Of course, in light of the present educational crisis, I’m not sure there isn’t something to be said for making possession of an LL.D. a felony.

Marshall McLuhan (1969)

In his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan talks about a crisis in education that was driven largely by a clash between the then current TV generation of children and their predecessors, inheritors of visual, print-literate culture. McLuhan (1969) sees education as an “instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age” (p. 249). He goes further to describe the educational system as “totally review 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 It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation” (pp. 249-50). The children of the television generation – a generation of which I am a member since I was entering kindergarten in 1969 – encounter great difficulties within the educational system. As McLuhan puts it:

The TV child finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool inclusive womb of television and exposed – within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits – to the hot medium of print. (p. 250)

Herein lies the problem for McLuhan, for the TV generation and, of course, for the authorities who are struggling to reproduce in the next generation the dominant values of visual culture: the clash between visual and electric cultures is not something that can be addressed with more of the same techniques in schools. According to McLuhan (1969) “the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways” (p. 251).

Despite the passage of 40 years, and almost two generations since McLuhan made these comments, the same tension between visual and electronic ages seems to be in play, though it has perhaps been recast in the terminology of the digital age, an age that sees the convergence of all media (as McLuhan predicted), and a remarkable shift to a world where consumers become producers of all manner of content (from video to audio to writing) on the Internet (something that MLuhan also predicted before the arrival of this contemporary global nervous system). Donald Prensky (2001), for instance, talks about a division between the ages similar to the one identified by McLuhan in his essay Digital Natives Digital Immigrants.” In some rather harsh criticism of the contemporary education system, Prensky identifies “Digital Natives”, youth who have grown up with digital technologies, and “Digital Immigrants”, older people who were born before the advent of digital technologies (particularly the Internet). According to Prensky, “our digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (p. 2). And while it is possible for digital immigrants to learn to become digitally literate, it is unlikely that they lose their pre-digital accents.

Curiously, while a lot of tensions still exist within most levels of the education system concerning traditional notions of, say literacy and goals of education cast in the stone age of the industrial revolution and its dependence on specialist knowledge, whole fields of research and scholarship are undergoing quite dramatic changes as a result of digital and communications technologies. The medium of modern scholarly discourse is now digital, and while a vanity press still cranks out printed texts and articles (particularly in those fields that have made a fetish of the printed book), increasingly, the fields in which researchers play are defined by the tools of digital culture. Training students to be bookish will hardly do if we actually want them to have critical and practical tools to engage with the modern world.

I’m sure McLuhan would still characterize a lot of the attempts by digital immigrant educators to use digital techniques as desperate glances into the rearview mirror, with a focus on replaying literate cultural heritage through the frames of digital media. That said, multimodalities and multiliteracies are increasingly defining philosophical and research approaches to teaching and learning, so perhaps there is a growing possibility of some kind of hybrid culture in education spanning the generational, technological gaps that define the divergent cultures of print/TV, TV/digital cultures.

McLuhan, Marshall (1969). “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan — A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media,” Playboy (March, 1969) in Essential McLuhan, eds., Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Basic Books: New York, 1995), pp. 245-269.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1-6.

Leave a Reply