It is all too common to find McLuhan dismissed or praised (some knuckleheads do both at once) as an uncritical champion of electric culture. This is often combined with the view that he rejected the book medium out of hand. In fact, however, McLuhan went from being a champion of the book1 as the decisive medium of culture (up to The Mechanical Bride, say) to being a champion of culture via a new medium of all media.2
He expressed this view many times in the later 1950s, the time when he was attempting to get clear what “the medium is the message” (a phrase he first used in 1958) implied for education, business, research, and, indeed, for all facets of life without exception. This is what had happened with chemistry in the course of the nineteenth century in regard to the exterior landscape and now he foresaw a similar revolutionary transformation in regard to the interior one. Just as chemistry as the language of elements had spread from a few isolated laboratories in England and France to manufacturing, medicine and education around the globe, so McLuhan predicted — and tried desperately to inaugurate himself — “universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves“.
Here he is in a letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958:
Outside of the classroom students are faced with a phalanx of technologies which convey great quantities of information with global range and content. The prestige and power of these media are greater by far than those of the older form of printing. And in the presence of these media students are on their own. A world of global educational scope comes disguised as “entertainment”.
For the perception and judgement of this new world of experience students receive no training. They are warned that it is passive and vulgar and conformist, and they value it the more accordingly. During the first decades of the Gutenberg era the custodians of manuscript culture sat on a Maginot Line and deplored printing. Printing in turn released the power of the vernaculars as new media and classical humanists deplored these vulgar tongues.
This period of lament provides just the time and the tone to inter [ie, bury] the older culture.
But today we cannot afford to liquidate and inter the huge establishment of the social and political achievement represented by printing. Yet if we fail to disentangle the dynamics and motivations of the medium of print from the new media we shall have aided in the destruction of the culture and institutions based on printing. It is possible and necessary today to embark on a new educational venture, namely universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves.
For teachers to use movie and television in the classroom without awareness of the power these media have to reform our entire sensibilities, is to ape the Trojans in fetching within their walls the wooden horse. We are faced with universal illiteracy with regard to the powers of media as media, and of media as message. (…) For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages3 whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us.
- The book = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of the book supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message. ↩
- All media = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of all media supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message. ↩
- Compare ‘Catholic Humanism in Modern Letters’ (1954): “human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.” ↩