Marshall McLuhan: The Revolution is -- Media!

Excerpted from The Children of Telstar: Early Experiments in School Television Production with permission of author Kate Moody, EdD

The Canadian philsopher's ideas prepared the way for a new way of teaching.

Whatever America at large may have thought about the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, it is said by local educators that he provided the "background music" for thinking about media in the Larchmont-Mamaroneck school district.

McLuhan was an English professor at the University of Toronto and an "avant-garde interpreter of the media and their cosmic meanings." (1) He taught that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which individuals communicate than by the apparent content of the communication. His phrase, "the medium is the message" came to embody the historic view that the means by which human beings communicate have always structured their actions. He also introduced the idea that the mass media of the times were turning the world into a "global village," shrinking the world with respect to share experience and passage of news. (2)

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was McLuhan's big hit, but not his first book. He had been working out his ideas for schools and wrote an early curriculum titled Understanidng New Media, on "the basic laws concerning sensory effects of various media." There, perhaps for the first time, he introduced his basic theme that media — speech, print, photography, telegraphy, telephone, film, radio, television — all function as extensions of the human organism to increase power and speed. It was perhaps our first media literacy curriculum, predating work that would emerge in Great Britain and Australia in the late 1960s and 1970s. He wrote the curriculum material for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) under a contract with the Office of Education, US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (1960) (3)

McLuhan's approach to media represented a substantial change. American educators have always embraced tehcnology: first print, then slides and projectors, opaque projectors, 16mm film and darkening shades, television, and beyond. But for all their flirtations, the primary use of electronic media had been to extend instruction by delivering programming. There had never developed a firm commitment to using electronic media in school to achieve either excellence or equality or any special skill, much less to acknowledge a difference in learning styles within a universe of learners...

...McLuhan was considered by some to be speaking nonsense, especially among those who did not understand his theories. Meanwhile, at a seminary near Woodstock, Maryland, another philosopher, John Culkin, was studying to become a Jesuit priest. In his spare time he came across early articles by McLuhan and make a mental note that McLuhan was someone he would like to meet one day.

...Independent of each other, the key developers of Mamaroneck media projects all referred to the influence of McLuhan whose modest disclaimer for his work was: "All I have to offer is an enterprise of investigation into a world that's quite unusual and quite unlike any previous world for which no models of perception will serve." (4)


1. Les Brown, The New York Times Encyclopedia of Television, (New York: Times, 1977) 268.
2. Ibid.
3. Nat'l Association of Educational Broadcasters (consultant: H. Marshall McLuhan), Washington, D.C., June 30, 1960.
4. Marshall McLuhan, quoted in John M. Culkin, SJ, "A Schoolman's Guide to Marshall McLuhan," Saturday Review, March 18, 1967, p. 51.

Author Bio: 

As a parent, teacher and resident of Larchmont, NY, Kate Moody witnessed and participated in the early experiments with television production in Larchmont schools in the 1960's. She tells the full story of those days, the challenges involved and what became of the young people who participated in The Children of Telstar: Early Experiments in School Television Production (#1018) She holds an EdD from Teachers College / Columbia University in New York City.