McLuhan interview on The City as Classroom

In 1977, McLuhan did an “informal interview” with his student and chronicler, Carl Scharfe, about The City as Classroom, which had just been published. The interview is available in Youtube with a transcript. The transcript is given here in lightly edited form.


MM: The City as Classroom began out of Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society [1971] had challenged me. Illich was quite right in suggesting that we live in a new environment in which all the answers are now outside the school room and therefore he suggests, why don’t we close the schools?  I say, why not put the questions in the classroom? If the answers are now outside, let’s get the questions inside and set up a dialogue between the outside and the inside. So our book The City as Classroom [1977] is really designed to get students in small teams to go outside, to study the setup of the situations that they live with every day and to discover what they’re made of. I call it the figure-ground approach — to study sort of Ralph Nader style what is developing in this environment.

CS: What if we go back to to the word ‘school’ in ‘education’ — the roots of that — what were those words originally attended to mean?

MM: That’s what we have right at the beginning of the book. School,  scholia, among other things meant ‘leisure’ and so the persons who go to school are really the people who don’t have to work. On the other hand we have increasingly tended to turn the classroom into a place of work. We consider that the people in the classroom are workers. However the fact is that in the information environment outside, the workers are more engaged in learning than the people in the school room are. This is a paradox. There is more learning going on outside the classroom then there is inside the classroom, I mean a hundred times more.

CS: How has that situation come about?

MM: This has come about through the electronic environment. The information environment of the electric circuits and so on carry enormous quantities of information which are available to everybody outside the school room. Inside the school room not very much of this is available. The schools are committed to a form of learning which does not permit very much use of the electronic circuits. However, they’re aware of this now increasingly and aware that they might be able to take up some of the uses of the electric environment in the school. It however is merely a quantity approach and as a matter of fact I don’t think Illich in his de-schooling book made a very good analysis of the situation. He didn’t do a structural analysis, he merely noticed that the environment was now loaded with information.

CS: How would you suggest that the structure he put forth as a solution be [improved]?

MM: I don’t think he put forth any solution, he did a diagnosis. He said the situation is this and this and he suggested of course that the whole idea of the student in the school room is obsolete: that the student in the environment had been originally the form of learning. He was talking about a relatively non-man-made environment — the sort of environment he used as his model was pre-electronic and he saw that in the human past typically children and the young people were educated by simply working along with grown-up people in the community. Which is certainly true. Today the same thing is happening, we’re returning, rather. In the 17th and 18th centuries as the bourgeoisie got going they tended to pull their kids out of the environment and put them in school rooms where they could be given highly specialized training of what is now called literacy. But that sort of training had been alien to the studies of, say, the Middle Ages. Young people [then] became workers from the age of seven — they were fully qualified workmen, up to a point, by the age of seven. Today in the electronic environment a person of three years of age can be senile,  grey, with excess information.

CS: How did that come about?

MM: Just electronically. A child of three today has been around the world  thousands of times with advertisements. He has traveled to every corner of the earth with advertisements and other shows. So that he knows more  than Methuselah. Methuselah at the age of nine hundred had known very  little about this planet. He had never been around the world. But any infant today of three has been around the world many times in every corner of the world and this incredible situation is not recognized in the schools and not  taken advantage of. The phrase ‘grey at three’ comes out of James Joyce’s  Finnegans Wake but Finnegans Wake is quite aware that anybody who learns to speak a proper tongue or dialect has acquired vast information and vast skill. A child who at the age of one speaks English or his native tongue has learned more than he will ever learn again in all his life put together. That is because the language itself is a vast store of information and when a child has learned to speak English or Polish he has learned more than he will ever learn again in all his life put together. Well that is because language has this  peculiar character: it is a storehouse, it’s like a databank. Language is a vast databank stored with the impressions and knowledge of countless millions of people. Anybody who can speak any language has access to this huge databank of a language. Now electronically we are more and more aware of this and we’re more and more trying to simulate these databanks. We’re trying now mechanically as it were to store in databanks things which are  already inherent in any language.

CS: One of the things that occur to a lot of people is, if you take people out of the classroom, how much out of the classroom? What about thinking about that scheme through from high school all the way through to university into adult education. Is there a balance that you should have between inside and outside or should we totally do away [with school]?

MM: Well you can see that the book is loaded with projects which would take teams of students out of the classroom, two or three at a time. They would case the joint, size up their problem, and they’d have to do this by dialogue. They’d have to do a great deal of talking among themselves before, and then interviewing people, before they could go back to the classroom and report what they found. When they go back to the classroom there’s more and more and more dialogue with the people in the classroom and with the teacher of what they [had found].