McLuhan in Space (and the Classroom)

While Richard Cavell argues in McLuhan in Space that McLuhan should be re-read as an artist, I contend that an equally plausible (and probably less original) suggestion is to re-read him as an educator. Thanks to Cavell, I have recently picked up one of McLuhan’s last books, City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media, published in 1977, three years before his death.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m nowhere near to reaching the end of McLuhan’s writings (he has 26 books to his name and countless essays and interviews), so I could hardly even call it a re-reading in my case. However, in the works that I have read, it’s plain to see that McLuhan wanted to educate. He aimed to facilitate thought and discussion about both the present and historical transitions between broadly defined eras of communication (oral, print, written, electronic). He wanted us to understand the effects of media, and he wanted us to be aware of our environments, our tools, and the interactions between them. He wanted to facilitate a path for us to find our own understanding. He wanted us to understand media; he wanted us to learn. McLuhan was a media theorist, a communications guru, a historian, an artist, and an educator.

The typical classroom environment.

One of his contemporaries, Neil Postman, made a name for himself primarily as an educationist (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The End of Education) before moving into social commentary and media ecology (Amusing Ourselves to Death, Technopoly). He used many of McLuhan’s ideas and methods to analyze and discuss the classroom environment and the purpose of education.

A common theme found throughout McLuhan’s work is that  as we shift into living in the global village of the electronic age, we return to our tribal roots. The conflation of space and time, and communication at the speed of light have effectively shrunk our worlds, causing us to live in proximity with our neighbours, communicating through acoustic rather than visual space. McLuhan suggested that would once again become an oral culture, relying more on the spoken word than the printed. The electronic age would retribalize us.

In McLuhan in Space (which I posted some notes and quotes from last week), UBC professor Richard Cavell analyzes McLuhan as an artist and as a spatial historian. Here Cavell describes McLuhan’s concept of retribalization:

“McLuhan had been at pains to emphasize in his own writings: that retribalization was not intended as a return to a pre-literate utopia; on the contrary, the entry into the electronic era had initiated a process fraught with terrors, as well as benefits.” (Cavell 208)

Disruption is scary. Entering a new age is frightening — full of surprises, changes, and adjustments. McLuhan wrote under the glaze of the newly invented television, when we were suddenly shifting from living in a world of print to a world of audio and moving images. He felt that we were becoming like our ancestors of the oral age, who communicated mostly through acoustic means.

But as we’ve seen, McLuhan did not quite get it right, as the internet has since emerged to usurp television (as well as cinema, radio  and  telephone), and it is primarily a medium of print. Or at least it used to be. In the 21st century, high-speed bandwidth also allows us to watch lots of YouTube videos, television shows, and movies on our laptops, tablets and phones. The digital age is a world of words, images (moving and not), and sounds. Computers, phones, and video games are interactive and tactile. In the 21st century, we don’t live in acoustic or visual space, we live in audiovisual space — a hybrid of media that involves all the senses.

Mass Media

Neil Postman wrote countless books decrying the potentially disastrous effects of the mass media of television, using a very McLuhanesque approach. He wrote often about the purpose of education, often opining that an important part of one’s education was to become educated about alternatives to mass media.

Here Cavell summarizes the McLuhanesque take on the function of education:

“It is thus the function of education, and even more so the arts, to point away from this mass media mythology to an ideal world.” (p. 209)

It is thus to their environment that McLuhan suggests these students turn in their quest for an education.

The last book of McLuhan's to be published while he was still alive, co-authored with his son Eric McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon.

McLuhan remained attached to this notion in his last book, The City as Classroom (1977; with Eric McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon), returning to notions about the classroom that he had first begun to work out a quarter of a century before in Explorations. ‘Classroom without Walls’ (Explorations 7 [1957]) argues that the electronic information explosion has been so great that ‘most learning occurs outside the classroom’ (ExC 1). This has broken the hegemony of the book as a teaching aid and challenged the monopoly on education vested in official institutions of learning. Yet most educators persist in regarding the products of the mass media as entertainment, rather than as educative. McLuhan points out, however, that many literary classics were originally regarded in the same way, and that the English language is itself a mass medium. The educational imperative is, thus, to master the new media in order to ‘assimilate them to our total cultural heritage’ (2) which would ‘provide the basic tools of perception’ as well as developing ‘judgment and discrimination with ordinary social experience’ (3). This observation is the point of departure for City as Classroom, which outlines methods for training perception through a series of exercises in properties of the media, with the goal of helping students to understand the sociocultural context in which they live. The exercises encourage students to go out into the community and observe, listen, interview, research, and think about the way in which their classroom space influences what they can and cannot know — ‘What did the designers of traditional schools intend when they put thirty or so desks in rows, facing the front of the room? Why is the blackboard at the front? why is the teacher’s desk at the front?’ (4).” (pp. 220-221)

City as Classroom is basically a collection of questions and activities for your students. It’s a book of lesson plans, in a sense, using the surroundings and environment as the subjects to be studied. I think it’d work great with a group of senior students in a writing class.

I would love to read or hear some responses to questions such as (all from the introduction of City as Classroom):

“Do the days of your school life seem like ‘doing time’ until you are eligible for the labor market? Do you consider that real education is outside the classroom? Do you find that what you learn inside the classroom is as useful as what you learn outside the classroom?”

“Talk to your fathers (and updated for the 21st century, mothers) about the sort of work they do in the daytime. How much of their time at work is spent looking at papers and books? Do they also bring their books and papers home? How many people do you know who work day in and day out with papers and books?”

There are also activities for students to explore the history, effects, and opinions surrounding books, films, television, clocks, computers, and eleven more (for a total of 16 units).

I’m looking forward to reading it over the spring break, and hope to be able to use it in the classroom sometime soon.

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