Monthly Archives: April 2022

Classroom without walls

We have in our post-literacy come to the age of the classroom without walls. (1969 Counterblast)

As described in First contact with the NAEB, McLuhan’s initial step towards work with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters took place in April 1957. But in the 3 years before this, he had renewed the interest in educational theory and practice that he had pursued in the 1940s (as seen in his 1943 PhD thesis, his 1944 lecture on ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ and his 1947 education proposal to Robert Hutchins).1

A decade later, in the mid 1950s, he began to speak of the revolutionary effects of the new media on education, as marked by the catch-phrase “classroom without walls”.

Part of McLuhan’s impetus in this direction was doubtless his discontent with the situation of the humanities and social sciences — and with his own situation in that situation. More and more books, essays, theses, lectures, meetings and courses were flooding the world from these ‘disciplines’: but to what end? Hence his attraction to the work at MIT on cybernetics and to the communications research at Bell Labs. With these there was an objective engagement in stark contrast to the merely subjective, merely personal accumulation of benefits in the academy.

At the same time, and hardly unrelated to that situation in the academy, he saw that among the effects of the new media from comics to LPs to TV was the corrosion of the very foundations of education.  Teachers from kindergarten to grad school lacked direction and students correspondingly sensed a disproportion between what they were learning in school and the world outside it. As a teacher himself, McLuhan felt called to address this confused situation and to do so by taking the sort of field approach that had proved so fruitful in the hard sciences from physics to cybernetics.  

The idea, following Giedion, was to apply a kind of homeopathy where the very thing that was overturning the world — the electric revolution — would be interrogated for a way to right it again.

“Classrooms without walls” passages are given below in chronological order from McLuhan’s writings between 1954 and 1957. These paved the way for his life-changing engagement with the NAEB from 1958 to 1960 (just before McLuhan turned 50):

Erasmus was perhaps the first to grasp the fact that the [print] revolution was going to occur above all in the classroom. He devoted himself to the production of textbooks and to the setting up of grammar schools. The printed book soon liquidated two thousand years of manuscript culture. It created the solitary student. It set up the rule of private interpretation against public disputation. It established the divorce between “literature and life”.2 It created a new and highly abstract culture because it [print] was itself a mechanized form of culture. Today, when the [print] textbook has yielded to the classroom project and [to] the classroom as social workshop and discussion group, it is easier for us to notice what was going on in 1500 [namely, an educational revolution]. (…) Today, [again], when power technology has taken over the entire global environment to be manipulated as the material of art, nature has disappeared [along] with nature-poetry. And the effectiveness of the classroom has diminished with the decline of the monopoly of book-culture. If Erasmus saw the classroom as the new stage for the drama of the printing press, we can see today that the new situation for young and old alike is classrooms without walls. The entire urban environment has become aggressively pedagogic. Everybody and everything has a message to declare, a line to plug.3 (Sight, Sound, and the Fury, 1954)4

What Erasmus saw was that the printed book was to revolutionize education. He saw that the book gave new scope and power to the classroom. What we have to see is that the new media have created classrooms without walls. Just as power technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art, so the new media have transformed the the entire environment into an educational affair. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)5

The METROPOLIS today is a classroom6 (…) The [school] classroom [by contrast] is an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon. (Counterblast, 1954)

With the arrival of [book] print [around 1500], Erasmus and his humanist colleagues saw exactly what had to be done in the classroom. They did it at once. [By comparison,] with the arrival [300 years later] of the [newspaper] press, nothing was done. (…) Keeping in mind the extraordinary complexity and range of impact of the mere mechanization of writing by Gutenberg and measuring that impact merely by the total change of procedure in the sixteenth century classroom, I think we should try to imagine how sweeping a revolution should have taken place in our classrooms a century ago [with the arrival in the 1800s of the newspaper and its supporting social infrastructure (media) like the steam press and roads]. (An Historical Approach to Media, 1955)7 

