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Who Was Marshall McLuhan, and Why Is He Important Today?

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) January 11, 2011: In my op-ed piece "Reflections About Jared Lee Loughner and John Hinckley, Jr." that was published at OpEdNews on January 11, 2011, I discussed Marshall McLuhan's term the "global village."

However, after I submitted my piece for consideration for publication, it occurred to me that some younger people might not know much about Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). Later this year, McLuhan fans will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. But who was McLuhan, and why is he important today?

With the publication of two books in the early 1960s, McLuhan catapulted to extraordinary fame, seemingly out of nowhere. In the 1950s he had not been widely known. However, he had been known to a small group of alert admirers. But along with his fame in the 1960s and 1970s came controversy and criticism. At times, the criticism was cogent and convincing. However, the criticism directed at him was frequently off target. In any event, many of his critics wanted to throw out the baby with the bath water, as we say. This is an understandable temptation. But it is a temptation we must guard ourselves against even today as we try to sort out the wheat from the chaff in McLuhan's thought. To be sure, there is a certain amount of chaff in McLuhan's thought that should be discarded. But the wheat can nourish our thought and reflection.

McLuhan did not live to see the time when personal computers became as common in North America as television sets and radios and telephones and movies and audio recordings and sound amplification systems had become by the 1960s. Nor did he live to see the Internet. Nevertheless, once we have sorted out the wheat from the chaff in McLuhan's thought, the wheat can help feed and nurture our thinking about computers and the Internet and other forms of new media that had not yet fully emerged in his lifetime.

In 2004, the University of Chicago Press reissued in paperback the 1958 book by Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) titled RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON. On the back cover, we are told that this book was "[a] key influence on Marshall McLuhan, with whom Ong enjoys the status of honorary guru among technophiles."

McLuhan and Ong were two English teachers. For many years McLuhan taught English courses at the University of Toronto, whereas Ong taught English courses at Saint Louis University. But English teachers are not famous for being technophiles. How did these two English teachers become "honorary gurus among technophiles"? The story of how these two scholars came to reflect on technology is one of the greatest stories of the twentieth century.

My personal favorite article about McLuhan is Ong's "McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past" in the JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION, volume 31, number 3 (Summer 1981): pages 129-35. Here's my favorite passage:

"Above all and in all and through all, Marshall McLuhan was a teacher. All a teacher can ever do is get other people to think. . . . The teacher sets things up, whether by enlivening familiar matter or by providing new things for the learners to think about. But even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it. . . . A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively. A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting. By these criteria, Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people's minds" (page 129).

How is that for giving credit where credit is due in a magnanimous way? As far as I know, nobody else has written a more generous assessment of McLuhan.

Ong first knew McLuhan as a teacher when they were both at Saint Louis University from 1938 to 1941. At that time Ong was willing to listen to McLuhan, who was known even then for delivering monologues outside the classroom. Of course when McLuhan catapulted to extraordinary fame in the 1960s and 1970s, most people who read his books or heard him speak had not had the experience of McLuhan as a teacher in a classroom. Nor had they had the experience of listening to him attentively outside the classroom. McLuhan had a well-stocked mind, and his monologic observations could be stimulating to listen to and think about, provided that you could understand them well enough to follow them. But if you don't understand his observations well enough to follow them, you will probably write him off as a charlatan.

In 1943 McLuhan completed his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. His dissertation centered on the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601). In his dissertation McLuhan undertook to study Nashe in the larger context of the learning of his times (that is, what people learned when they received a formal education in Latin, which for centuries had been the language of formal education). To study the learning of Nashe's times, McLuhan constructed a history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or logic) from about the time of Cicero in ancient Rome through the Middle Ages and down to Nashe's times.

Because Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a contemporary of Nashe's, the tradition of learning in formal education that McLuhan studied in his historical account was also the tradition of learning that Shakespeare had studied as a student as part of his formal education. However, McLuhan never got around to revising his dissertation for publication as a book. But more than a quarter of a century after his death, it was published, unrevised but with an editorial apparatus as THE CLASSICAL TRIVIUM: THE PLACE OF THOMAS NASHE IN THE LEARNING OF HIS TIME, edited by W. Terrence Gordon (Gingko Press, 2006).

In the late 1930s and early 1940s when McLuhan was working on his dissertation on Nashe, he was teaching English courses at Saint Louis University in Missouri. In connection with his research for his dissertation, he read Perry Miller's book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Harvard University Press, 1939). McLuhan called this book to the attention of   Ong, who at the times was a young Jesuit seminarian who was studying English there. About a decade later, Ong advanced to Harvard University for his doctoral studies in English. His doctoral dissertation was a massively research study related to Miller's book, and Miller served as the director of Ong's dissertation. Ong's dissertation was published in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958.

To understand Ong's focus on technology in the form of the printing press, we should remember that he worked in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe tracking down the more than 750 volumes by Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his followers that he (Ong) lists in his annotated bibliography titled RAMUS AND TALON INVENTORY (Harvard University Press, 1958). The printing press is obviously a form of technology. Later on, Ong suggested in his book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982; 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002) that writing systems can be considered to be forms of technology. (See the index of this book for page references where Ong discusses McLuhan.)

Ong's take on technology is perhaps best summed up in the title of his article "Technology Outside Us and Inside Us" in the journal COMMUNIO: INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC REVIEW, volume 5, number 2 (Summer 1978): pages 100-21. Nobody should have any difficulty understanding how technology is outside us. The tricky part of the title is understanding how we take our external technologies into ourselves through our sensory data about them and through working with them. In these ways we take our technologies inside ourselves, where they become part of our sensory and imaginative lives, part of us. Therefore, we need to remember that we are human persons, not machines or technologies. Nevertheless, we interiorize our technologies and make them part of ourselves and our human life-world. In this way our consciousness is cultural conditioned.

In any event, the publication of Ong's two 1958 volumes prompted McLuhan to write and publish a book of his own at long last, THE GUTENBERG GALAXY: THE MAKING OF TYPOGRAPHIC MAN (University of Toronto Press, 1962). In it McLuhan frequently quotes Ong. Indeed, the thesis McLuhan works with in THE GUTENBERG GALAXY is the thesis that Ong develops in RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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