Grammars of the Media

Beyond general discussions, the first concrete step towards the NAEB Understanding Media funding proposal (submitted to the HEW Office of Education March 27, 1959) was a short composition called ‘Grammars of the Media1 which McLuhan sent to Skornia on October 28, 1958:

Grammars of the Media
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Having long been engaged in exploring the characters of the various media of communication, I have become convinced that what is needed is a series of Grammars of the Media. A “grammar of a medium” like English or Latin means a codified awareness of the powers and properties of the medium. And the advantage of such codification is its speed and precision in teaching and imparting the special powers of the medium.

Today the young are confronted daily with several media besides that of their mother tongue. The absence of any grammar or articulated awareness of these new media is a source of weakness and confusion both for teacher and student alike, for we are attempting the conscious articulation and instruction of formal education in only one medium — that is, English. More to the point, however, is the fact that the medium of English is recognized as existing only on the written or printed plane.

The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our

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educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media.

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.

Perhaps the overall situation can be expressed this way. About 7500 years ago the phonetic alphabet enabled men to arrest, observe, and spell out a great variety of mental and verbal motions. Yet the peculiar powers and properties of the phonetic technology have in themselves gotten about as little educational attention as have the unique powers and properties of print or the TV image. Educators have used these things as audio-visual aids in varying degrees but without specific attention to their effects on the habits of perception and judgement. Today, however, we cannot afford this easy-going unconcern because the peculiar powers of print, telegraph, photo, TV, movie, typewriter, gramophone, and tape are in strong and jarring conflict. Their constant co-presence has created a situation unknown before, a situation far richer educationally than ever before, yet so confused that the danger is that we smother all the media by their unstudied and uncoordinated expressions.

Right off, this situation amounts to a sort of national and even global classroom without walls. It had been the glory of

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Gutenberg that he gave us a class-room with walls and curricula with boundaries. Until his mechanization of the handicraft of writing it had been unthinkable that students and readers everywhere could have almost simultaneous access to exactly repeatable data. 
It was this exactly repeatable character that made possible the modern classroom, so remote in kind from the student pattern of antiquity and the middle ages.

Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed word. Yet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

At present we are aware of the nuclear clash with lineal education only in the form of the decline of attention in the classroom and in the intense rivalry created by the out-of-class offerings. This, of course, is immediately the area of challenge to educational broadcasting. It needs the most careful study in media terms rather than in the form of program and curriculum content. Exact knowledge

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of the educational power exerted by a medium, quite apart from any particular content, becomes necessary when a society is using widely a variety of media at the same time. So long as educational procedures are conducted in only one or two media, such analysis is less insistently indicated. Or so long as the young are not exposed to such a variety of media the formal stress of educational procedure can be effectively confined to one or two media.

Formal education in the middle ages was confined to a few people and to the medium of Latin. But after print Latin could not contain even the basic information flow. And as soon as codified information moved into the vernacular media it became necessary to educate the student in the grammar and powers of these media.

Such is, in an unexpectedly new manner, the case again today. Highly codified and patterned information is available ’round-the- globe’ and ’round-the-clock’ in a variety of media. Most decisive of all factors in lending character to this new information structure is the basic fact of the simultaneous, which is inevitable in any electronic structure. And as any business organization is aware, the time factor in the information flow entirely determines the inter-personal patterns of the organization. A slow-moving memorandum set-up will enclose each member of the personnel in a private office space. Telephone and telegraph will tend to send all personnel out into a common space such as “the partners room” in a stock brokerage. For the speed of decision calls for constant face-to-face processing of data.

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Electronic information-flow strongly impels people to assume oral and face-to-face relations at all times in teaching and learning. Moreover, it just as strongly throws the load of communication in a do-it-yourself direction. The natural and discriminating consumer habits of patient attention fostered by print and reading, get short shrift from the electronic media which cast the “viewer” increasingly in a “do-it-yourself” role. 
Here, for example, is the explanation why the new poetry, music, and painting are so unintelligible to those trained in the earlier consumer habits. For the new arts , like the new media, expect the audience to be co-author, and co-producer. And students now refuse the docile consumer role in the classroom.

Until, therefore, the psychic geography, as it were, of the world of the new media has been discerned and described, educators are going to be an elite corps without maps or strategy. The first step towards this goal could be a manual of grammars of the media.

  1. In a letter to Walter Ong from September 21, 1957, McLuhan notes: “Am giving a private course this Fall to 30 secondary school teachers on the Grammars of the Media.” (Letters, 251)
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” is original to McLuhan.