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  • McLuhan the Teacher
  • David Black (bio)

In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.

McLuhan Laws of Media

There are many ways to characterize McLuhan—prophet and sage, celebrity and provocateur, conservative and radical. But it is his homelier role as a lifelong classroom teacher, and by extension a pedagogue in the public square, which better reveals him and his work to us today in a digital culture that feels like one of his carriage house lectures come to life. Such a humbler status demythologizes him, recovers his technological humanism (Kroker), and puts us where he would want us: amid the media unlimited, the bittorrent surging, aware that we are only as good as our questions. This present exercise in re-definition starts with the observation made by his most celebrated student, a witness to McLuhan’s early teaching at St Louis University in the 1930s. “Above all and in all and through all, Marshall McLuhan was a teacher,” Walter Ong wrote in an elegiac essay published shortly after McLuhan’s death (129). [End Page 24]

I want to explore the implications of Ong’s words and to argue that through understanding McLuhan’s pedagogy—be it as ordinary classroom practice, as a model of inquiry characteristic of his intellectual process, and as a means of making sense of his public intellectual status—we come to realize how much being a university teacher shaped his life and work. We can also learn a practical lesson in how to better teach media ecology to a generation of students who have an innately phenomenological approach to media. To borrow a groovy McLuhanesque idiom, Generation Y is already “with it.”

McLuhan’s most recent biographer, novelist and critic Douglas Coup-land, describes his classroom style:

Marshall was a terrific professor, and it takes little energy to imagine him in his prime, burying students in cascades of ideas—not infrequently, ideas he generated on the spot…. He found it much more preferable to do his thinking in real time, out loud, with an audience or a classroom as his catalyst. Conversation is what he called it.

(138, emphasis in original)

McLuhan needed students, collaborators, even talk show hosts and audiences, with whom to converse, think, and write, as evidenced by those lively sessions at the Centre for Culture and Technology and his numerous co-written books. This preference followed his signature intellectual method of startling connections and juxtapositions: “McLuhan’s pedagogical project was to materialize the web of human relations … through radical forms of collage” (Marchessault 6). McLuhan is “still teaching and always will be,” because his probes, puns, and other forms of critical montage outlive him to become part of the cultural environment he described (Ong 135).

But it is his failure as an educational consultant, namely his 1959 commission from the U.S. National Association of Educational Broadcasters to write a media studies curriculum for Grade 11 students, that ironically brings the pedagogical McLuhan most clearly into view. Notwithstanding the gnomic complexity of the naeb report, it served as the first draft of McLuhan’s most intelligible book, 1964’s Understanding Media. The pedagogical role invited by the naeb compelled him to render his vision in high definition, as coherently and comprehensively as he ever would, and allowed us to know him best through this text.

The very possibility of McLuhan’s media ecology followed from his identity as teacher. He believed artists were a sensory avant-garde, acutely responsive to instances of transition within or between media cultures; [End Page 25] this was a status he extended to non-artists too. In McLuhan’s opinion, the artistic and the learning processes were one and the same, as both extracted signal from background noise and made “experience visible” (Marchessault 5). The capacity to teach and learn is therefore analogous to the special powers he granted to artists. Pedagogy thus brings all of us potentially—conspicuously creative or not—into the company of those who might see value and form amid the maelstrom.

McLuhan’s training at Cambridge under I...


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