Why McLuhan Would Have Embraced e-Learning (or, Would He?)


By Cait Etherington  –  July 21, 2017

 McLuhan Despised Traditional Education

“To expect a ‘turned on’ child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim. It’s simply not within his environment, and therefore incomprehensible.”

McLuhan was a writer and critic, but he was also an educator. For decades, McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto, which is among Canada’s oldest and most prestigious universities. While a respected faculty member, McLuhan was by no means the institution’s most conventional professor, and he certainly didn’t hold back when it came to voicing his opinions on the current state of education. In a still frequently cited interview with Playboy Magazine first published in 1969, McLuhan complained:

“Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools, because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.”

However, McLuhan wasn’t necessarily pessimistic about education’s future. Indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed that new technologies, including television, could be used to fix what he saw as the education systems’ most entrenched problems. But he emphasized, “Before we can start doing things the right way, we’ve got to recognize that we’ve been doing them the wrong way.” The “wrong way,” according to McLuhan was rote learning. The right was a self-driven, interactive, and technologically enhanced approach to education that would engage all a learners’ senses.

McLuhan’s 1960s Vision for Electronic Learning

McLuhan teaching at the University of Toronto.

While the idea of eLearning was still in its infancy in the 1960s (this was the decade when PLATO, arguably the world’s first eLearning experiment, was developed and first launched), McLuhan had a clear vision for education’s future. He believed that to fix education, we needed fewer teachers, more technology, and most importantly, a more positive outlook on technology. A historian by training, McLuhan appreciated that in many respects, education hadn’t changed much since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the late 15th century. To reach today’s students, we needed to stop relying on primarily visual modes of delivery and create multi-sensory, interactive student-driven learning environments. Without using the term eLearning, he even appeared to predict how this education might begin to take shape.

Asked if he would educate his own children in a school, McLuhan, who in fact had six children, told Playboy, “Certainly not in our current schools, which are intellectual penal institutions. In today’s world, to paraphrase Jefferson, the least education is the best education, since very few young minds can survive the intellectual tortures of our educational system.” So, what was McLuhan’s solution? Could “electronic educational aids” help? According to McLuhan, such tools could help but not without a 360 shift in attitude. It is not enough to put TVs in classrooms, he insisted:

We have to ask what TV can do, in the instruction of English or physics or any other subject, that the classroom cannot do as presently constituted. The answer is that TV can deeply involve youth in the process of learning, illustrating graphically the complex interplay of people and events, the development of forms, the multileveled interrelationships between and among such arbitrarily segregated subjects as biology, geography, mathematics, anthropology, history, literature and languages.

Here, it is important to remember that for McLuhan, television was not a passive medium but rather an active one and one that even brought people across great distances together. In many ways, it is in his optimism about television that one encounters his most fascinating and accurate predictions about the electronic age and future of education.

Why McLuhan Would Have Loved MOOCs

There is no question that had McLuhan lived to be 106, he likely would have been an early adopter of MOOCs. First, McLuhan loved an audience and the larger the better. In the 1960s and 1970s, he appeared on dozens of talk shows and news programs and even once appeared as himself in the famous Woody Allen film Annie Hall. Second, McLuhan would have loved the fact that with MOOCs, learners can work at their own pace and using a variety of mediums that engage different types of senses. Finally, and most notably, McLuhan, who coined the term “Global Village,” would have supported MOOCs as a way to bring together learners from around the globe. He may have even considered MOOCs part of what he envisioned as a necessary “retribalization” process in education and society.

While McLuhan remains a controversial figure in media studies and education, it is difficult to deny his ongoing influence. As he once explained, “If we don’t adapt our educational system to [today’s youths’] needs and values, we will see only more dropouts and more chaos.” This was clearly something he got right and on this basis, it also seems likely that had McLuhan reached the ripe old age of 106, eLearning and perhaps, especially eLearning on a massive scale (as seen in MOOCs) would have been one current trend in education to which he lent his full support.

Source: https://goo.gl/FvC5Zw

On the Other Hand: McLuhan’s Reservations About the Electric World

“Discarnate man, according to McLuhan, was electronic man, the human being used to talking to other humans hundreds of miles away on the telephone, used to having people invade his living room and his nervous system via the television set. Discarnate man had absorbed the fact that he could be present, minus his body, in many different places simultaneously, through electronics. His self was no longer his physical body so much as it was an image or pattern of information, inhabiting a world of other images and other patterns of information.”

The effect of this reality was to give discarnate man an overwhelming affinity for ‘a world between fantasy and dream’ and a ‘typically hypnotic state,’ in which he was totally involved in the play of images and information, like a small child fascinated by a kaleidoscope. Psychically, discarnate man suffered a breakdown between his consciousness and his unconscious…

… This destruction of private, personal identity was the unexpected – and toxic – side-effect of the integrated sensuous life McLuhan had happily proclaimed in the early sixties. Now he saw several unpleasant consequences. The children who experienced this destruction were incapable of civilized pursuits”… (From Marchand, P. Marshall (1989). McLuhan: The Medium & the Messenger. Toronto: Random House of Canada, p. 249.)


“The global village is populated with ‘discarnate’ human beings who no longer exist as physical presences; instead the electronic or discarnate person is simply an image or an information pattern, nothing more … “- Marshall McLuhan

“The effects of discarnate existence are intricate and complex, for if the discarnate world is one of high involvement, it is also a world of profound irony and intellectual distancing. This paradox has to be seen to some extent as a consequence of living at the intersection between participation with the electronic media on the one hand, and the decline of an older, private identity on the other. The electronic world, which McLuhan suggests has retrieved myth and simultaneity, has also displaced private personal identity and thus erased some of the older typographical qualities of seriousness, clarity, linearity and the value of public discourse.

Many of the results of the tension of this paradox are discomforting. We are courted with images. We know at some level that we are being lied to by the advertising images that we consume and that much of televisual information is decontextualized and fragmented. We even congratulate ourselves on our ability to see through the hokum of PR image management. We pride ourselves on our mental superiority. At the same time, our direct and intense involvement with images makes us vulnerable to its exhortations. Unlike discursive language, images do not make arguments or state propositions; they convey a mood, a feeling, a sense of well or ill-being without a clear cut articulation of any issues. The image world is essentially ironic. Like other forms of irony, images say what they do not entirely mean. Nobody is obliged to take them literally, and this creates a false sense of detachment. It is a paradoxical form of perception which can be identified as detached involvement. Images make us think we are detached when we feel highly involved.” – Joe Galbo (Communication, York University, Toronto), “McLuhan and Baudrillard: Notes on the Discarnate, Simulations and Tetrads” in McLUHAN STUDIES: Explorations in Culture and Communication, Vol.1, No.1, 1991, p.105
Source: McLuhan on Maui – https://goo.gl/b5bGS

2 Responses to “Why McLuhan Would Have Embraced e-Learning (or, Would He?)”

  1. 1 Randy Lumpp

    Very nice. Right on! It is more than a little exasperating that few people in education have the slightest clue about these phenomena. Certainly there is virtually no awareness in boards of education or government agencies. They are committed to the 19th century while the younger are clamoring to find he life-boats on a sinking ship. Enticing them to stay on board by promising them jobs is a non-starter. The challenge is to discern how to manage the aforementioned positive and negative effects.


  2. Thanks, Randy. Your observation is not entirely true, certainly not in Canada where he had a considerable impact. He was a consultant to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Report, called the LLoyd-Dennis Report (1968) that totally revamped the province’s high school education system just about the time that I had graduated from it and was an undergrad at university. I posted a McLuhan Galaxy article about this on my blog in 2012. You can read about it here https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/marshall-mcluhan-lloyd-dennis-the-hall-dennis-report-1968/. This is my area of ongoing research because the story of MM as an Educationist is largely untold. I published an article about this in EME in 2011 which I can send you if you give me your email address: Kuskis, A. (2011). Marshall McLuhan as Educationist: Institutional Learning in the Post-literate Era. Explorations in Media Ecology. 10 (3&4), pp. 313-333. My email address is AlexanderKuskis at gmail.com.
    McLuhan also influenced the Jesuit Communication Project in Canada. See 2014 Medium & Light Award Goes to Father John Pungente SJ, Media Educator at https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/2014-medium-light-award-goes-to-father-john-pungente-sj-media-educator/.
    He also influenced the media literacy movement here: See https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/canada-loses-a-pioneer-in-media-education-barry-duncan-1936-2012/.
    This is a story that needs to be told and I hope I have time to do it, because it’s largely unknown.


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