McLuhan’s realism 6: dialectics and erudition not enough

Hutchins and Adler have part of the solution. But they are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focusing of training in moral sensibility, futile. (McLuhan to Clement McNaspy, Christmas 1945, Letters 180)1

Throughout the 1940s McLuhan (then in his 30s) was concerned to define a principle that would avoid both of two extremes in contemporary educational theory (and in its implicated epistemology, sociology and ontology): on the one hand, the Dewey-progressive wing; on the other, the Hutchins-Adler wing.

He had long seen education as taking place primarily outside of school:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, The ManitobanOct 17,1933!)

The ‘education’ principle to be defined was therefore a kind of principle of principles that would embrace — better illuminate — all the foundationally interconnected areas of life.2 As he wrote in the same Christmas 1945 letter to McNaspy:

This job must be conducted on every front — every phase of the press, book-rackets, music, cinema, education, economics. (Letters 180)

To this end, a critique of both the Hutchins-Adler wing and the Dewey-progressive wing of education theory was needed. Whereas most of McLuhan’s contemporary 1946 essay ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (Classical Journal, 41:4, 156-62) came down clearly in favor of the Hutchins-Adler wing against the Dewey-progressive wing3, perhaps because McLuhan was considering with Cleanth Brooks how the University of Chicago might be enlisted in their revolutionary education program (reflected in McLuhan’s 1947 proposal to Hutchins), the essay concludes by subordinating both wings to a third principle of their mutual implication:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist [here the Dewey-progressive wing] who says that “the glory of man is to know the truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on by copiously eloquent and wise citizens” [here the Hutchins-Adler wing]4there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country.5

When, that is, the sides ignore the principle of the original unity bonding them in their difference.


  1. In the unpublished ‘Failure at Chicago’, envisioned as a part of The American Vortex project, McLuhan sharply differentiated between the dialectics of Adler and the rhetorical position of Hutchins. Lumping them together as rhetoricians, as McLuhan does in ‘An Ancient Quarrel’, or in the opposite way as dialecticians as he does in the letter to McNaspy, was therefore of rhetorical significance only. In both cases, McLuhan himself contravened his own admonition at the end of ‘Ancient Quarrel’ not to “raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.
  2. Or, better yet, a kind of principle of principles that would reflect the existing illumination providing the original interconnection of all the various areas of life.
  3. Eg: “Hutchins, Adler, and Van Doran have made commando raids deep into enemy territory, and the rage of the immobilized battalions of standard and progressive education is uttering itself in howls against them as “reactionary,” “obscurantist,” “metaphysical,” “unscientific.” (…) The end of education as described by Hutchins is the making of the citizen. The citizen is rational man equipped for social and political life by means of encyclopedic (non-specialized) training in the arts and sciences (the great books program). Special skill in the arts of reading and writing are paramount. The citizen must be fluent, even eloquent, on all subjects. The citizen must know all things which concern the welfare of the group. The opponents of Hutchins, whether scientists, progressive educationalists, positivists, or experimentalists, are all agreed in a specialist notion of human activity. Scientific knowledge and method are the ultimate bases of social and political authority for men like Professor Dewey (…) working with Rousseau’s basic assumption that (only) the state is a moral person. (…) “Teacher and pupil are not isolated individuals. They are both agents of the state.” (…) Whereas Hutchins’ program would make every citizen a potential ruler, the “liberals” conceive rather of the individual as a technologically functional unit in the state. (Alexander) Meiklejohn employs the analogy of the individual as a note in the musical score of society, whereas Hutchins thinks of each person as a complete musical work. Again, Hutchins adopts the classical view of man as a rational animal and hence a political animal. The state from this point of view is an association of autonomous persons. Opposed to this, a conventional representative of nineteenth-century social thought, such as Dewey or Meiklejohn, regards the collectivity as the basic thing. The individual has no nature which is not conferred on him by the collectivity. Man is not a rational animal.”
  4. As seen in his Christmas 1945 letter to McNaspy cited above, McLuhan usually assigned Adler and the Great Books program to dialectic. Here they are assigned to the opposing category of rhetoric which McLuhan associated with the south. (One of the sub-titles to ‘Ancient Quarrel’ is “South vs. North” and its concluding section is “The south vs New England”.) McLuhan was presumably attempting to warm “an eminent Kentuckian such as Robert Hutchins” (‘Ancient Quarrel’) to his ideas. Since the essence of McLuhan’s ‘third’ principle was to conjoin the other two primordially, such sliding between categories was not impossible and was even likely in differing circumstances. Indeed, also the assignment of the Dewey-progressive wing to dialectic in ‘Ancient Quarrel’ is the reverse of the usual procedure — one necessitated simply by the requirement that it be on the opposite side from the other wing. As already noted above, in both of these cases (conjoining Adler and Hutchins and in the varying classification of the ‘wings’), McLuhan himself sinned against his own admonition at the end of ‘Ancient Quarrel’ not to “raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.
  5.  After this highly important observation of principle, McLuhan quickly ended ‘Ancient Quarrel’ with a recommendation for the further study of it such as his Nashe thesis had begun — “knowledge of the history of the present dispute would serve to diminish the fog and the passions aroused at present, and would substitute some light for much heat” — together with the resigned proviso that such study would, alas, “deprive us of that major distraction from boredom which is invariably sought in hasty accusation and warm rejoinder where both parties raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.