Re-Markable Brussels

A transcript of my remarks at the McLuhan Centennial Conference in Brussels, based on my paper Total Involvement: Channeling Education through McLuhan:

Illustration: Kazamahuwa -

Good afternoon. I’m very pleased and honored to be here with you all to celebrate and pay respect to an iconic figure of the 20th century and his philosophy, which continually opens our eyes to our present day 21st century. Marshall McLuhan’s pronouncements and publications inspired, befuddled, and teased overlapping generations of individuals, prompting both adoration and spite. He has been called a guru, an Oracle, and a clairvoyant, although I suspect that he didn’t care for that visual metaphor. His detractors have called him more unrepeatable things. Those who knew the man, Marshall McLuhan, have helped to paint a vibrant mosaic of his life, in tales both spoken and in print. For those of us who have only come to know McLuhan through his work and the work of others, the man does not exist insomuch as does McLuhan the medium.

It’s not to say that McLuhan’s humanity isn’t present in the artifacts of his presence on this Earth, but rather that we are forced to reconstruct them for ourselves and search for meaning in the ether as we go. With some sensitivity to the fascination and suspicion with which McLuhan viewed the occult (Marchand, 1989), it’s tempting to view our relationship with his ideas in terms of mediumship. Each of us is forced, when engaging with his ideas, to act as a medium, summoning the spirit of the man in order to decipher his messages. In turn, it’s a valuable exercise to see McLuhan, himself, as a medium, summoning the spirits of all the ancients and moderns from whom he drew influence in crafting his own ideas.

But one does not have to turn to the occult to play this little game. In fact, the work of the mystic medium is at play whenever ideas are engaged, as communication is the stuff of making minds common. The fascination of Marshall McLuhan, for anyone who has undertaken to engage, is the merging of one’s existing perspective with the delightful irritants that come in the form of aphorisms and probes. In the meeting of minds that takes place is a jazzy cacophony of thought. This is generally true of any meeting of minds, but we find intrigue in those meetings that occur with minds rich in artistry and mystery. McLuhan’s is just such a mind, and a mind built around a particular collection of inspirations and influences. Of course, it’s important to employ the present tense when dealing in minds, particularly in dealing with minds evolved in the range of recorded human history. McLuhan’s works and the legacy of his relationships preserve and extend his mind, overlapping and merging with our collective consciousness.

Each time we engage with McLuhan, we engage with him as a medium through which personal experience has merged with the ideas of other minds. Those particular minds have been well documented in the biographies and celebrations of the man. Whatever the makeup of his own jazz ensemble, the world knows the legacy of Marshall McLuhan as his own. In this way we can say that the man is the message, or rather that the mind of the man is the message, and in saying so we must acknowledge that with any mind there is a process of evolution that occurs as a result of learning.

The nature of learning is found in communication. It is dependent on the presence of change, by definition. Any process of communication is subject to the discussion of its medium and the properties of the environment that influence and determine meaning. Understanding and reacting to change requires a system or a methodology, which is at the essence of the notion of education, and so this presentation will both reflect McLuhan’s philosophy of media and react to it with respect to education. Prior to developing this idea and its relationship to McLuhan, it’s important to set the foundation with a brief definition of learning, particularly in its intimate association with education.

Learning and Education

Bateson (2000) notes that in a hierarchical order of learning, as a communicative process, zero learning describes a state of constancy, either positive or negative in nature, which can be characterized by the receipt of information “in a way that a similar event at a later (and appropriate) time will convey the same information” (p. 284). To put that in simpler terms, imagine a mouse receiving a piece of cheese in a specific location, at a specific time, each day. Imagine that cheese stops arriving, but the mouse continues to wait in the same location, at the same time, nevertheless. The mouse’s behavior remains constant, regardless of the change in the system.

Operating on the assumption that contexts are repeatable, Learning I, according to Bateson, occurs when error, in the sense of trial and error, is recognized and a change in behavior is made in response to that recognition. The mouse breaking its habit of waiting in the same location at the same time, would exemplify this type of learning (as would the initial change that created the mouse’s habit of waiting for the cheese in the first place). Even with the assumption that all contexts are repeatable, it’s understood that multiple contexts impose different conditions on the subjects of stimuli and therefore context must be treated with scrutiny in any analysis of learning.

Bateson suggests that contexts are identified by context markers, clues to the nature of a particular environment. Those clues either consciously or unconsciously influence the relationship between subject and stimulus. Watzlawick (1977) relates the story of a counting horse, which amazed all who witnessed his prowess in performing mathematical tasks by tapping out the answers with his hoof. The horse, as it turns out, could no more do math than his owner could win the Kentucky Derby, but rather picked up on subtle shifts in the owner’s body language when the correct answer to the math problem was imminent. This phenomenon is more famously known as the Clever Hans effect, bearing the name of the horse in the actual historical account. Clever Hans was able to pick up context clues from his owner and respond in appropriate fashion in order to get his reward. He was as much training his owner as his owner was training him.

