Tag Archives: Education


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 It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation” (pp. 249-50).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.

Living at the speed of light

“I should always add that anything I say is the way it seems at the moment.”

“Living at the Speed of Light,” McLuhan (1974) 

          McLuhan’s public lecture makes for entertaining reading, in part because he seems to be having such fun “playing the old story backwards” to his audience made up of the general public and students and teachers from the Faculty of Education in the University of South Florida.  Sprinkled through his address are a series of playful pokes, bad (and really bad) jokes, and deftly launched series of probes concerning various commonly experienced aspects of life at the speed of light such as literacy, education, politics, entertainment and work.  McLuhan is poised on the edge, flipping from old to new, from mechanical to electrical, from visual to acoustic, to reveal the true focus of his approach to media studies, which is on the transformative effects of media, not on mere transportation of messages between Shannon and Weaver.  This lecture also provides one of McLuhan’s clearest descriptions of his famous aphorism, the medium is the message.  In describing the transformation brought upon society by the motor car, McLuhan  offers this description:

When I say that the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car is not a medium.  The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies.  That is the medium.  In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car.  When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone.  The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects.  The car is a figure in a ground of services.  It’s when you change the ground that you change the car.  The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium.  So “the medium is the message” is not a simple remark….It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people.  IT is the environment that changes people, not the technology. (p. 242)

Those that would claim that McLuhan’s critique is overly technologically deterministic would benefit from considering the transformative focus of McLuhan’s approach, particularly as his analysis of medium is, by his description of the hidden environment of services, really a focus on the socio-cultural and economic ground within which particular technologies are effects.

            Speaking as he is, in front of a group of educators, McLuhan’s comments on literacy, the education system and schools in general are quite provocative.  In the electronic age, the type of specialization that educational institutions have typically trained its students to achieve could well be problematic.  And viewing the story backwards from the vantage point of 2009 (35 years after this lecture), McLuhan seems to have been quite prescient about many things.  Interdisciplinary studies are increasingly important to the organization of education, particularly in the health sciences.  The idea of schools being driven by answers (or by content in the classroom), seems increasingly archaic and insufficiently critical.  McLuhan’s idea that we should be putting questions, not answers inside the school is one way to describe the increase in learner centred, constructivist, problem-based and situated learning theories that inform the practice of so many teachers.   And now, as the service environment of the university, the ground upon which the campus sits is being transformed by multiple modes of delivery, interdisciplinary studies, service learning, and fusion buildings that support informal and formal student spaces like the Ike Barber Learning commons, it is fair to predict that the classroom will change.  Whether or not “the ivory tower [will] become the control tower of human navigation” as McLuhan (1969) calls for in CounterBlast, is still not a decided question.  Just as many of the educators who were sitting in the room listening to McLuhan speak in 1974, many educators today are still morbidly staring at the flip from visual literacy to electronic acoustic spaces, and wondering to themselves if this is indeed, the end of the road!


McLuhan, M. (1969) Counter-Blast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

McLuhan. M. (2005).  “Living at the Speed of Light.”  In (S. McLuhan & D. Staines, Eds.) Understanding Me (pp225-243).  Toronto: MIT Press.