Thursday, July 28, 2011

Radio Dazed

 So, I just want to add here, and for my own personal records, that on McLuhan Day, which was last week on July 21st, McLuhan's birthday, I did a series of short radio interviews for 7 local Canadian radio stations, all part of the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The interviews were done by telephone, occurring between 6:00 and 9:00 AM.   I'm not a morning person, but I got up at 5:30 AM to get enough coffee into me to be coherent at 6. 

The local stations were Quebec City, Sudbury (Ontario), Thunder Bay  (Ontario), Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), Ontario (southern parts, not Toronto), Victoria (British Columbia), and Vancouver (British Columbia).  Some of the interviews were live, some taped, most if not all of them were not archived as podcasts, or rather part of podcasts.  Some may have been, I don't know, but hey, that was never even an option back in the good old days of broadcasting.

It was a strange experience, something of a rapid-fire succession, each asking pretty much the same questions, asking me to explain what "the medium is the message" means, what the "global village" is, and a couple of them asked about McLuhan's conservatism.  It was a funny experience, though, answering the same questions seven times over in short order, although it did give me an opportunity to refine my answers.

So, I can't provide you with a recording or transcript of what I said, but I did tweet my morning activities, so I'll share them with you here, although I warn you that they're a bit prosaic:
Lance Strate
Lance Strate

Lance Strate

In between the interviews, there was time to do a blog post, check email, and tweet about someone else's interview:

Lance Strate
And my friend Octavio Islas's tweet showed up in my Twitter stream:

Octavio Islas
by LanceStrate

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Standing on Guardian for McLuhan

So, in this centenary year of McLuhan's birth, the Guardian, arguably the leading newspaper in the United Kingdom (and one that is decidedly non-muddied or muddled by Murdoch), ran some material on our favorite media guru with which I, your humble servant, had some involvement.

It began with a podcast, one put together by Benjamen Walker, who also has a radio show over on WFMU, an independent, free form station in Jersey City, New Jersey.  The podcast is part of a "Big Ideas" series, and is presented on the Guardian website as "The Big Ideas podcast: The medium is the message" followed by, "In the first of a series of philosophy podcasts, Benjamen Walker and guests discuss the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan and his most famous line," and if you can't wait to get over there and listen to it, just click here, but do come back after, and if you can wait til later, even better.

So, over on the podcast's web page, which went up last week just before McLuhan's actual birthday, the write-up goes on to say

The writing of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this Thursday, has entered popular jargon like that of few other modern intellectuals. Is there another line that has been quoted – and misquoted – as enthusiastically as 'the medium is the message'? McLuhan, of course, was perfectly aware of his status as the thinker du jour of the media age, the man everyone liked to quote over dinner but hadn't bothered to read – for proof, just watch Annie Hall.

But what does "the medium is the message" really mean? In the first episode of our new The Big Ideas series, Benjamen Walker gets to the bottom of the slogan with the help of Canadian novelist and McLuhan-biographer Douglas Coupland, academic Lance Strate, Marshal's son Eric McLuhan, record producer John Simon, and the Guardian's media correspondent Jemima Kiss.
 So hey, I find myself in good company here, how about that?  If you listen to podcast, which I think Benjamen Walker did a really great job on, very impressive Ben, but what I was saying was that if you listen to the podcast, you won't hear me you get towards the end, about the last third.  But hey, I get some good play and good words in, and there's some nice discussion about McLuhan's time at Fordham University worked into the mix.  Oh, and by the way, if you click on my name in the quote up above, I left the links in, it'll take you right back to this blog.  How about that?  Blog Time Passing is linked to on the UK Guardian website!  My, how we have come up in the world!

The write-up ends with the following

Once you've finished listening to the podcast, you might want to re-read the opening of McLuhan classic essay:
The medium, or process of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to "the others." And they're changing dramatically.
Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. The alphabet, for instance, is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely unconscious manner, by osmosis so to speak. Words and the meaning of words predispose the child to think and act automatically in certain ways. The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement. It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.
The older training of observation has become quite irrelevant in this new time, because it is based on psychological responses and concepts conditioned by the former technology – mechanization.
Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our "Age of Anxiety" is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools – with yesterday's concepts.
Youth instinctively understands the present environment – the electric drama. It lives mythically and in depth. This is the reason for the great alienation between generations. Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media.
Marshall McLuhan, 'The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects' (1967). Reproduced with permission by Penguin Books
Over the course of the next week, we will follow up this podcast with a series of blogposts. Please tell us in the thread below what aspect of McLuhan's theory you would like us to explore, and who else you would like to hear from on the subject.