It’s important to note that whenever Learning I is going on, Learning II is also present. Learning II is dependent on the recognition of context, either consciously or unconsciously, by the learner. Learners acquire the rules and patterns of behavior embedded within the context, where, for example, students in a classroom are focused on the particular lessons they are assigned, but simultaneously internalize the invisible curriculum of the environment. How to succeed in taking tests is equally important to whatever specific material is covered on said test. Endearing oneself to figures of authority in the classroom is equally important to taking their sage advice. In many cases, however, Learning II produces contradictory circumstances in students, resulting in a double bind.

The double bind in question seems to be the subject of McLuhan’s commentary on the state of education in the electronic age when he described education as an instrument of cultural aggression imposing obsolescent visual values on the retribalized youth of our time. He noted, “Today’s child is growing up absurd because he is suspended between two worlds and two value systems, neither of which inclines him to maturity because he belongs wholly to neither but exists in a hybrid limbo of constantly conflicting values. (Norden, 1969, p. 62)

The key point to understand about Bateson’s thoughts on learning are the relationship that context plays in the process, at least from the perspective of this exposition. McLuhan’s influence on this mode of thought extends in several directions including to Father John Culkin of Fordham University, who was instrumental in introducing McLuhan to the United States, and is considered one of the founding figures of the media literacy community. Media literacy is focused on Level II learning in places where Level I learning occurs. Studying lessons in a particular subject matter, students concentrate not only on the subject, but the shaping of subjects, and at the same time learners begin to change their relationship to the contexts in which information is encountered. Context plays a starring role in the media literacy play. Media literacy is not equal to McLuhan, but is rather the iteration of McLuhan’s ideas as they were meaningful to Culkin and those who adopted and built upon his work.

Neil Postman relied heavily on McLuhan in developing his work on media, and in the establishment of media ecology as a field of inquiry. Like McLuhan, Postman’s background in English education influenced his thinking and his application of ideas related to media and communication.  His familiarity and admiration for McLuhan prompted him to adopt the perspective that the medium is the message, and in keeping with the description of learning outlined earlier here, dubbed his media ecology something akin to context analysis (Postman, 1974, p. 4). Media ecology is not equal to McLuhan, but is rather the iteration of McLuhan’s ideas as they are meaningful to those who adopted and built upon Postman’s initial proposition.

The most direct line between McLuhan and education comes from his own body of writing on the subject, and especially his City as Classroom, which offers a methodology for training perception, turning attention on the properties of media and their effects, and offering students the powers of inquiry with respect to school itself. In contrast to Ivan Illich and the notion of eliminating school, City as Classroom provides a glimpse at how school might be organized differently on behalf of students living in a world no longer intensely dominated by print as the primary medium of knowledge. As was the case with much of his published work, City as Classroom is not equal to McLuhan, but is rather an iteration of McLuhan’s ideas as they were used in collaboration with Kathryn Hutchon and his son Eric. The book represents the last published work of Marshall McLuhan’s lifetime, and is also arguably the most pragmatic with respect to systematic education. In many ways, it represents the evolution of his project with the (US) National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) in 1959 and it’s eventual manifestation in Understanding Media.

As Marchand (1989) points out in his account of the NAEB project, McLuhan believed that his syllabus would open up students’ perceptions about the mutational powers of media, rather than focusing on content, and that the method of dialogue would reverse the classroom as a factory dominated by print. His trials with the material did not go especially well, perhaps in his overestimation of the typical teenagers ability to handle his unfamiliar and challenging style (pp. 136-139). Indeed, anyone who remembers his or her own first encounters with Understanding Media can probably relate to the confusion of those young subjects, and only after careful consideration of the text and its language does the veil begin to lift.

Despite the difficulties in reaching young students at that time, McLuhan’s finger was characteristically on the pulse of their changing sensibilities and his notions of dialogue and involvement that drove him to undertake his methods in the classroom. As with many of his other works, City as Classroom’s clarity for general audiences comes as a combination of sound and insightful thinking from the master in combination with the mediation of collaborators willing to put in the effort to pare down and translate some of the mystery in the structures of the original. The greatest gift of McLuhan’s communication with the world was its challenging, artful, poetic, and mysterious form, and yet that form also proves most problematic for those unprepared to become totally involved. The depth of his thinking is evident in the ‘cool’ nature of each pronouncement. Participation is required. This quality is what has made McLuhan’s work so useful to so many people from so many divergent interests. It is also the barrier that has prevented his work from touching more conventional thinkers, trained in modes of linear, literal thought, and has led to so many superficial uses of his “catchiest” turns of phrase.

City as Classroom is a text of baby steps for McLuhan’s mode of thought, which is evident in the title of the Introduction, which reads, “What’s in a school?” The first lines of text below the title read, “Let us begin by wondering just what you are doing sitting there at your desk” (McLuhan, Hutchon, & McLuhan, 1977, p. 1). The methodology proposed in the early chapters is based on training perception in the figure/ground mode, true to the set of evolved perspectives produced in his later works, like Laws of Media. Laws of Media, as Eric McLuhan notes in the introduction, was born out of a desire to build on the purposely challenging, poetic and satirical language of Understanding Media in a way that spoke more plainly to ‘science’ (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988, p. viii).  Developing a simple, pragmatic introduction to figure/ground analysis is the key to City as Classroom as a pedagogical tool, although it was Marshall McLuhan’s last.

