McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’)

In 1933 McLuhan obtained his bachelor’s degree from the university and won a University Gold Medal in Arts and Science. (…)  McLuhan’s gold medal along with recommendations from professors such as R.C. Lodge — who called McLuhan his “most outstanding” student — ensured that he would have no problem being accepted at Cambridge. (Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 32 and 34.)

From the very first note included in his published Letters — McLuhan to his mother, Elsie, on February 19, 1931 — it appears that McLuhan had decided as a nineteen year-old that Rupert Lodge was an exceptional talent1 at the University of Manitoba and that he needed to work with him:

Next year2 I shall throw myself into Philosophy and leave the English for the summers. I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English. (Letters 9)

Then, in his job-seeking letter from December 1935 to E.K. Brown, the new head of the UM English department (appointed after McLuhan had left Winnipeg in 1934), McLuhan would write from Cambridge: 

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler3, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79)

The two letters were written almost five years apart and yet they show a remarkable continuity. Halfway through his third year at UM (second in English), McLuhan had identified the path that he would follow over the next three years as he completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees there — namely, he would work chiefly with a professor outside his major, Rupert Lodge in philosophy.

A close personal and intellectual relationship grew up between the two.4 Since both had a strong theoretical bent, their personal and intellectual relations could hardly have been strictly compartmentalized, but McLuhan (as he came to realize himself at Cambridge) had further to grow personally in order to understand (and thereby to share) Lodge’s intellectual insights.

A remarkable portrait of McLuhan is preserved in a paper which Lodge published in 1934 in the Dalhousie Review, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. In the paper Lodge characterized what he held to be the three basic forms of all human experience — realism, idealism and pragmatism5 — in terms of education. Some one of these basic forms must always already be in place to the exclusion of the other two, he held, whenever any sort of human experience unfolds. His idea in ‘Philosophy and Education’ was to illustrate these three forms in terms of the fundamentally different kinds of pupils, teachers and education administrators which are pro-duced from their varying assumption.

Here is Lodge describing what he termed “the idealist pupil” (as contrasted with “the realist pupil” and “the pupil with a pragmatist outlook”):

He feels drawn toward persons rather than subjects, and has a tendency toward hero-worshipMerely to associate with some of the teachers, altogether apart from taking courses with them, seems to help him.6 Others, he avoids.7 However great their objective knowledge, he feels that he has “nothing to learn” from them. When he looks back over his school life, in later years, he finds that the books which were “vital” were not the painfully accurate, up-to-the-last-minute textbooks which bristled with objective footnotes, but the books which, whatever their objective shortcomings, had about them some touch of greatness.

In this portrait of “the idealist pupil” there seems to have been a two-way influence between Lodge and McLuhan. For Lodge almost certainly formulated his description of how an ‘idealist” student thought and behaved taking McLuhan as his model. And McLuhan eventually accepted this description from Lodge as an accurate depiction of how he had experienced the world at the University of Manitoba. At the same time, Lodge’s insistence on the plurality of truth served as a way-marker to McLuhan of how he would have to grow if he were to overcome his provincial limitation to a singular “idealist” bent of mind and become e-ducated — that is, be ex-posed to multiple truths.8

Confirmation of these rather surprising claims may be found in letters McLuhan wrote to his mother, Elsie, and to E.K. Brown (already cited above) in the fall of 1935 when he had entered his second and last undergraduate year at Cambridge.

The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple [he wrote to Elsie] except to those who can attain to see it whole [that is, in its fundamental plurality]. The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time. (McLuhan letter to his mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

McLuhan returned again and again in this letter to Lodge’s view that “truth (…) is not simple”, that there are always “other truths of life”, that there is something both blind and wrong about “harping on one truth”.  Further, in specifying that he had “some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship” he was identifying the way he had been at UM  (now “gone forever”) with Lodge’s portrait of “the idealist pupil” and its “tendency toward hero-worship”.