So, this was followed by a blog post by Douglas Coupland entitled, "Why McLuhan's chilling vision still matters today," and if you want to read it, just click here.  I won't bother to go into it, except to say that because he got into the contemporary media environment of blogs and podcasts and Google and Facebook and Twitter, I was asked not to bring that up in the post they had me write for the Guardian website, and consequently we went back and forth through several revisions, with added editorial alterations, before it was posted yesterday.  My preference was to discuss the new media, but instead they asked that I address McLuhan in the context of his times,  and out of that came the emphasis on his conservatism.  It wasn't the emphasis I would have chosen, but if you want to see the article on the Guardian website, click here.  Or read ahead.

The Big Ideas post begins with the headline:  "Marshall McLuhan's message was imbued with conservatism," followed by, "Although an icon of the counterculture movement, the man who coined 'the medium is the message' was no pill-popping hipster," neither of which were my choice, I hasten to add, nor my words exactly.  I wouldn't say his message was imbued with conservatism exactly, and I wouldn't use the phrase "pill-popping hipster," not that I'm opposed to what's being said here.

Anyway, what follows is my byline and photo, which you can see over on the left, and they actually gave me my own page of sorts, if you click on my name over on the post's page, it takes you there, or to see it direct, click here.  That was very nice of them, after all, and what they say about me is, "Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York City. He is also an author and co-editor of The Legacy of McLuhan."  Anyway, this is followed by a very nice picture of McLuhan, one I don't recall seeing before:

And now for the article itself:

Marshall McLuhan is remembered by many for his rise to fame as the original "media guru", the subject of a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles and broadcast interviews, not to mention a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's finest film, Annie Hall.
Let me interrupt right off the bat and note that I was asked to include the Woody Allen reference at the beginning of the piece so the editor could incorporate the clip from the movie, which didn't happen, although there is a link on the site to the page for Annie Hall.  I haven't included that and the other links in this post, though.

Because McLuhan was adopted first by the counterculture movement of the 1960s and, more recently, by web evangelists, people sometimes assume that the man himself was some kind of pill-popping hipster. They couldn't be further from the truth.

Again, "pill-popping hipster," not my words, although I didn't nix them.

Far from sharing sympathy for countercultural forms of life, or the forms of media they embraced, McLuhan made a point of withholding judgment, refraining from moral evaluation of the processes he was describing and explaining. If anything, it was the conservative side of McLuhan that sometimes shone through his stance as a scientific observer. He never condemned the Vietnam war, suggesting instead that it was more of a media event than an actual happening. He discussed the possibility of using media as a form of control, "using TV in South Africa … to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio", with no acknowledgement of the Orwellian implications.

Again, I was asked to write about this, and while it's not what I would have chosen to emphasize, it is certainly true.  I've heard James W. Carey, one of McLuhan's sympathetic critics, talk about how McLuhan not coming out against the war angered him and many other academics.  And the bit about South Africa was one of the most ill-considered statements he ever made, having the unfortunate effect of turning many scholars off to anything else McLuhan had to say.
As a conservative Roman Catholic, he tended to downplay the significance of the printing press in regard to the Protestant Reformation, a point stressed by many other media scholars. But the fact that his insights could be embraced by radicals and reactionaries alike is a testament to their brilliance, and to his ability to transcend his own human frailties and failings.

I haven't heard as much criticism regarding this last point, perhaps because it's more of an intramural one for media ecologists, but it is noticeable, and there has been more general accusations of a hidden agenda related to his Catholicism (which I think absurd).  I just find it funny, myself, not at all offensive.  And the overriding point is the fact that individuals from all different political positions, religious affiliations (and atheists), backgrounds, etc., can see the value and importance of his approach and his insights.  That's what counts.  From here, it's less controversial:

Even though he was later hailed as a prophet, McLuhan insisted that he was only describing what was taking place in the present, while everyone else was fixated on the past (looking "through the rear-view mirror," as he put it). Looking at electricity, electric technology and electronic media such as Samuel Morse's telegraph and Guglielmo Marconi's wireless, he was able to understand television in ways that no one else had, and to glimpse the seeds of new media environments to come. It was because he understood the present, not the future, that his insights remain as valid today as half a century ago.

