Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 3 – Youth and Education

In my previous pieces based on Playboy magazine’s extensive 1969 interview with Marshall McLuhan, I looked first at McLuhan’s ideas on how revolutions in our communication technology – particularly the inventions of phonetic literacy, later printing, and most recently electronic media – have fundamentally changed how we perceive the world and thus organize our society. Second, I focused on his idea that people who have grown up in an age using electronic media – radio, movies, television, computers and now the Internet – are becoming in his words “post-literate” and “retribalizing”, which involves moving away from individualism and back to a more collective experience of the world.

For my fellow Baby-boomers, this post-literate retribalization would be most stereotypically seen in the whole hippie subculture with its at times paradoxical conformist non-conformity, including the whole sex, drugs, rock and roll, long hair, bell-bottoms and tie dye thing, the collective focus on “peace, love, joy” and sense of solidarity, as the band The Who sang, “talkin bout my g-g-g-generation”. Think thousands of young people at an anti-war rally holding hands and singing in unison, “All we are saying is give peace a chance”.

For my kids in the Millennial generation, with their developmental milieu of computers, cell phones and the Internet, their “hive mind” of connections with each other through their ubiquitous electronic devices would seem the most obvious evidence of perhaps an even higher level of the same retribalization. A blank stare at times to their parents or other adults, masking a complicated web of virtual “kinship” with each other.

So in this third installment of my messy tussle with the ideas of this “metaphysician of media”, I want to look at the issues he raises regarding the development of retribalized youth in a culture that still has not come to grips with its post-literate zeitgeist. My fellow Baby-boomers these days cavalierly throw around the term “gone viral” like we’re still hip and all, but I don’t think we fully understand what it means when our entire culture is in the grips of such virtual infections spread by our ubiquitous electronic media.

Even our national Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in his open letter to US teachers, is admitting that our education system is soooo 19th Century…

Working together, we can transform teaching from the factory model designed over a century ago to one built for the information age.

Our schools are still focused on written text and compartmentalized instruction, where vastly different learning styles are accommodated at best by a choice between a written report or diorama for that book you are required to read. School walls mostly insulate our youth from the richness of our “Web 2.0” culture and provide a thin gruel of pre-digested, sanitized text book content instead.

Our education system, says McLuhan…

Which should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environments, is instead being used merely as an instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age. Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but two vastly divergent cultures… It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.

McLuhan’s words come to us in this instance from 1969, a time before the Internet, when TV was the flagship of electronic media, and kids were accused of spending too much time sitting in front of the “boob tube”. Now that “first television generation” has begot the first Internet generation, accused of spending too much time texting (while their parents surf the web).

It is certainly provocative but I think not a fair characterization that our schools practice “cultural aggression” against our youth. Though our education is mostly very “old school”, I don’t think it is done with any hostile or destructive intent, perhaps instead in denial of the realities of a 21st Century “Web 2.0” world. But what is fair I think is McLuhan’s characterization of our education system as “reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies”. The bias is toward the primacy of the printed word in a culture that even in the business world is more and more about face to face, phone conference call, or web-based collaboration that features ones oral (facilitation or presentation) rather than written skills.

Like a fish out of water, says McLuhan, today’s young person…

Finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns… His natural instinct, conditioned by the electric media, is to bring all his senses to bear on the book he’s instructed to read, and print resolutely rejects that approach, demanding an isolated visual attitude to learning rather than the Gestalt approach of the unified sensorium.

One would hope that since McLuhan is talking circa 1969, that in the subsequent four decades, schools might have transformed their approach. But again, Education Secretary Duncan’s words to try to inspire teachers to stay the course, tell the tale of schools of 2011, still “designed over a century ago”. The irony is that those newer more vital holistic and learner-driven education models are out there in the rare alternative school, but our outmoded metrics for evaluating our schools are as 19th Century as the curriculum, and militate against those more sophisticated models that go way beyond teaching testable facts. Secretary Duncan says as much in his letter to teachers…

I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking.

That… as opposed to our current system which apparently does not draw on meaningful observations, does not take into account the human dimension of peer-review, and lacks sophistication.

But getting back to the issues of youth and society, McLuhan addresses a situation, again back in 1969, when my Baby-boomer generation’s “hippie” contingent were grabbing the headlines…

These kids are fed up with jobs and goals, and are determined to forget their own roles and involvement in society. They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values; thus the stress on developing an “alternate life style.” We can see the results of this retribalization process whenever we look at any of our youth — not just at hippies.

The “kids” that McLuhan was talking about are me and my fellow Boomers, now in our 50s and 60s, who are parents and in other positions of authority, and even already passing the torch to Gen X folks (like President Obama). How much as a generation of people have we really adopted “alternative life styles” or even more profound alternative approaches to living our lives or leading society’s institutions? For many of us, probably not as much as we hoped. I mean when I was 15 in 1969 and walking out of high school to join an anti-war rally at the University of Michigan campus, I would never have imagined that forty years later I’d be working as a business analyst for an insurance company!

But then, peal a few layers of the Onion and I think our transitional “retribalizing” generation (in McLuhan’s terms) has brought significant change to at least some of our societal institutions. The change that seems most obvious to me is in the whole idea of “fatherhood”. Seems there are very few of my male Boomer peers who have not been inspired or impacted by the cautionary tale laid out in Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” song, reminding us male parents that connections with our kids beyond bread-winning for them, is probably the most rewarding investment of our time.

I have certainly pondered and struggled with the issues McLuhan calls out in the passage above, and have attempted to develop a real “alternative life style” within the context of doing things generally considered “traditional”, like getting married, buying a home, having a career in the corporate world, and raising children. So I am in an equal partnership with the person I married, I have not commuted by car to work in the last decade, and I have stayed on the “mommy track” in my corporate jobs so I can have a balanced life that includes being an active parent.

Add to that, as part of that parenting role, we took the very unorthodox tact of pulling our kids completely out of school, letting them unschool instead. One of the important justifications for that action was our take that our conventional education system, as McLuhan called out, was fragmented and compartmentalized and did not allow our kids to bring all their “senses to bear” in a “Gestalt approach of the unified sensorium”, or something like that. Most of their in-school experience seemed somehow to fail to fully engage them, a full engagement that they craved.

Though my Baby-boomer generation may have been transitional in this “retribalizing” regard, certainly my Millennial generation kids have been fully enmeshed in every form of electronic media, particularly the Internet, since their transition from childhood to youth. Some of their most significant developmental experiences happened on-line (see my pieces “The Adventures of an Unschooler on the Virtual High Seas” and “Massively Multi-Player on the World Wide Web”). And to the extent that their parents’ generation may have failed to move beyond “fragmented and specialist consumer society” that McLuhan called out, it seems that my kids and their Millennial peers may have internalized some of these more profound “hippie” goals, and approach them, as our son Eric would say, as a “pragmatic idealist”.

I wish McLuhan were still alive today, to provide an updated version, four decades later, of his outside the box perspective on our ever developing culture. Certainly the possibilities of the Internet, in terms of “Global Village”, immersion in electronic media, and “retribalization” would have really whet his whistle. In 1969, the flagship of electronic media was TV, which with all its transformative power was still static in terms of a one-directional presentation of content from a small group of broadcasters to a huge public. The Internet is turning us all into potential broadcasters of sight and sound in a grand multi-directional mosaic of medium and message.

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