Writing was a visualizing of the acoustic which split off or abstracted one aspect of speech, setting up a cultural disequilibrium of great violence. The dynamism of the Western World may well proceed from the dynamics of that disequilibrium. If so, our present stage of media development suggests the possibility of a new equilibriumOur craving today for balance and an end to ever-accelerating change may quite possibly be related to the very possibility of achieving that balance. (…) But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean (…) on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality. Already we are accustomed to a concert [or orchestration] of the arts, of the sensuous channels and of the media. And in this respect we shall resemble preliterate and prehistoric societies in the inclusiveness of our awareness.8 That means also that we shall tend as they did toward homogeneity of experience and organization [between individual and society, between subject and object]. Perhaps, therefore, we have in our post-literacy come to the age of the classroom without walls.
It was very hard at first for the contemporaries of Erasmus to grasp that the printed book meant that the main channel of information and discipline was no longer the spoken word or the single language. Erasmus was the first to act on the awareness that part of the new revolution was going to be felt in the classroom. He decided to direct the revolution from the classroom. I think the same situation confronts us. We are already experiencing the discomfort and challenge of classrooms without walls, just as the modern painter has to modify his techniques in accordance with art reproduction and museums without walls. We can decide either to move into the new wall-less classroom in order to act upon our total environment, or to look on it as the last dike holding back the media flood. (…) In such an age with such resources [as ours], the walls of the classroom disappear if only because everybody outside the classroom is consciously engaged in national and international educational campaigns. Education today is totalitarian because there is no corner of the globe or of inner experience which we are not eager to subject to scrutiny and processing. So that if the old-style educator feels that he lives in an ungrateful world, he can also consider that never before was education so much a part of commerce and politics. Perhaps it is not that the educator has been shouldered aside by men of action so much as that he has been swamped by high-powered imitators. If education has now become the basic investment and activity of the electronic age, then the classroom educator can recover his role only by enlarging it beyond anything it ever was in any previous culture. (Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956)9

Print evoked the walls of the classroom. (…) The movie and TV [evoked the] classroom without wallsBefore print the community at large was the centre of education. Today, information-flow and educational impact outside the classroom is so far in excess of anything occurring inside the classroom that we must reconsider the educational process itself. The [school] classroom is now a place of detention, not attention. Attention is elsewhere [engaged with the classroom without walls, aka the world outside the school]. (The Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, 1956)10

If “mass media” should serve only to weaken or corrupt our previously achieved levels of verbal and pictorial culture, it will not be because there is anything inherently wrong with these media. It will be because we have failed to master them as new languages in time to assimilate them to our total cultural heritage. (…) All of the new media are so many poetic means of packaging the age-old offerings of human culture. Sooner or later we shall recognize the need to study press, radio, movies, and TV as poetic forms in the classroom. (Classroom TV, 1956)11 

The ways of official literacy do not equip the young to know themselves, the past, or the present. In the schoolroom officialdom suppresses all their natural experience; children of technological man are divorced from their culture, they cease to respond with untaught delight to the poetry of trains, ships, planes, and to the beauty of machine products. They are not permitted to approach the traditional heritage of mankind through the door of technological awareness; this [is the] only possible door for them [and it] is slammed in their faces. The only other door is that of the high-brow.12 Few find it, and fewer [still] find their way back [from it] to popular culture, and to the classrooms without walls that the new languages [of media] have created.13 (The New Languages, 1956)14

Before the printing press, the young learned by listening, watching, doing. So, until recently, our own rural children learned the language and skills of their elders. Learning took place outside the classroom.15 Only those aiming at professional careers went to school at all. Today in our cities, most learning occurs outside the classroom. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press-magazines-film-TV-radio far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school instruction and texts. This challenge has destroyed the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid and cracked the very walls of the classroom so suddenly that we’re confused, baffled. (Classrooms Without Walls, 1957)16  


  1. The twin sources of McLuhan’s early interest in education were Rupert Lodge and Sigfried Giedion. McLuhan had worked closely with Lodge at the University of Manitiba on the latter’s 1934 ‘Philosophy and Education‘ paper and his Cambridge Nashe thesis from 1943 represented a very extended development of its central idea — namely, that education is always in-formed by one of three mutually exclusive foundational structuring principles. Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, which McLuhan read just after he had submitted that thesis, argued that modern culture in all its manifestations suffered from a lack of ‘orchestration’. As McLuhan combined these notions from Lodge and Giedion in his 1954 ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’: “Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness.” This need for ‘orchestration’ fit with McLuhan’s notion that modernity suffered from the decline of ‘grammar’ among the foundational trivial arts — a notion he was still developing with ‘Grammars of the Media‘  in 1958.
  2. The divorce between literature and life had already occurred in a relatively minor key with the advent of literacy in Greece. Indeed, some such ‘divorce’ is necessarily implicated whenever an area of life is isolated for focused attention and conceptualization. This cannot be achieved via the ‘rear-view mirror’.
  3. In a way never seen before, everything in 20th century social and political life from motherhood to patriotism had become a product to be manufactured and sold. This introduced a bifurcation between ‘education’ outside the school, where everything was ‘up in the air’, subject to the suspicion of being only “a line to plug”, and inside the school, where everything — what to study and how to study it — was supposedly ‘grounded’. More, any attempt to heal this breach was necessarily seen as one more “line to plug”, thereby introducing a characteristic modern and postmodern complication to the care for social health.
  4. Commonweal, 60:1, April 9, 1954.
  5. Explorations 2April 1954.
  6. As cited above from ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’ (1954): “The entire urban environment has become aggressively pedagogic. Everybody and everything has a message to declare, a line to plug. the ads are its teachers.”
  7. Teachers College Record, November 1955.
  8. Much of this passage would later be used in the 1969 Counterblast: “Writing was probably the greatest cultural revolution known to us because it broke down the walls between sight and sound. Writing was a visualizing of the acoustic which split off or abstracted one aspect of speech, setting up a cultural disequilibrium of great violence. The dynamism of the Western world may well proceed from the dynamics of that disequilibrium. If so, our present stage of media development suggests the possibility of a new equilibrium. Our craving today for balance and an end of ever accelerating change, may quite possibly point to the possibility thereof. (…) But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean very heavily on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality. Already we are accustomed to a concert of the arts, of the sensuous channels and of the media. And in this respect we shall resemble pre-literate and pre-historic societies in the inclusiveness of our awareness.”
  9. Teachers College Record, March 1956.
  10. Explorations 6,  July 1956.
  11. Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education, #12, 1956.
  12. This was McLuhan’s way, of course.
  13. The first lines of this same paper on ‘The New Languages’: “English is a mass medium. All languages are mass media. The new mass media — film, radio, television — are new languages, their grammars as yet unknown. Each codifies reality differently; each conceals a unique metaphysics.”
  14. Chicago Review, Spring, 1956, also in Explorations 7.
  15. In the 1930s Eric Havelock at UT was describing education in pre-classical Greece in this way. See Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  16. Explorations 7, March 1957.

Classroom TV (1956)

In the early and middle 1950s, the Copp Clark Publishing Company issued a series of ‘Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education’. The 12th of these, issued in 1956 and titled ‘Classroom TV’, was written written by McLuhan.

Classroom TV1

It is very natural today to speak of “audio and Visual aids” to teaching, for we still think of the book as the norm and of other media of sight and sound as incidental.  We also speak of the new media of the press, movies, radio, and TV as “mass media” and think of the book as an individualistic form.

We have good reasons for thinking of the book as individualistic. It is a form which isolates the reader or learner in silence. Yet the printed book was the first product of mass-production — the modern mechanization of an ancient handicraft. This achievement meant that more or less everybody could have the same books. In medieval times it was out of the question for different institutions to have the same books or for students to have copies of the same book for study. Manuscripts, as well as explanations of the text, were dictated to students, and the students memorized as much as possible of both text and commentary.

Under these conditions instruction was almost entirely oral and was done in groups. Before the advent of printing, solitary study was reserved for the advanced scholar. In its beginnings the printed book must have appeared as a visual aid to oral instruction.

Before the printing press made its great revolution in the teaching and learning process, the young learned mostly by listening, watching, and doing. Until recent years, children in our own rural communities learned the language and the lore and skills of their elders in much the same way. Most learning took place outside school and classroom, and only the very few aiming at professional careers ever went to school at all.2

Again today in our highly technological cities a great deal of learning occurs outside the school. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press, picture magazines, movies, radio, and TV far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school books or school instruction. This situation has challenged the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid, and in fact has challenged the very role of the school. It has come upon us so suddenly that we are confused and baffled about what to do. 