McLuhan's approach is particularly well suited to helping us to understand new technologies as they are being introduced into a culture. His early rise to prominence was mainly due to his ability to explain the novel medium of television and the dramatic social upheavals that it generated. At a time when baby boomers were establishing a new, "cool" youth culture that ran counter to the "hot" outlook of their parents, McLuhan had an explanation. The "cool" cultural style was a product of the television medium, whose low-resolution image required more cognitive processing than the high-definition experience we might get from radio and the motion picture, and that processing, or participation, had a tendency to suck the audience member in, creating a great sense of involvement in the message. "Hot media", by contrast, require less cognitive effort, freeing audiences to act. This understanding led McLuhan to claim that Hitler could not have been successful in a televisual media environment.
I had just thrown in the quick reference to hot and cool in generational terms, and was asked to provide more explanation of the terms.  And that's fine, but trying to squeeze it into a very short post, that is challenging.  I do hope the ideas got through okay, but I know this is an oversimplification of a complex set of associations.    Anyway, on to more familiar turf:

Moreover, television, in exposing viewers to the world with unprecedented immediacy and intimacy, was creating what he called a "global village", an entirely new form of tribalism that did away with private identity, individualism and the nation state – all products of print culture. The televisual window on the world was giving rise to a transparent society where we all find ourselves too close for comfort, with deep potential for aggression and violence (including, for example, terrorism).

McLuhan's famous aphorism, "the medium is the message", goes to the very heart of his way of understanding media, packing together a dozen or more different meanings. First and foremost, it is a wake-up call. McLuhan asks us to pay attention to the medium, rather than being distracted by the content. The content is not without its import, but it pales in comparison to the impact of the medium itself.

Instead of focusing solely on the content of television programming, for example, concerning ourselves with the depiction of violence, he argued that we needed to examine how the very presence of television as a medium was changing us, changing our very mode of thought from one that was characteristically linear and sequential (one thing at a time), to one that involved pattern recognition.
So, that's pretty standard Understanding Media stuff there, but this originally started with the request that I explain what "the medium is the message" is all about, so that's what I get into here at the end.  And no, I didn't write, "far out" (did you think I did?).
Is all this really that far out? The bottom line is that the medium is the message because the medium has a great influence on what is communicated, on how it is used. How we go about doing a task has much to do with the way that task turns out. It is simple, commonsense stuff. We say "ask a silly question, get a silly answer" because the questions we ask determine the kinds of answers we obtain.

Supposedly more "conservative" thinkers have argued along similar lines. Henry David Thoreau observed that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us"; Mark Twain quipped that "when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail", and Winston Churchill maintained that "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us". To this last, McLuhan's colleague, John Culkin, generalised that "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us", by way of explaining McLuhan's perspective.
And I didn't write the bit about "more 'conservative' thinkers either, I don't really think of Thoreau or Twain as conservative, although I suppose you could say they were.  I know Churchill was, of course, but I figure the Guardian being a British paper, they'd appreciate the reference.  As for Culkin, he was the Jesuit who brought McLuhan to Fordham University, so probably more conservative than some, but relatively liberal I'd say.  Anyway, on to my closing statement:
The medium is the message also means that the medium is the environment. Our media are extensions of ourselves, they go between ourselves and our environment, and whatever goes between us and our environment becomes our new environment. In this way, every new medium is a new environment, and affects us much as the natural environment shapes us. That is why, to understand our media environments, we need McLuhan's media ecology.
So, at least I got my bit about media ecology in at the end.  And all's well that end's well, at least, that's what some Brit said.  But just as an fyi, here is some of the other stuff I wrote that wound up on the cutting room floor:

McLuhan rose from relative obscurity as a Canadian academic with a doctorate from Cambridge, teaching literary criticism at schools such as Saint Louis University and the University of Toronto, and reached the peak of his celebrity in 1967, the year he came to the media capital of New York City, as Fordham University's Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, the same year that his bestselling book, The Medium is the Massage, was published.  It was also the year he made the news for undergoing what had been the longest continuous brain surgery ever attempted, to remove a benign brain tumor.  He returned to Toronto in 1968, where he spent the remainder of his career, until his death in 1980, eighteen months after suffering a debilitating stroke. 

