McLuhan and Skornia 1957 and 1958

According to Jerry Landay, ‘The Cradle of PBS‘,1 for which he interviewed Harry Skornia:

It was as a communications researcher that Skornia met Marshall McLuhan — an encounter that helped establish the reputation of the Canadian scholar. The first contact was a scrawled note from McLuhan at the University of Toronto in April 1957 to NAEB headquarters promoting a subscription to his periodical on culture and communications, Explorations, along with a personal testimonial to “a magazine of great relevance.” The following year, Skornia heard McLuhan lecture at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. The obscure Canadian scholar impressed him. Skornia recruited him as principal investigator on an NAEB research project funded by the U.S. [Office]2 of Education, Understanding Media. (40-41)

Landay seems to have been working with Skornia’s excellent memory of events more than 30 years in the past rather than the underlying documents. McLuhan’s “scrawled note” is given in First contact with the NAEB. It was not much of a promotion for a subscription to Explorations. But that Skornia remembered it decades later as the first step that he and McLuhan took together is indeed noteworthy. The note must have been referred to him and, through some kind of premonition, he must have followed up by looking into Explorations and being impressed enough by it to want to meet McLuhan. 

A note in McLuhan’s Letters (288) agrees with Skornia that the two first met in person at an MLA meeting, but this cannot have been “the following year”. That MLA meeting of 1958, “the following year”, was held in New York and took place in December. By that time, Skornia and McLuhan had already established their frequent correspondence and intense collaboration. The MLA event where they first met in person, then, following Skornia’s attention to McLuhan’s April “scrawled note”, McLuhan’s invitation to the 1957 NAEB research conference and McLuhan’s acceptance note to Skornia that August,3 must instead have been the unusually early MLA meeting (September) held in that same year of 1957. This was indeed the “following” MLA, but not “the following year”. And it was held in Madison — close to Skornia in Illinois and the location of McLuhan’s first teaching job twenty years before.

It seems from the MLA Proceedings for that Madison meeting that Skornia (or Landay) was also mistaken in reporting that McLuhan lectured there. Instead, perhaps through discussions between Skornia and McLuhan at the MLA meeting in September and/or at the research seminar in December, McLuhan was an invited speaker at the NAEB ‘Conference on Educational Television’ in Washington, D.C., at the end of May 1958, co-sponsored (just like McLuhan’s future NAEB project on research in new media), by the US Office of Education. McLuhan’s talk there was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ — a topic close to Skornia’s heart and perhaps designedly so. It along with the other conference papers were issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then McLuhan’s paper there was republished in slightly altered form as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ in the NAEB Journal.4

This version of the progress of the relationship between McLuhan and Skornia seems to have been confirmed by Skornia himself. In his ‘Memo from the Executive Director’ column of the NAEB Newslatter for November 1958, Skornia recorded:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [NAEB] convention [in Omaha in October 1958]. This was roundly seconded by Father [R.C.] Williams of Creighton who had studied under Professor McLuhan,5 and the rest of the [convention program] committee.


  1. ‘The Cradle of PBS’, Illinois Quarterly, 3:1, Winter 1991, 35 – 41.
  2.  Landay: “Department”.
  3. See NAEB seminar December 1957.
  4.  NAEB Journal, 18:1, 1958.
  5. See McLuhan and Father R.C. WilliamsWilliams was an MA student of McLuhan at SLU along with Walter Ong. After graduating from SLU, Williams taught at Rockhurst College (when William McCabe, SJ, was the President there), then moved to Creighton University in Omaha when McCabe became its President in turn. Williams remained at Creighton for the rest of his long career, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.