A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Exam

What’s wrong with our schools?

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Of course …

“In education the conventional division of the curriculum into subjects is already as outdated as the medieval trivium and quadrivium after the Renaissance.  Any subject taken in depth at once relates to other subjects.”

Me (November, 2010, age 58). No wonder kids drop out …

Nothing makes sense.  It’s too superficial.  Math in math class.  English in English class.  Science in science class.  We need to mix things up.  And give it a purpose.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, p. 347.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 12th, 2010
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How to set an exam.

Marshall McLuhan (1969, age 57).  Are you ready?

At the beginning of this seminar on communications I said that you were to choose 3 books out the 30 on the reading list and that they will be the subject of your final exam.  No doubt you have been wondering what form this exam will take.   Wonder no more. It’s time to sit and deliver.  Have you got a pencil and paper?  Very good, you will have thirty minutes.  Write down three questions on each of the books you have read.

Me (July, 2010, age 58).  A brilliant solution

Fred Thompson, who was a student of McLuhan’s at Toronto in the year after he returned from Fordham in the academic year 1968/69, talks about this exam in his contributions to the books Who Was Marshall McLuhan and Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message.

Certainly, McLuhan chose a brilliantly eccentric and efficient way to set an exam.  A more direct approach would certainly have required a much longer exam with questions on each of the 30 books on the reading list.  Almost certainly the questions the students’ came up with revealed much about their understanding of the books they had read and the form of the exam sends the clear message that he believes the questions are more important than the answers. But, it is doubtful if a university professor today would be allowed to set such an exam either by their department or their students.

As a test of your understanding of Marshall McLuhan and his work come up with three questions about him. Here are mine:

(1) What did he mean by “the medium is the message?”

(2) What can we learn about McLuhan from the portrait Wyndham Lewis drew of him?

(3) “What if he’s right?”

Now, what do you think?  Are the questions more important than the answers?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, pp. 178.

George Sanderson and Frank Mcdonald, eds., Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, 1989, p. 135.

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Michael Hinton Friday, July 30th, 2010
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Store house or slaughter house?

Marshall McLuhan (March 7, 1969, age 57).  Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one

The college President was overheard saying that the reason universities are such great store houses of knowledge is that students enter them knowing so much and leave them knowing so little.   That one always cracks me up.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  What is the role of the university?

At this time of year, when students at colleges across the country are busy studying for and writing final exams, it is worth thinking about the role of the university and what it is that students learn at them.  The serious side of the joke Marshall McLuhan tells is that what students learn at university is that a good deal of what they thought was true actually isn’t.  And as a result they leave the university knowing less, but knowing more.

What did you unlearn at college or university?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 362.

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 23rd, 2010
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Things change but we do not know it (continued)

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1961, age 50). The medium is invisible.

As I was saying no one sees the medium at work. It is invisible. It does its work on us and we go on differently, but do not see that everything has changed.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Another example?

PowerPoint has not only changed the world of work it has also dramatically changed the world of education. Consider this. Most lectures at universities – even in graduate school – are given using PowerPoint. Lecturers (or should I say PowerPointers) like it because they feel more in control of the lecture process. It gives them more confidence to have the slides at their command when they stand up to speak, say, for 1 to 2 hours in a large lecture hall. Students (the PowerPointed), however, also like it because it gives them more control over what they have to learn. How? PowerPoint typically reduces what students have to know for “the exam.” More and more, by tacit agreement between professor and student, what students are required to know is what is on the slides. And the slides reduce what students need to know. Conservatively, the maximum information you can reasonably get on a slide is 125 words. (Half the number of words you can fit on a single type-written, double-spaced 8½-by-11 inch page. But this is far in excess of the ideal of educational PowerPoint. The ideal is 5 to 7 bullet points each with no more than 5 to 7 words (The 5X5 rule or the 7X7 rule). The ideal reduces 125 words to 25 to 49 words a saving to students of 60.8 to 80 percent.

The medium of PowerPoint may be one of the more powerful and unseen forces that has driven the much-discussed decline in university education over the last generation. In education, unlike architecture or design, less may not be more.

Do you agree? Is PowerPoint enabling students to get by knowing less?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 280-281.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
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My apologies for being repetitious, but repetition is not learning

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 55).  Read to learn (continued)

Today my students did their oral exam on books I asked them to select from my reading list.  (Here are a reminder of the books on that list:  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 1965; E.T. Hall, The Silent Language, 1959, and A.P. Usher.  The History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929; 1954.)