McLuhan's brain was as unorthodox as his thought processes, so that many found him difficult to understand, and had trouble recognizing him as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century.  Moreover, his brilliance and originality were denied by many, some out of jealousy for his success, some out of dislike for his subject matter, some for ideological motives, some out of religious prejudice, some for personal reasons.  This convergence of forces resulted in a deliberate effort to suppress his work, starting in the seventies.  The cause for the current revival of interest in his work is quite clear, as it began in the nineties just as the internet became a popular phenomenon. 

McLuhan's media ecology approach is particularly well suited for helping us to understand new technologies as they are being introduced into a culture, and his early rise to prominence was due to his ability to explain the new medium of television, and the dramatic social upheavals that it generated.  Likewise, over the past two decades, we have experienced a deluge of innovations, including e-mail, chat, text messaging, websites, search engines, mp3s, blogs, tweets, social networking, mobile telephony, iPods and iPads, etc., and McLuhan's method is therefore especially relevant to the present day.  His insights remain valid because he studied the electronic media, and while many of their characteristics were only nascent or still in potential during the sixties, they have since come into their own.  For example, when he argued that television, in exposing viewers to the world with unprecedented immediacy and intimacy, was creating what he called a "global village," it was harder to relate that idea to watching I Love Lucy than it is now to the experience of internet interconnectivity, to following Facebook  updates, Twitter streams, and Google search results.
And from another draft:

McLuhan's brain was as unorthodox as his thought processes, so that many found him difficult to understand, and had trouble recognizing him as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century.  Moreover, his brilliance and originality were denied by many, some out of jealousy for his success, some out of dislike for his subject matter, some for ideological motives, some out of religious prejudice, some for personal reasons.  This convergence of forces resulted in a deliberate effort to suppress his work, starting in the seventies.  If his name came up at all, it was to dismiss him as a technological determinist, and throw out lines such as, "of course, the medium is not the message," evincing no effort to understand McLuhan's arguments or approach, and often enough no effort to actually read his major works, such as Understanding Media, and The Gutenberg Galaxy.  It was not until the nineties, when the internet became a popular phenomenon, that there was a widespread revival of interest in his work, which continues to this day.

So, thank goodness for blogs, where I can set the record straight, sort of, and where I can find a home for these poor, wayward sentences of mine.  Get along, little doggies, get along...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Further Thoughts on Online Education

Some follow-up thoughts...

Neil Postman wrote an essay entitled, "The Educationist as Painkiller," and taking a cue from Sigmund Freud, we might characterize education as a "talking cure".  Would psychological therapy be enhanced by a move from a face-to-face situation to an online environment?  While therapy and teaching are not quite the same thing, they can be understood as a part of a continuum.  In the autism community, children go to school where the teachers typically employ applied behavioral analysis, which can be understood as a form of therapy.  The ABA method originates with Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, and the behavioral therapy is often referred to as a "learning" theory.  All kinds of therapy involve learning how to avoid dysfunctional behaviors and to engage in positive behaviors.  Occupational therapy is about learning how to improve the use of one's motor skills, senses, body.  Of course, learning can take place with or without a teacher, so the question is, under what conditions are teachers best able to conduct therapy and facilitate learning?

Joseph Weizenbaum famously created the AI program Eliza, which simulated the very basic responses of a Rogerian psychotherapist.  Writing about this in Computer Power and Human Reason, he related that he was surprised at how attached people in his office became to Eliza, taking it seriously despite knowing that it was just a program, and shocked that psychotherapists saw this as a serious possibility for making therapy available to the masses.  Following the lead of Jacques Ellul, Weizenbaum concluded that there are many things we may be capable of doing with our technologies, but we need to consider that there are some things we *ought* not to do.

The asynchronous characteristic of online communication is most certainly one of its great strengths.  But there is a downside that we ought at least to acknowledge, and hopefully consider, as it undermines the concepts of schedules and boundaries, and the discipline that they comes with such practices.  It may well be that the trade-off is worth it in this instance, but we should not be fooled into thinking that innovation provides us with a free lunch.  And if we're aware of the cost, we might have a better chance of compensating for what is lost.  The loss of boundaries in general has long been associated with the electronic media, we do have some qualms about blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, news and advertising, education and entertainment, and public and private.  If nothing else, we need to think about what the technology is undoing in order to cope with the fallout and blowback.

Marshall McLuhan, along with Eric McLuhan, wrote abut the city and the world as classroom.  In other words, their answer to the limitations of the classroom, highly structured by print as it is, was to get out into the physical environment, engage with the world.  They did not advocate moving into the even more highly mediated environment that new media represent.

