Not many people think about Marshall McLuhan much now, but I do. He faded from being the best-known professor in North America to something like an obscure prog band still loved by only a few, such as Can—and if you’ve never heard Can's “Vitamin C,” you really should, not only for Damo Suzuki’s poetically critical lyrics but also for the jazzy-mathy Jaki Liebezeit on drums. That’s how I think of McLuhan. Like Can today, he’s “out there.”
Phrases like “out there” are metaphors, and McLuhan loved them. He was an English prof, after all. I’ve been thinking about how his use of metaphors for media might teach us about social media and their metaphors today, e.g., their flaming, their tweets, and their trolls. McLuhan seemed to be calling for new metaphors of media when he was in his heyday in the 1960s. In Understanding Media (1966) and The Medium Is the Massage (1967), McLuhan argues that the media are “extensions” of the person’s capacities, such as hearing and sight. A tweet extends our shrillest sounds. A troll lurks and angrily surprises you.
Yes, you can tell that I am not a fan of social media! But a tweet can be manipulated to reject its own metaphoricity and produce better content, as Jeet Heer has done by popularizing "the Twitter essay," which also shows that the essay remains an essential form of knowledge creation and reflective communication.
Metaphor is inherently reflective, because it always prompts us to wonder, well, how IS a tweet like birdsong? McLuhan implies that all media should be understood through metaphors, using a metaphorical statement to claim that a medium is either a “message” or a “massage.” (A metaphor simply says, A=B, or “this” is “that,” always a statement of shared identity.) Whenever we engage in knowledge translation, e.g., by saying that the International Space Station is about the size of a football field, we are using analogy or metaphor. Scientists do it all the time to help people relate to difficult numbers, concepts, and processes.
So, McLuhan tried to find metaphors applicable to education. Fifty years ago in a book called McLuhan: Hot & Cool (1967), he suggested that education move out of the classroom: “The METROPOLIS today is a classroom; the ads are its teachers. The classroom is an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon.... We must invent a NEW METAPHOR” (116, his emphasis).
In the same year, in the film This Is Marshall McLuhan, he said, “In the nineteenth century, the knowledge inside the school room was higher than the knowledge outside. Today it is reversed. The child knows that in going to school he is in a sense interrupting his education.”
If only the classroom could be like the International Space Station! Much like prison for young people in North America, the classroom is punitive: a “dungeon” meant for “detention.” As a result of this belief, McLuhan thought that teachers would do better not to teach content (and, yes, the Internet can supply it just as well, in some cases) and to teach method instead—not what to think, but how.
It’s an appealing idea, and we certainly do have major problems with education as a system and what it is teaching. Today, CBC News reported that someone filling in for a professor at the University of Guelph allegedly publicly embarrassed or traumatized a student and his aide for their behaviours in their large class of 600 students. The story itself isn’t perfectly germane to this entry on my blog, but a comment from a reader is. In the comments section, someone identified as Walter Wilkins alludes to Marshall McLuhan by remarking, “The student/teacher ratio is one of the explicit features of what’s being taught and learned; the medium isn’t only the message, it’s a problem.” He doesn’t elaborate, but the “explicit feature” that he seems to suggest is that students, when there are so many of them, are just a number, and so professors might treat students insensitively or inhumanely.
In McLuhan’s terms, as a medium, a large class may centre a lot of attention on the professor’s power, and often the large classroom or lecture theatre is designed like an amphitheatre, focusing concentrically on the speaker at the front and centre of the room. Having taught a course in a lecture theatre, I know the feeling of power, but I also know that it can feel like you have been thrown to the tigers for the amusement of a crowd that has power in numbers. During the Maple Spring in Québec, in 2012, my lecture theatre at McGill University was occupied by a group of protesters from various universities, demonstrating how easy it is to disrupt a classroom.
Arguably, the biggest disruption to the classroom today is the Internet in all its forms, but especially social media. In looking for metaphors of the Internet, I was led to Star Trek’s George Takei, who made this analogy: “Social media is like ancient Egypt: writing things on walls and worshiping cats.”
The joke about the cats (which is funny 'cause it’s true, to quote The Simpsons) cues an ironic reading of the rest of the quotation: Social media as a singular entity is not all that old, it’s not all that civilized, it’s as much like graffiti as other forms of writing, and, yes, it’s where we idolize beautiful animals, including humans, or just show off all the gross shit they’re involved in.
Takei was smart. In barely more than a dozen words, he offered a little lesson that expands even as it entertains. McLuhan would have liked it.
In contrast, the tendencies of social media to elicit instant responses and to limit the length of responses (at least in the case of the tweet) are inherently anti-intellectual. Drawing from yet another source from the 1960s, Daniel Rigney learns from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) the most dangerous kind of anti-intellectualism: unreflective instrumentalism, “the dominant ideology of advanced industrial societies and doubly dangerous because its technocratic assumptions are virtually invisible to the unreflective eye. The efficient pursuit of unexamined ends is now arguably the dominant form of anti-intellectualism” (447).
Point. Click. Like. It’s quick and responsive, but we need more than that. We need the classroom of our minds to be “out there” a little farther, closer to the critical distance of the International Space Station. As a classroom the size of a football field, it's big, but there aren't a lot of people up there, so they aren't only numbers. And they have lots of time to think.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Classroom as International Space Station.” Publicly Interested, 17 Jan. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
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Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.