In this violently upsetting social situation many teachers naturally view the offerings of the new media as entertainment rather than education. But this view carries no conviction to the student. It is hard to find a classic on our curricula which wasn’t in an earlier time regarded as light entertainment. Nearly all vernacular works were so regarded until the nineteenth century. Many movies on historical subjects are obviously handled with a degree of insight and maturity at least equal to the level permitted in texts for social studies today. Movies such as Olivier’s productions of Henry V and Richard III assemble a wealth of scholarly and artistic skill which reveal Shakespeare at a very high level, yet in a way easy for the young to enjoy. Could it not be said that the movie is to dramatic [stage] representation what the printed book is to the manuscript? It makes available to many people and at many times and places what otherwise would have been restricted to few people at few times and places. The movie, like the book, is a ditto device. TV can show to fifty million people simultaneously the same movie which in theatres would reach only a series of small audiences.

Some people feel that the value of experiencing a book is diminished by its being extended to many minds. This notion is always implicit in the phrase “mass medium” or “mass entertainment”. But it is not a very useful phrase since it obscures the fact that the English language itself is essentially a mass medium. If a language is not the means of inter-personal communication for millions of people, we regard it as unimportant.3 Today we are beginning to realize that the new media are not just mechanical gimmicks for creating worlds of illusion, but new languages with new and unique powers of expression.

One does not require a very extensive acquaintance with English literature to see how profoundly the resources of our language have been shaped and expressed in constantly new and changing ways. Mass-production by the printing press changed not only the quantity of writing, but also the character of language and the relations between author and public. Habits of word order in grammatical construction were changed by the printed form, and with the coming of the power press and the modern newspaper the structure of English syntax was modified even more rapidly.

Radio, talking pictures, and TV have pushed written English towards the spontaneous shifts and freedom of the spoken idiom. And the poets, from Hopkins and Hardy to Eliot and Dylan Thomas, have insisted on bringing the resources of Spoken English to the foreground of poetic effect.

The great voice of Dylan Thomas heard over microphone and LP disc provided the first real experience of poetry for millions of people. These people did not mind that his erudite and witty verse was incomprehensible to them at first. They listened to his poetry as they might have listened to Casals’ cello. Microphone and disc have added a great new dimension to the printed or written word, just as movies and TV have recovered intense awareness of the language of facial and bodily gesture. If these “mass media” should serve only to weaken or corrupt our previously achieved levels of verbal and pictorial culture, it will not be because there is anything inherently wrong with these media. It will be because we have failed to master them as new languages in time to assimilate them to our total cultural heritage.

As these new developments come under a quiet analytic survey, the evidence points to a basic strategy of culture for the classroom. When the printed book appeared, it threatened the oral procedures of teaching. Yet the [book created the classroom as we know it and enabled every student to have the same authors before him simultaneously. Instead of making his own text, his own dictionary, and his own grammar; he could start out with these tools. He could study not one ‘but several languages. But there is a real sense in which the new media today threaten the procedures of this traditional classroom instead of merely reinforcing them. It is customary to answer this threat with denunciations of the unfortunate character and effect of movie and TV entertainment. In the same way comic books were feared and scorned and rejected from the classroom. Their good and had features in form and content, when carefully set beside other kinds of art and narrative, could have become a major asset to the teacher. Where the student interest is already intensely focused is the natural point at which to begin the elucidation of other problems and interests. The educational task is not only to provide basic tools of perception, but also to develop judgement and discrimination to deal with ordinary social experience.

Few students have ever acquired  skill in analysis of newspaper or magazine offerings. Even fewer have any ability to discuss a movie intelligently. To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated person. Whatever we do about TV in the classroom, we cannot forever dodge the responsibility of training students to evaluate this medium. 

As we face the prospect of TV in the school, it would be misleading to suppose that there is any basic difference between educational and entertainment programmes. This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter. It is like setting up a distinction between didactic and lyric poetry on the ground that one teaches and the other pleases. It has always been true that whatever pleases teaches much more effectively. In his great Apologia for Poetrie Sir Philip Sidney wrote that, as opposed to the philosopher, the poet

dooth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will intice any man to enter into it. . . . He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent4 with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for the well inchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale forsooth he commeth unto you: with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.

Sidney’s argument is that poetry is not merely an attractive coating for the core disciplines, but that it alone can enlist the appetite for knowledge. And knowledge without appetite for the same is null.