Digital media have amplified concerns about plagiarism in written work beyond anything that existed previously.  What happens, then, when the student's entire presence in a course is in the form of written work?  Will an instructor teaching the same course over and over again resort to self-plagiarism, copying and pasting text from previous semesters, rather than writing things out anew?  And look to the future one step further, and the entire course can be programmed (this has already happened in regard to big lecture courses).  Essentially, the line is blurred between online education and programmed instruction, which amounts to an interactive textbook.

I'm all for making education more affordable through online alternatives, and I also embrace the possibilities of bringing education outside of the ivory tower and institutional boundaries through new media.  But what happens to the gatekeeping function, to standards, and again, to boundaries, under these conditions (a concern shared by other sectors, e.g., journalism).  With the trend in higher education towards employing greater numbers of adjuncts and moving away from the tenure system, will education be reduced to another form of customer service to be outsourced, a kind of reverse brain drain?  Put into broader terms, new media environments will disrupt institutions built on the basis of older media environments.  We can't just add the new media and keep everything else the same.  So, how do we deal with the disruptions to edcuational institutions that will inevitably occur?

When you look at how Postman and McLuhan actually taught, it was through talking.  Getting a group together in one place and bouncing ideas off of one another.  There's a reason for that, I believe, and while I'm willing to work with alternatives, to me, my ideal will always be Postman and Nystrom's doctoral seminars, and going out for a bite and a drink afterwards.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reflective and Critical Thoughts on Online Education

So, I got into a bit of a controversial discussion over on the Media Ecology Association listserv, on the subject of online education.  It all started innocently enough, when I put up a post that the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University was looking for an adjunct instructor to teach a course on Social Media for the spring semester.  The course is taught in our department's Walsh Media Lab up in the Bronx, but one list member started arguing that teaching social media through an online course would be superior.  My former student Nick Leshi, who taught our course on Writing for Online Media last spring, rose to our defense in a manner that Neil Postman would approve.

A bit later, I entered into the discussion, and here's what I had to say, pulling out some of the specific address to particular individuals.

The argument for teaching about the new languages of new media through online educaton amounts to a kind of immersion method.  There are certainly advantages to doing this.  On the other hand, from Postman's perspective, face-to-face communication between teacher and student is exactly the kind of counterenvironment we need in response to the new media.  It is needed for education in general certainly, but I think it also extends to the teaching of new media, as it allows us to step outside of the system, so to speak.  It is perhaps the difference between teaching for proficiency vs. teaching to instill a reflective and critical approach.

I am not opposed to online education, the world is full of trade-offs, but we have to recognize that there is something lost as well as something gained.  Ignoring that fact is not what I would think of as employing a reflective and critical approach.

Postman's criticism of information technology was directed at the boosterism that surrounds it, the utopian claims, the lack of historical outlook, the failure to pay attention to the costs of innovation, what a new technology will undo.  He compared online education to a Big Brother program set up for children who have lost their fathers:  it may be necessary to compensate for what is missing (in the case on online education, for distance, disability, or lack of finances), but it is still sad that we have to do this, not something we should celebrate.

Peter Fallon put it very nicely, echoing the old Bell Telephone slogan--it's the next best thing to being there.  Not the best thing, but a substitute that is second best.

Years ago, at a New York State Communication Association conference, I was sitting with Postman during lunch, and there was a speaker who was a public school principal or superintendent from Brooklyn, and he was talking about their innovative program using computers to teach writing to kids from low income backgrounds.  And he was going on and on about how the kids can write something, and if they don't like what they've written, they can delete it, edit it, etc.  So Neil asked the question, "Why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?"  Now, there may well be an argument to be made about what working with computers will do that could never be done before, but the point was that this fellow could not answer the question.  He was just uncritically, unreflectively presenting the technology as an advance in pedagogy, a phenomenon all too common in education.

By the way,  great guide to the history of utopian claims about education technology can be found in Margaret Cassidy's book, Bookends, based on a dissertation completed under Neil's direction.

And a great reality check is to ask yourself, what do rich people do?  Given no limit on resources, do they opt for online education?  Or do they favor face-to-face interaction with teachers, with small class sizes, and one-on-one tutorials?  In a situation where there are few is any limitations, what is the preferred mode of education?

