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Marshall McLuhan on education

I’ve started reading ”Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” by Marshall McLuhan and am greatly enjoying it. It’s an incredibly dense read but so far my efforts have been richly rewarded.

I haven’t read enough of the book yet to feel up to writing a proper review/analysis but I wanted to pass along a bit from the introduction to the paperback edition that McLuhan wrote on education as the analysis (~50 years after it was written!) is still spot on and entirely appropriate to our discussions today on what education should become in the 21st century.

Any new technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes. In his splendid work Preface to Plato (Harvard University Press, 1963), Eric Havelock contrasts the oral and written cultures of the Greeks. By Plato’s time the written word had created a new environment that had begun to detribalize man. Previously the Greeks had grown up by benefit of the process of the tribal encyclopedia. They had memorized the poets. The poets provided specific operational wisdom for all the contingencies of life—Ann Landers in verse. With the advent of individualized man, a new education was needed. Plato devised such a new program for literate men. It was based on the Ideas. With the phonetic alphabet, classified wisdom took over from the operational wisdom of Homer and Hesiod and the tribal encyclopedia. Education by classified data has been the Western program ever since.

Now, however, in the electronic age, data classification yields to pattern recognition, the key phrase at IBM. When data move instantly, classification is too fragmentary. In order to cope with data a electric speed in typical situations of “information overload,” men resort to the study of configurations, like the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s Maelstrom. The drop-out situation in our schools at present has only begun to develop. The young student today grows up in an electrically configured world. It is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns. The student today lives mythically and in depth. At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information. The subjects are unrelated. They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the “mythic” world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted. As one IBM executive puts it, “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they begun grade one.”

His definition of “myth” is necessary to understand the above quote. Taken from pg. 25 of the paperback version:

Myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, and the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial and social action today.

Later in the book McLuhan writes that, “We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes.” The new electronic/internet environment we live in has reshaped how we live, learn, and work. The disconnect McLuhan identified between how we live and learn outside of school vs. inside of school has only grown since the 1960s.

Much of what passes for educational best practices these days are merely vestiges of a bygone era. For better or for worse, the electronic age has radically reshaped human thought and behavior. Clinging to educational practices designed to teach “data classification” helps no one — especially the students who are facing a world radically different than the one our schools prepare them for.

Tagged with education | social media | social learning | marshall mcLuhan

Posted November 12, 2009


Kyle Mathews lives and works in San Francisco building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter