NAEB seminar December 1957

The NAEB held its first ever research seminar at Ohio State University Dec 9-13, 1957.1 Harry Skornia, the NAEB Executive Director, described the seminar in a note to its invitees dated November 11, 1957, as follows:

This Seminar, which we hope will be only the first in this essential area, seeks to bring together the top twenty or so research people active in and concerned about educational broadcasting, particularly educational television. It will, we hope , help plot research efforts for the future to help insure that research is provided in essential areas, in responsible and adequately supervised form…

The invitees were chosen by the NAEB research committee in a process in which each of its members was asked to rank a list of some 66 candidates (with ‘1’ as the top mark, the results list was ordered like a golf score with the lowest number being best). The clear favorite was Wilbur Schramm of Stanford (formerly of the University of Illinois, where the NAEB was headquartered) who did not, however, accept the NAEB invitation. McLuhan came in at number 4 and did attend the conference.2

McLuhan’s high ranking with the NAEB at this point in his career is thought provoking. He had published two essays in the Columbia Teacher’s College Record — ‘A Historical Approach to the Media’ (1955) and ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ (1956) — and these, given the national prestige of the Teacher’s College, served to certify him as a recognized scholar of media in education.3 But it seems to have been as an editor of Explorations that McLuhan had come to the attention of the NAEB. In a note added to McLuhan’s handwritten acceptance letter of his invitation to the December research seminar, this association was emphasized:4

Similarly in a list of nominations for the seminar:

And again in the title of McLuhan’s presentation to the May 1958 NAEB conference in Washington on educational TV:

In the space of a few years in the middle 50’s McLuhan was able to establish himself as a recognized researcher in education and media. There were, of course, many factors in his past that contributed to this possibility: his work in the early 1930’s at the University of Manitoba with Rupert Lodge on ‘Philosophy and Education’;5 his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the trivium which in large part was a two-thousand-year history of education;6 his appeal to Robert Hutchins to establish a new sort of academy based on Sigfried Giedion’s ideas on “interrelation”;7 his turn to Mallarmé and Joyce around 1950 as artists of “cultural communication”;8 and his broadcast work as an academic with the CBC going back to the late 1940s. It was Explorations, however, working as testimony to McLuhan’s engagement with media, that brought him to the attention, not of the general public certainly, but of the cultural cognoscenti in the US and, to a limited extent, in Europe. Through this attention, McLuhan was able to gain a foothold with the NAEB, in particular with its research committee and with its executive director, Skornia, which would then quickly (in the space of only 3 years!)9 lead to the realization of the Understanding Media project in 1960.


  1. The seminar was funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
  2. See the list of attendees.
  3. It may be that McLuhan’s relationship with Louis Forsdale at the Columbia Teacher’s College was critical for his  work with the NAEB and hence for his subsequent success and fame in the 1960s. In remarks at the start of his dialogue with McLuhan in July 1978, Forsdale speaks of their friendship going back 30 years, that is to the late 1940s. Forsdale invited McLuhan to speak at Columbia in 1955 (See Marchand, 141-142) and must have been influential in McLuhan’s appearances in the Teacher’s College Record around that same time.
  4. McLuhan’s August 20, 1957, note to Skornia refers to “last time I was there it was Ford funds”. It may be, then, that his initial contact with the NAEB — apparently not with Skornia — went back to the time of the Ford Foundation grant, 1953-1956. But another reading of the same sentence could take McLuhan’s “I was there” as referring not to the NAEB in Urbana, Illinois, but to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where the NAEB research seminar was to take place. Future research will have to resolve this question.
  5. See McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’).
  6. See Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  7. See Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947.
  8. See ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’: “In an important book, Communication, the Social Matrix of Psychology, a psychologist and an anthropologist, Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, have recently followed the method of Ulysses in attempting to convey the working image of cultural communication.”
  9. Hegel: “Es ist übrigens nicht schwer, zu sehen, daß unsre Zeit eine Zeit der Geburt und des Übergangs zu einer neuen Periode ist. Der Geist hat mit der bisherigen Welt seines Daseins und Vorstellens gebrochen und steht im Begriffe, es in die Vergangenheit hinab zu versenken, und in der Arbeit seiner Umgestaltung. Zwar ist er nie in Ruhe, sondern in immer fortschreitender Bewegung begriffen. Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und jetzt das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und still der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorhergehenden Welt nach dem anderen auf; ihr Wanken wird nur durch einzelne Symptome angedeutet; der Leichtsinn, wie die Langeweile, die im Bestehenden einreißen, die unbestimmte Ahnung eines Unbekannten sind Vorboten, daß etwas Anderes im Anzug ist. Dieses allmälige Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, mit einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” PhG, Vorrede. Compare McLuhan: “The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (CA, 160) Without yet fully grasping the paradoxical transformation at stake in the insight, McLuhan mentioned it already in 1955: “Everywhere in his work Joyce follows the classical philosophical principle that during ‘the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form’.” (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5)