Today, all of the new media are so many poetic means of packaging the age-old offerings of human culture. Sooner or later we shall recognize the need to study press, radio, movies, and TV as poetic forms.5

It is too much to expect that this need will be faced at once. Accordingly we must look at the intermediate state in which there will be occasional use of TV in the classroom.

In Canada the C.B.C. has made two experiments in classroom TV. The first was in 1954 and was described in a published report. Two years earlier, the B.B.C. had offered to selected classrooms twenty programmes dealing with science, geography, current affairs, and industry. The resulting study of their reception and effect led to the recommendation of a regular service of this kind which was then scheduled for 1957-58.

From 1945 to 1951 the British Ministry of Education experimented with school telecasts and then in 1951 began regular programmes (aimed for the most part at secondary schools) four days a week. In the United States the Federal Communications Commission reserved mere than 250 TV channels for educational stations. Some dozens of these channels are now in use providing school and university instruction. Most of the school programmes in the U.S.A. are the result of the collaboration of teachers and students on an amateur basis. The professional services of script-writers, actors, and se-designers have so far been little used.

The two Canadian experiments, in 1954 and in 1956, were inspired both by the earlier experiments outside Canada and by the recognition of “the tremendous impact that television is making on the minds and tastes of the rising generation of viewers. Its effects have been felt in every field of juvenile life — hobbies, homework, sport, reading, social intercourse, manners, and family relations.”

The aim of the experiment was “to determine whether, and to what extent, television could help the teacher in her daily classroom work. Thus it was hoped to find out whether television could take its place alongside the other teaching aids such as radio, films, film strips, and slides, which are already so widely used in Canadian schools.”

Towards this end it was decided to focus on the Ontario curriculum and select two levels, grades 5 and 6 on one hand and grades 7 and 8 on the other. For grades 5 and 6 a programme on How Columbus Navigated was prepared. Next a traffic-safety programme, Look Alert–Stay Unhurt, was brought out, followed by Surface Patterns and Starbuck Valley Winter.

For grades 7 and 8 there was The House of History, a tour of the home of William Lyon Mackenzie, and also Iran from the North, Save Our Soil, and Current Events. The standard of production was professional, using the full resources of the C.B.C. staff and studios.

These programmes were viewed in ordinary classroom conditions, and questionnaires for teachers were prepared to assist in evaluating the experiment. There was a generally favourable response to the broadcasts. The teachers’ comments made such points as these: “Television can help teachers create a climate for learning.” “The lesson was dead — more animation required.” “Leaves pupils with a healthy curiosity.” “Topic did not warrant the time on it.” 

The report mentions that “no attempt was made to survey pupils’ reactions to the programmes, apart from general questions on teachers’ evaluation forms.” This may well have been a mistake since these programmes were in direct competition with the many other TV programmes already familiar to students. These programmes were not regular class instruction but incidental to such instruction. An experiment in direct instruction in some curriculum topic should be made under the same conditions, so that teacher and student reactions could be evaluated. After all, so far as providing a climate for instruction, press, radio, movies, magazines, and TV already constitute a new tropical jungle within which the classroom teacher attempts to carry on teaching as usual. Our classrooms may be said to provide a tenderfoot training for students who are obliged to cope with sabre-tooth problems in their ordinary environment.

Alternatives to the CBC experiments are rapidly being explored in the United States. One of these is closed-circuit TV, which can be used to make the instructor in one class simultaneously available to all the classes in the city, or can be used on a continent-wide service, as the Medical Association used it to instruct doctors about the Salk vaccine. Another alternative is the new technique of recording sight and sound on a single tape; it will make any TV programme or film almost as available and as inexpensive as an LP disc.

In any estimate, TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. Only the most expert teachers will be called on, and they will be obliged to prepare and to process their lessons with a care and consideration that is seldom found or expected in the preparation for a single class. Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. As one wit pointed out, TV is the biggest log ever invented, and Mark Hopkins can now sit at one end and all the students at the other.6

It is also characteristic of the TV medium that instead of leaving the student twenty or thirty feet from the teacher, TV picks him up and puts him in the teacher’s lap where he has a quiet, easy voice speaking right into his ear. Moreover, the minute expressiveness of eye and face becomes much more visible than in the ordinary classroom.

