Marshall McLuhan in academic garb, January 21, 1967, photograph by Yousuf Karsh (copyright Karsh Estate)
Marshall McLuhan’s Convocation Address, The University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. On this occasion on November 20th, 1971, he was awarded an Honorary LLD.
It is nice to be home. I left here when I was four and have vivid memories of Edmonton that I can date exactly. Having been born here, I have gradually fought my way East through smugness and smog familiarity breeds consensus. Diligent local research has actually uncovered the old homestead of the McLuhan’s (maybe it is the undercover wild-life agents who were responsible for excavating it). I haven’t seen it; perhaps I will get to see it before I go.
The sort of diagnosis that I have sometimes rendered of the situation in which we exist has often been challenged, as it were in the style of “Doctor, your diagnosis is different from all the other doctors,” to which one can only reply, “Well, the autopsy will show that I was right.” I am going to comment on the biggest disease of our time: being unwanted. The December issue of Playboy magazine is going to carry an article entitled “The Coming of the Psychopath.” It opens with the statement, “Psychopaths were once considered moral imbeciles; now they may be the only ones truly in tune with the times.”
We have moved into the age of the rip-off as a kind of a personal art form. What had formerly been [an] entrepreneurial way life in the 19th-century hardware world, the world of strip-mining and compulsive scrapping of resources has now become an art form, a psychological software pattern. The same pattern of shift from hardware to software has occurred in politics: instead of the political machines and policies, politics have moved to the age of public relations and image-making. Already in the 19th century, there has been the loss of human community by the speed up of transportation.
E. R. Leach, Anthropologist, in his Runaway World, describes how English communities were liquidated by the railway trains, leaving opportunities for whole communities to emigrate, and to, when all the cousins, uncles and aunts had left, leave the nuclear family stark and isolated. The plays of Ibsen are a familiar example. When groups of human figures are starkly presented to the audience minus any social ground or human community, this in a word is abstract art: figures without ground. Speed-up pushes all work and living towards specialism that is the dissolution of community.
The specialist, whether a workman or a scholar, looks for a place to fit into. He is a figure against the ground of the market. Unemployment has, itself, become a social ground for the figure of the welfare recipient. These situations, namely the stark human figure minus the social ground, whether Ibsen’s “Doll’s House” or Babbitt’s “America” or the specialist’s skills starkly outlined against the ground of unemployment, all of these are basically 19th-century images. What has happened today is that there is a new hidden ground of all human enterprises, namely a world environment of electric information, and against this new environment the old ground of 19th-century hardware, whether at school or factory, whether of bureaucracy or entertainment, stands out as incongruous.
The biggest contemporary disease, as the headline put it, is “being unwanted.” Everybody now grows up in accordance with old patterns of training which offer no means of relation or interface with the new information environment. Electric information has now become as indispensable to people as water to fish, but people cannot yet accommodate to this rarefied environment. A New Yorker cartoon showed two fish on the sand, one said to the other “this is where the action is.”
This is now a universal illusion: people now living in a new element of electric information still seek to find the action in the old solid element of specialist goals and education and job training. In the world of management and decision-making, the successful executive is an automatic drop-out. As he mounts the ladder of promotion, he quickly loses touch with the new surround of information as his work becomes more and more dependent on the advice of specialists. He, too, is a figure without a ground.
It is this situation that Ivan Illich addresses himself to in Deschooling Society. He is vividly aware of the irrelevance of current curricula, drills and certification. He knows that these can no longer help us relate to the new world, and he frankly appeals to the forms of preliterate, and even prenatal experience as models for the training now needed. As Coleridge said “If you wish to acquire a man’s knowledge, first start with his ignorance.” Illich is unaware, I’ll repeat: Illich is ignorant of the new all-inclusive “surround” of electric information which has enveloped man, but it is his instinctive response to this new ground that in some measure validates the figure-image he suggests for the new school. For example, he says “Since most people today live outside industrial societies, most people today do not experience childhood. In the Andes, you till the soil once you become useful: before that you watch sheep; if you are well nourished you should be useful by 11, and otherwise by 12.”
Illich relates this story: “Recently I was talking to my night-watchman, Marcos, about his 11-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a nino. Marcos answered with a guileless smile, ‘Don Ivan, I guess you are right.’ I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons.” What Illich has in mind, although he does not state it, is that childhood was unknown in the Middle Ages and was a renaissance invention that came in with printing, and is ending very rapidly now in the television age. The television child skips childhood, leaps into adulthood without benefit of schooling.
The electric environment has, in effect, restored us to a paleolithic stage of the hunter. The hunter is the man who must use all his faculties to read the total environment. In the electric age, by far the biggest human occupation has become man-hunting. It is the age of 007, espionage, and counter-espionage and of credit ratings; of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. In a word, it is the age of the Cyclops. All that Ivan Illich postulates as an ideal state for education has already happened. The man-hunter and the job-hunter have succeeded the hunter and warfare and welfare merge in a way of life as completely as any Paleolithic or Stone Age society.
In preliterate society warfare and welfare are one in the same form of life. As we move into the age of etherealization discerned by Toynbee and stressed by Buckminster Fuller, we do more and more with less and less. Man himself becomes discarnate data, a sort of disembodied spirit coexisting and functioning simultaneously in diverse locations, whether by telephone or by television: on the telephone, you are there, they are here. We traverse eons of human development in minutes and live in an inclusive present which assumes all pasts and futures they are all one.
The Anthropologist, E. S. Carpenter, has expressed his experiments in New Guinea in which, by the use of photographs and movies made on the spot, he carried these very paleolithic people through countless centuries of evolutionary cultural development in a few hours. It is not only the academic or scientific specialist who finds himself in a freakish position in a world of instant information. The service environments available to ordinary persons, whether of travel or general consumer services, far exceed the power of any private wealth to provide for itself. The richest men have become hotel hermits, unable to find any more conspicuous means of consumption than those that are adapted to their personal or commercial security.
If personal wealth has become a comic and frustrating encumbrance in a world of universal public services, the school and university are in an equally paradoxical situation insofar as they are committed to providing packaged information on a wide variety of subjects. Today the micro-dot library has general access to every kind of information. It is quite independent of our educational programs. This new electric access to information has suddenly cast the audience in the role, not as spectator or consumer, but as explorer and investigator. The immediate need and future of education is not in the dissemination of knowledge, but of ignorance. The open university of the U.K. made the ordinary mistake of putting the old curriculum and old classroom on the new T.V. media.
The immediate need is for these media to bring, to the microphone and the studio, people from every field of knowledge and endeavour to explain to the public – not their knowledge, but their ignorance; not their expertise, but their hang-ups; not their breakthroughs, but their breakdowns. The university and school of the future must be a means of total community participation, not in the consumption of available knowledge, but in the creation of completely unavailable insights. The overwhelming obstacle to such community participation in problem-solving and research at the top levels is the reluctance to admit and to describe, in detail their difficulties and their ignorance. There is no kind of problem that baffles one or a dozen experts that cannot be solved at once by a million minds that are given a chance simultaneously to tackle a problem. The satisfaction of individual prestige, which we formerly derived from the possession of expertise, must now yield to the much greater satisfactions of dialogue and group discovery.
The task yields to the task force. If Ivan Illich is unaware of the new electric ground, or environment, which has rendered obsolete the ancient figures of curriculum and classroom, there is another circumstance relating to the American educational process which he ignores to his cost. He is a European unacquainted with the basic North American fact that we, alone, in the world, go outside for privacy, and inside for community. Europeans, on the other hand, go outside for community and inside for privacy. For North Americans to be at home is to have open house. For Europeans, to be “chez nous” is to be incommunicado. North Americans go out to dine or to shows to be alone. Europeans do the same things for the opposite reasons. They wish to socialize, to dialogue, to be observed. North Americans are unable to “put on the public” when they go out, unable to conduct symphonies.
This syndrome reverses every feature of education as process. The American institution serves opposite ends to European ones, just as does American business. We go out to work to the office to be alone. The ultimate privacy for us is the motorcar. By the same token, the traffic jam affords a kind of inviolable solitude unreachable by telephone from home or office. Parallel to this, may not the bureaucratic jams of administrative congestion afford refuge from the urgent pressures of educational process?
A friend, a professor of History, was recently driving down a one-way street the wrong way in New York, and a policeman stopped him and said: “Where do you think you are going?” My friend apologized, and the cop said: “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a professor of history” “Oh, a professor eh? Well, go ahead, Do the best you can”. Thanks very much.