Yesterday, recall, when they asked me what to expect I told them: (1) we’d start at A and go from there; and (2) Don’t tell me what’s in the book, I’ve read it. Tell me what you think now that you’ve read it.  Then we can talk about new things instead of old things.  Most of them succeeded in telling me something that they learned.  As a result, joy springs eternal, we spent most of the class talking about new things rather than old things.  And they found out what I meant by we’ll start at A and go from there.   The first student who volunteered to be examined was given a grade of A.  Enthusiasm and courage deserve to be rewarded.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Learn to read (continued)

Here is another example of reading by Marshall’s Rules.  The book I will have a go at here is Abbot Payson Usher’s A History of Mechanical Inventions.  Step 1 summarize the idea.  Step 2 talk about what you’ve learned from it.

Step 1.  In Chapter IV, The Emergence of Novelty in Thought and Action, Usher asks the question “Where do new ideas come from?  He argues that what needs to be explained is not the final eureka of the long chain of thinking in the creation of a new idea (gold displaces a volume of water precisely equal to its mass), but the first weak groping for the new (gold is very heavy). What accounts for this initial weak groping is explained by previous writers as a result of (1) some external event that stimulates the thought (Newton’s apple), or (2) the mysteries of the sub-conscious.  This, he says, is not a good explanation.  But as yet he doesn’t have a better idea.  Except he does underline this idea:  If the world was a closed system says eventually all the new ideas possible to create by playing around with things – that is by experimentation, would eventually get created.  And then invention would cease.

Step 2.  New ideas appear every day.  Therefore either the closed system we live in (city, nation, culture) is very large, rich in variety, and complex, or we do not live in a closed system.  Every new idea has the potential to break open a closed system.

Where do you get new ideas?  Where in your view are new ideas needed most?  Who are the greatest new idea creators today?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Abbot Payson Usher. A History of Mechanical Inventions. New York: Dover, [1929; 1954] 1988.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 20th, 2009
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Repetition is not learning

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 55).  Read to learn

Tomorrow I will give my students their oral exam on books I asked them to select from my reading list.  Here are a few of the books on that list:  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 1965; E.T. Hall, The Silent Language, 1959, and A.P. Usher.  The History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929; 1954.

Today they asked me what to expect I told them: (1) we’d start at A and go from there; and (2) Don’t tell me what’s in the book, I’ve read it.  Tell me what you think now that you’ve read it.  Then we can talk about new things instead of old things.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Learn to read

Marshall McLuhan was a master reader.  He knew how to get to the heart of anything he read quickly and learn from it.  And this power he tried to teach his students.

Can you and I learn to read like Marshall McLuhan? McLuhan, of course was a genius, so this may seem like a difficult thing to do.  However, I do not think it is impossible.  Here is my take on a book McLuhan refers to indirectly on his reading list:  The Meaning of Meaning, by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards.

The trick is to follow the spirit of McLuhan’s advice.  Don’t only summarize the book or piece of the book: “The relationship between words and ideas and ideas and things in the world is direct.  But the relationship between words and things in the world is indirect.  That is you can always find words to express your ideas and ideas to match the things we see in the world, but you cannot reach for words to describe things.  This is impossible.  The only thing you can do is reach for words to express your ideas about the description of things.”

The summary is necessary but it is not thinking, it is repeating.  It is step 1.   Go to step 2:  Ask yourself what new thing you’ve learned from it.  For example, I’ve learned that to reduce misunderstanding I need to take the shortest possible indirect route between my words and the real world I’m trying to talk about.  The shortest possible indirect routes are through pictures (look at this), pointing at something (there it is), putting my finger on the thing (see) or describing the picture or thing in plain English (it’s a house).

The next time someone starts telling you word for word, image for image, about a book, movie, or magazine article  do you think you could ask them not to repeat it to you but rather to tell you what they learned from it?

Having read this blog post will you ask yourself what you learned from it?  If so, what did you learn from it?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? Toronto: Stoddart, 1994, pp. 13 and Appendix A.

C.K. Ogden and I.A Richards, The Meaning of Meaning.  Sixth edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace and co. 1943.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 19th, 2009
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Exams create paralysis

Marshall (April 1946, age 35). Exams create paralysis

Exams have a “paralyzing [effect on the] independence of mind.”  That wrangler Keynes learned this first hand at Cambridge. I’m learning it second hand at Toronto. I want to take “a practical critical” approach to literature but my students have been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate at the prospect of recall not independent thought.

Me (September 2009, age 57). You can start creating and stop being paralysed

If you manage people – are you teaching your people to make creative contributions to the enterprise, or are you teaching them to pass annual performance reviews, quarterly tests and other exams? 

If you work for someone else – are you learning how to make creative contributions?  Or are you learning how to pass annual performance reviews, quarterly tests , and other exams?  

Cordially, Marshall and Me

P.S. See you here tomorrow


READING FOR THIS POST

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 190

Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman. London: Macmillan, 2003, pp. 83-84.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
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