He made a similar admission in his letter to Brown three months later:

until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.  (McLuhan letter to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

At Manitoba McLuhan had self-admittedly been Lodge’s “idealist pupil”, with “a tendency toward hero-worship“, for whom the books which were ‘vital’ (…) had about them some touch of greatness“. Indeed, in articles he wrote in the Manitoban, only months before he would leave UM for Cambridge, he gave clear evidence of this “idealist” commitment:

Shakespeare (…) no more questioned the health and value of the great traditions that he inherited than a flower disputes the value of the ambient air or the nature of the soil beneath. Men become great only when they accept with gusto a great tradition made by millions before them. (‘George Meredith, Feminist?‘, Manitoban, Nov 21,1933)

Two years ago certain active and noble-spirited students voluntarily undertook to make a comprehensive report of the state of that vital community within the [general] community which is our university. It [“that vital community”] is to the [general] community what the head is to the body. (‘Stupid Student Apathy‘, Manitoban, February 13, 1934)

Whoever reads Newman or “Q”9 on education will discover the simplicity that is the effect of  profundity in the minds of a few great men.  (‘Adult Education‘, Manitoban, Feb 16, 1934)10

According to Lodge, such emphasis on the “vital” and on “greatness” and “hero-worship” was typical of “idealism” — but “idealism” was only one of multiple possible basic approaches to experience. So when McLuhan began at Cambridge to appreciate other manners of experience11 as a “supplement and corrective to that attitude” he had had at Manitoba, it was actually first of all Lodge, not Richards or Leavis or anyone else there, who was his mentor and spur in this process.12

Whether McLuhan appreciated the fundamental role played by Lodge in his education is questionable (although correspondence in the Ottawa papers shows that the two remained in touch until at least 1945). But Lodge and McLuhan himself frequently argued that the dominants of our experience are rarely conscious.

 

  1. Lodge and Henry Wright were the two professors in the UM philosophy department and co-taught some of its offerings, each taking one semester of a year-long course. As well as from Lodge, McLuhan certainly learned much from Wright, especially concerning the centrality of communication and environment for human beings, in ways that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. But McLuhan’s relation with Lodge was more personal and even more influential.
  2. “Next year” — probably the next school year beginning in the fall of 1931.
  3. See Lloyd Wheeler.
  4. In his letter to Brown, McLuhan clearly suggests that Lodge is the person at UM Brown should contact about him.
  5. For discussion of Lodge’s philosophy, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  6. Marchand: “McLuhan (…) noted in his diary that Lodge did not try to slip away from him after lectures” (20).
  7. McLuhan in the letter to Elsie cited above: “I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English.”
  8. It is indicative of how much work McLuhan had yet to do on himself and on his thinking that at Cambridge he directed Lodge’s critique of monolithic living (“one truth at a time”) back against Lodge himself: “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53). In fact, however, McLuhan never grew away from Lodge’s ideas and continued to investigate them, consciously and unconsciously, for the rest of his life.
  9. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), the doyen of the Cambridge English School, about whom McLuhan frequently reported in letters home from Cambridge. Reference to him in this Manitoban article shows that McLuhan was boning up on the school before leaving UM to study there. It may be that McLuhan was referring here to Q’s 1920 book, On the Art of Reading and particularly to its chapter ‘On a School of English‘.
  10. A few months before this ‘Adult Education’ article in the Manitoban, McLuhan had another piece on education, ‘Public School Education’ (Oct 17,1933). His work with Lodge at a time when Lodge was writing ‘Philosophy and Education’ can hardly have been incidental to McLuhan’s interest in these topics.
  11. McLuhan to Elsie from Cambridge only a few months into his career there: “How rapidly my ideas have been shifting and rearranging themselves to make room for others!” (January 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  12. McLuhan’s religious conversion in 1937 surely resulted in part from this e-ducational process in which he learned, personally, that fundamental assumptions are plural and are therefore subject to transformational change.