Now, I am not saying that it is impossible to instill a reflective and critical approach though online education.  I was commenting on the differences between the two modes, where online education is an immersive experience that does not provide a counterenvironment, and therefore is not the best environment for doing so.  Of course, the teacher makes a difference, the curriculum makes a difference, etc.  But all things being equal, you lose a major resource by going to online education, and that ought to be considered in making a decision of how to teach the class.

Edmund Carpenter says that Marshall McLuhan got the idea for "the medium is the message" from Ashley Montagu's statement, "In teaching it is the method and not the content that is the message...  the drawing out, not the pumping in.”  It is the relationship between teachers and students that is the message.  To say that the interposition of technology does not change that relationship is absurd.  To say that the interposition of technology only improves upon the relationship is myopic.  And to say that the interposition of technology can only detract from the relationship is also shortsighted.  The point is not to deny the benefits, only to ask if they're worth the cost, and to ask under what conditions is it appropriate and advantageous to use the technology, and under what conditions is it not.

A point was made about celebrating the fact that individuals with hearing impairment can participate on an equal footing in the online environment, and I agree that that is worthy of celebration.  However, they do so at the cost of silencing the voices of others, and that at least is worthy of note.  If we don't want to consider whether this serves the greater good, we should at least acknowledge that some sacrifice is being made to achieve the goal of inclusion.

As the parent of a child with a disability, I'm well aware of the debates concerning inclusion, and while it is a goal for many parents, and often a matter of economy for schools, it is more beneficial for students to receive education tailored to their individual needs (IEP), and federal law in the US mandates that every child receive an "appropriate" education.

Some argue that online education is more efficient than the traditional classroom, in terms of time and productivity, and Jacques Ellul would certainly see this as a matter of employing technical means to solve technical problems.  But in contrast to training, education is not a matter of technique, or at least it ought not to be. 

I should add that at Fordham, almost all of our classes are small, typically capped at 35 students, and our media lab classes at 18.  There is a big difference between that sort of classroom experience and the large lecture class, which I would consider the first form of distance education.   So when I'm talking about face-to-face, I'm talking about the seminar as an ideal form, and yes, you can do an online seminar, but there are trade-offs.  You can do an online lecture class too, and maybe the trade-offs there are not so costly.

I don't consider the medieval university to be ideal.  I guess it's a cultural thing, but I favor Talmudic scholarship myself, and I don't see anything wrong with debating Midrash (unlike some who use that phrase pejoratively).  Walter Ong does make the point that the introduction of printing led to new approaches to education, notably Ramism, which shifted emphasis from dialogue to the text, from the oral-aural world to visualism, from knowledge coming out of debate and disputation to knowledge as facts laid out in a book. The new method had advantages and disadvantages.  But it set in motion a trend towards the technologization of education that was accelerated by 19th century industrialism, for example with the emphasis on grading and competition in schooling.  Whether online education continues the tendency towards teaching as a technological activity remains to be seen, but arguments suggesting it is a more efficient, productive method should certainly give us pause.

Postman argued that schools provide a balance between orality and literacy, talking and the book.  Titles such as Rabbi and Guru refer to individuals who interpret texts, make them speak again, allow them to respond to questions and provide explanation and elaboration.  He believed that we had achieved a balance between the oral and the literate, one that was hard to achieve, hard to maintain, often precarious, and too often messed with, and he asked whether it's a good idea to upset that balance quite so much as the celebrants of new media are suggesting that we do?

And I think that he would say, well maybe it is a good idea, but at least, we're entitled to ask the question.

Postman also pointed out that teaching is one of the hardest things anyone can do, that it is very difficult to create real, significant, deep and longlasting change in the hearts and minds of others, which is what teachers try to do.  So, as teachers, we're always failing, and when someone comes along with a new method or medium, new technique or technology, teachers often embrace it out of desperation.

I don't doubt that online education will be an increasingly more attractive alternative to traditional higher education, for reasons of time and money.  I don't doubt that there will be some things that online education will do better than traditional education.  I also don't doubt that there will be something very important lost in the exchange.

The bottom line is, let's keep asking questions.  That more than anything, is what education is all about.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The McLuhan Century

So, today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan, and the temptation is to say, Happy Birthday Marshall as if he were still alive, but that seems a bit odd to me in some ways, although it is certainly true that his ideas are very much alive, and well, and in some ways doing better than ever.  Maybe not in regard to fame, he reached his peak around 1967 or so, the year he came to New York City, media capital of the world, for a one-year stint as Fordham University's Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, and the year his bestseller, The Medium is the Massage, was published.

