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.

The practical side of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (January 4, 1961 age 49).  The President needs me

I don’t know what our President would do without me.  Claude Bissell that is, the President of dear old Toronto University, not Ike, the President of the United States, who by the way I do not like.  Claude has asked me to give his advisory group of senior academics the benefit of my views on the changes in higher learning necessitated by the electric age.  It pains me to think of the changes sweeping through our leather-patched, tweed-ridden, and chalk-dusty world of which this august body is totally oblivious.  No matter, it is my duty to tell them what they do not know.  In short they are obsolete.  I wonder how they will take the news.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  I wonder?

Claude Bissell was one of Marshall McLuhan’s great supporters at U. of T.  Both were professors of English and had known each other since the late 1940s.  Bissell is said to have woken up to the brilliance and rising celebrity of McLuhan shortly after he had become President of the university. He was surprised on a speaking tour of American universities when the first question he was asked after one presentation was not about the university but about McLuhan:  Could he explain the new theories of Professor McLuhan?  Toronto, he realized, had an asset the value of which he and the school was unaware.   How Bissell’s senior academic advisory group reacted to McLuhan’s presentation is not known.  However, I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.  The points McLuhan planned on making are almost certainly ones designed to raise the blood pressure of senior academics – even today – to dangerous levels.  For example, he predicted that increases in information in the electric age will result in startling reversals of role for and within the university.  For example:  The ivory tower will become the city center.  Students will become teachers.  TV will replace the book in the curriculum.

This news – especially when presented in the opaque language of “changes in centre-margin roles” – McLuhan must have known would be met with considerable rolling of eyes and raising of brows among the assembled professors.  And therefore it is understandable that at the same time as he agreed to Bissell’s request McLuhan also asked if he could make “an initial presentation to you” (that is Bissell.)  For people who only know about Marshall McLuhan from the pages of Playboy, Wired, or Rolling Stone, this hard-headed, practical strategy will come as quite a shock.   And even to those familiar with McLuhan’s books this may come as a shock.  Marshall McLuhan the practical rhetorician?   The sensible persuader?  However easily forgotten, this is a part of McLuhan, too, and one from which we can all learn.

What presentation do you or someone you know have to make that would benefit by being preceded by an initial presentation to one or two key people?


Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and George B. Leonard.  “The Future of Education: the Class of 1989,” Look, February 21, 1967, pp. 23-25.

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 22nd, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 2 Comments

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