City as Classroom is an important opening in the understanding of context, in that it both de-emphasizes the classroom in the overall process of learning (or at least in its relationship to typography), while attempting to preserve its value in some respect. It opens the door to a discussion about how education can more broadly account for the learning opportunities that occur in the context of a person’s complete life environment. Total involvement is the environmental reality of the electronic age. It rearranges the relationship between prior structures in unexpected and often explosive ways.

To this point, McLuhan called the clash of environments, acoustic and visual, a civil war that necessitates a shift from the stencil model of classroom education to the probing and discovery mode more natural to youth of the electronic world. He wrote,
“The young today reject goals. They want roles – R-O-L-E-S. That is, Total Involvement. They do not want specialized goals or jobs” (McLuhan & Fiore, 2001, p. 100).

If roles are what we seek in our electronic world of total involvement, the center of the ‘classroom’ is everywhere and its margins are nowhere. Learning and education must be seen in the context of a ‘universe-as-laboratory’ and scrutiny must be applied to the familiar structures with which we associate them. In the paper version of this talk, I spent some time reviewing the relationship between learning, education and the formal social institutions of family, community, work, and religion, both with respect to McLuhan’s personal experience and his philosophy, but for the sake of brevity and because this audience is more than familiar with the material, I will simply offer some concluding remarks about where we might go from here.


The answers sought here with respect to learning and education find most of their clues in the approach to which McLuhan turned at the end of his life. City as Classroom was the end of Marshall McLuhan, the man’s journey in print (at least in a linear sense), but represents something of a beginning for those of us still sorting out his legacy and borrowing bits of his wisdom to fuel our own ideas. In the important work of training perception, City as Classroom represents an approach to pedagogy in which the methodology is the teacher, making each student a cultural anthropologist. The middle chapters of the book give special attention to the anthropology of form in understanding media and their effects, establishing a bridge between his collaborations with Ted Carpenter, and his admiration for Edward T. Hall and Claude Levi Strauss, and the media literacy approach that emerged from John Culkin’s interest in McLuhan’s ideas. The final chapter bears the title “How to Relate to Your Own Time,” but remains incomplete and inadequate for use with most students today.

It’s not that the idea is irrelevant or obsolete, but rather than it represents a fixed position in time that demands progression and that will by nature never be complete. The same might be said for most of the book, as perpetually useful as the approach might be. A book, after all, is a visual medium with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Relating to our own time requires constant attention, suggesting process and continuity in addition to total involvement.

The early chapters of City as Classroom give us a methodology that requires little if any change, as it stands above the system empowering students with the tools to understand our ‘programming.’ Douglas Rushkoff, author of the important book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age, offers us a glimpse at where McLuhan may have gone with his philosophy of media, at least with respect to the way we are conditioned in the 21st century. The figure/ground methodology for training perception offers us a glimpse at our programming and our programmers. It allows us to “tune in.” It is the reactive part of McLuhan’s prescription.

Rushkoff tells us that the digital age demands a choice. The choice is obvious in the title of his work, but the decision to program means following the proactive course that’s implied in the task-based aspects of City as Classroom. Meaning found through both inquiry and interaction is the beginning of the process. Making each student responsible for developing new questions and exercises reflects both the sensibility and the necessity of the digital age. Postman and Weingartner (1969, 1971) give us a basis for this pedagogy in their description of the inquiry method. Likewise, they show an understanding of the collaborative and democratic quality of educational endeavors in this age. Any education system in the age of total involvement, where students demand roles, also must offer the possibility of learning how to perform roles in cooperation and collaboration with others. If democracy is truly our most cherished social medium, it must be reflected in the central structure of our learning as well, to say nothing of its overlap with family, community, work, and religion.

Let City as Classroom stand as more than mere artifact. Let it stand as a beginning to a new approach to education that offers a window to our programming, but also embodies a proactive, progressive, and additive quality. Allowing students to develop their own City as Classroom, both addressing their individual and collective questions, will channel learning communicatively in a way that transforms “his” story into “our” story, creating a legacy upon which future generations can add as media environments continue to shift, sensibilities continue to change, and new questions are required to deal with the conflict that results.

Context counts and so it’s important to reflect again on McLuhan’s assertion that “[g]rowing up…is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1989, p. 18). The context of family has changed and therefore children will expect more and more to participate in their own programming. Likewise, the role of citizenship and the sense of civic duty have changes and therefore, people will expect to participate more in their own programming. The same can be said about work and religion and art and all of the other qualities of our humanity that find themselves transformed by the progressive transformation of human environments. It might be suggested that the sentiment reflected in any educational system of this type ought best be described as “Be programmed to program.”


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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