So, Marshall the man isn't as well known today as he was some 45 years ago, but his ideas are better understood now than ever before, and better respected, with neurological studies of brain structure and function finally supporting the claims he made by way of pure intuition, and with the continuing series of innovations in communication keeping our awareness of media as media, as opposed to media content, fairly high.

His prescience, seemingly, concerning the evolution and impact of new media is easy enough to explain.  He was studying, analyzing, and discussing the electronic media in general, based on the characteristics of electricity and electric technologies, and extrapolating from the basic characteristics to specific manifestations.  So, for example, electrification meant that power need no longer be obtained from a central source, but could be distributed far and wide, and that was true as well of communications.  Look closely at Morse's telegraph and Marconi's wireless and you can see all of the potential for today's world of wired connections and mobile devices.  McLuhan saw it when most could not, and would not.

When he wrote about television as an electronic medium, many of the characteristics he attributed to the medium were still only beginning to manifest, or existing only in potential, and so many people had trouble understanding what he was talking about.  So, for example, they saw television programs as still emanating from a centralized source, and said that McLuhan didn't know what he was talking about.  They missed the point that the TV program was actually produced, as a product, on each person's TV set, locally, rather than a newspaper, magazine, or book being produced in a centralized factory, and then having to be distributed physically from there.  And they missed the point that television would continue to evolve through the development of cable and satellite technology, and the convergence with telephony and computer networks.  There is a direct evolutionary link between the broadcast and Google.

It is only in the 21st century that the world has finally caught up to McLuhan.  So, while we are celebrating the centenary of his birth, we perhaps ought to be celebrating not the end of the first hundred years of Marshall McLuhan, but the beginning of what ought to be considered as The McLuhan Century, the next 100 years.

Happy Birthday, Happy day of birth!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Making Sense of the Census

So, I was doubly honored to be called upon to serve as lay leader for the second week in a row this past Friday at Congregation Adas Emuno, and it seems only fitting to add my accounting of this service as well.  This week, after beginning as we always do with the candle lighting, I noted how in these very hot and humid days of July sometimes people sing Christmas songs to try to cool off, and along the same lines, we could start by reading the lyrics of a Chanukah song.  The song I chose was written by Peter Yarrow, and originally sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, called Light One Candle, and it goes like this:

Light One Candle
Peter Yarrow
Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn't die

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know

When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!

Let it shine through our love and our tears.

What is the memory that's valued so highly

That we keep it alive in that flame?

What's the commitment to those who have died

That we cry out they've not died in vain?

We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!

Don't let the light go out!

In case you're not familiar with the tune, here's a YouTube video recording of Peter Yarrow performing the song live:

We can apply the spirit of the song equally to the tradition of lighting the Sabbath lights, and answer the call to justice as we answer the call to worship.  From this point, the service proceeded as usual, leading up to the Dvar Torah (word of Torah).  I started by saying that in leading services two weeks in a row, I was able to say, as you remember from last week...

And in this case, the portion or parsha, this one called Parsha Pinchas, really does pick up right where the other left off, with Pinchas the priest's zealous action in killing the sinners, the Israelite chieftain and Midianite princess who were engaged in relations in public, which in turn put an end to the sinful behavior of the Israelites with the Midianite women who had come to seduce them and turn God against them.  (See the previous post, Sounds of Silence and Talking Donkeys, for more on this.)  So now, at the start of the new parsha, God tells Moses that because of this, he won't punish the Israelites, and that he will reward Pinchas and his descendents. 

But this parsha has much more to it than this brief epilogue to the story of Pinchas.  It goes on to relate that God then commands Moses and Eleazar, the father of Pinchas and the son of Aaron, to take a census, saying:  "Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and upwards, following their fathers' houses, all that are fit to go out to war in Israel" (Numbers 26:2).  The results of the census are then reported in great detail which I won't go into, but here's a summary, broken down by tribe:

  • 43,730 from Reuben;
  • 22,200 from Simeon;
  • 40,500 from Gad;
  • 76,500 from Judah;
  • 64,300 from Issachar;
  • 60,500 from Zebulun;
  • 52,700 from Manasseh;
  • 32,500 from Ephraim;
  • 45,600 from Benjamin;
  • 64,400 from Dan;
  • 53,400 from Asher;
  • 45,400 from Naphtali;

This section concludes with, "these are those counted of the children of Israel: six hundred and one thousand and seven hundred and thirty."  How that final tally was obtained is beyond me, and beside the point.  The question we might well ask is why do the results of this census, which are described in painstaking detail in this Torah portion, included at all?  Surely, the numbers change with time, so that the specific information has no particular utility.