This means that the talents and powers of the individual teacher will have to be carefully studied by the TV producer just as movie producers have always considered the individual excellences and weaknesses of their actors. And this again presents problems to teachers using such TV programmes. Will their own efforts begin to appear, by comparison, trite and puny to their pupils? Will the TV programmes fit into or disrupt their own teaching? Will the pupils become careless about their homework? From these and similar questions and problems of TV in the classroom there emerges the obvious need for close teamwork between the schools and the producers.7

Within the classroom in which the TV programmes occur, it would seem likely that the teacher will be drawn more and more from the blackboard to the student’s elbow. As TV takes up the visual job, the teacher will assume more and more the psychological job of assisting the individual learning process. TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world; and in another sense, restore him to a much closer relation to the individual student.

Does TV instruction mean that education will be extended much farther than ever attempted in the present classroom? Does it mean that by virtue of having a higher quality of instruction at the studio end there will be a richer educational result? Does it mean that child and parent will be able to share the same instruction? If the instruction is broadcast to the present type of classroom, will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers? How far would such changes affect the present supply and quality of teachers? Would high-level instruction received simultaneously by teacher and student enable the room teacher to achieve a higher personal standard?

It would seem that the number of room teachers required would not be affected, but the demands made of their physical and nervous energies might be lessened. Moreover, the opportunities of the teacher to follow TV programme instruction with personal supervision of individual work would increase to the point of becoming the main mode of teaching. And many parents would be able to follow at home the daily broadcast instruction to their children in school.

It may be a great while before any significant proportion of essential and initial instruction is transferred to TV presentation, even in the U.S.A. The purpose of this essay is not to advocate any changes but merely to survey the situation. For those who wish to look further into these matters some pertinent discussions are listed [in the bibliography] on the next page.


  1. Bolding has been added to some passages.
  2. A decade before this, when McLuhan first arrived at UT, he probably saw Eric Havelock’s description of Greek education in just these same terms.  For discussion see Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  3. Therefore the ongoing wholesale destruction of ‘minority’ languages by us mindless modern ‘humans’.
  4. Presumably the margin between ignorance and learning.
  5. McLuhan adds here: “in the classroom”. But the point of such study was, of course, to take the classroom out of the school into the world at large — “classrooms without walls”.
  6. Referring to one of the foremost educators of the day, President James Garfield (1831-1881) expressed his concept of an ideal university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other”. McLuhan returns to the ideal of one-on-one education (which he himself had experienced at Cambridge) later in his essay: “will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers?
  7. McLuhan was well aware that the presence or absence of “close teamwork” between the academy and the outside world was exactly one of the most important differences between the humanities and social sciences, on the one hand, and the physical sciences on the other.

NAEB grant for “understanding media”

The NAEB “Understanding Media” project, which would commence in September 1959, was notified of its funding by the HEW Office of Education in a letter from May 15, 1959:

‘Schooley’ in the top left referred to Frank E Schooley (1906-1987), professor at the University of Illinois, and the past president of the NAEB. The current NAEB president, William G Harley (1911-1998), was also at the University of Illinois and the director of its radio station.

The note on the right top is from H J (Harry) Skornia (1910-1991), McLuhan’s great supporter and friend, who was the NAEB Executive Director. Skornia, who was cc’d on the letter, directed  that copies go to the NAEB board, to the NAEB research committee and to McLuhan. “Work to be done”!

“Imagine that?”, he asks, ‘what about that’! But with that question mark instead of an exclamation, Harry may also have been addressing those who had doubted that a grant could be won, perhaps including McLuhan and surely including Harry himself to some extent as well. Time unspecified between the past and present, the exfoliated message was: ‘you couldn’t imagine that this could be done? Can you imagine it now’? 

It is noteworthy that the Office of Education apparently had a ‘New Educational Media Branch’ to whom Skornia had persuaded McLuhan to direct the funding request. McLuhan had argued that new media could not be understood alone, but only as first of all belonging to the general field of all media, past, present and future. But he gave way to Skornia’s practical advice to target ‘new media’ — at least in their proposal.

On May 18, presumably the day the letter was received, Skornia wrote McLuhan of the award: “Let’s make this the finest thing to hit North American education in a century.”