids: Portrayals of Children by the National Film Board of Canada, 1939 – 89. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, pp. 110 – 111.

About Dr. Jerome Bruner: and

Film Details: National Film Board of Canada   –   Montreal   –   1964   –   Director: Theodore Conant   –   58 minutes   –   b&w   –   16 mm   – Executive Producer: Frank Spiller   –   Photography: Jean-Claude Labreque

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