One immediate answer is that the results are used to explain and justify the ways in which the Holy Land is subdivided among the tribes, so that, as it says immediately afterward: "You shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance, in accordance with the number of names. To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number" (Num. 26:53-54).  

After this, the Levites, who were not allowed to own land, but were considered a holy tribe and source of the priesthood, are counted as well, tallying in at 23,000.

But there is more to the census than property rights.  At the outset, the census is meant to count "all that are fit to go out to war in Israel," so it is also about organization for defense as the Israelites move through hostile territory in the Sinai desert, and prepare to return to the land of Canaan.  But even more than that specific function, this recounting of the census provides a model for how a people can organize themselves.  That's why governments today routinely take a census of their populations.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as slaves in great numbers, essentially a mob, a crowd, a mass, and the only social structure they had was a tribal system that worked fine for a household of a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, but could not effectively govern a population of hundreds of thousands.  That's why we see in the Torah the working out of new leadership structures, new forms of organization, a new model that the founding fathers of the United States looked to, and drew upon, when they endeavored to form a more perfect union.

We should also acknowledge that in order to take a census, you had to have a means of keeping track of numbers, a system of notation, of writing.  The first writing system was developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and it was developed by accountants to keep inventory, so writing began with numbers, or rather numerals.  The Sumerians were invaded and conquered by Semitic peoples that we call the Babylonians, and the first system of law, codifed law, written law, came from the Babylonian king known as Hammurabi--Moses is credited with the second such system.  We also believe that some of our stories in Genesis originated with the Babylonians, such as the Tower of Babel (that name's a dead give away),  the Flood, and maybe the Garden of Eden.  And one of the great cities of Mesopotamia was Ur, out of which came Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, and the Arabic people as well.

But it was in the Sinai desert that the first alphabet appeared, developed by Semitic peoples, and adapted from Egypt's hieroglyphics, the second oldest writing system.  This coincides more or less with the time period reflected in the story of Moses and the Exodus.  And in Semitic writing, in the Hebrew aleph-bet for example, numbers are represented by letters.  This means that every word has a numerical value, which is why the Hebrew word for life, chai, is associated with the number 18, and why when we write checks for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and synagogue donations, we often make the amount out to be multiples of 18.  The mystical practice of numerology has its roots in Semitic numerals, and the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, and specifically the method known as Gematria, includes the idea of searching for hidden meanings in the Torah and elsewhere by translating its words into their numerical equivalents.

So the Israelites in the Sinai had the advantage of both letters and numbers, literacy and numeracy, and this forms the basis for the Jewish cultural facility for arithmetic and mathematics, and later on, for finance.  We didn't invent money, or taxation, or interest rates, or accounting, or banking, but we had the literacy, numeracy, and abstract thinking to work in those areas when all else was closed off to us, and to work in those areas when others could not.  And those who were not literate or numerate, and limited to concrete thinking, could not understand how something like charging interest on loans works, and instead charged us with usury, reinforcing anti-Semitism. But it was the rulers, the nobility of European lands, who invited and encouraged us to do this work, in order to develop and fuel their economies, taking advantage of these skills in order to modernize their economies.

But to return to the ancient world, the census that is reported in this Torah portion is the second census that was conducted, the first having been done soon after the exodus from Egypt.  And the results of this second census reveal that, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, and of course Moses, no one from the original exodus was still alive.  They had wandered the desert for forty years so that the generation that was born to slavery, and proven unfaithful at Mount Sinai, would die off, and a new generation born into freedom, and born into the new society governed by God's Law, by the Torah, could take their place.  

I think it is also true that what we call wandering was in no way aimless, but rather was a circling around, a cyclical movement, which is characteristic of the nomadic way of life.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were essentially nomads, and in this way the Israelites could return to that original lifestyle after being captives in Egypt. They could reenact and recapitulate the lives of their ancestors as a prelude to reclaiming the land of their ancestors, Canaan.  And while today we no longer live as nomads, we too makes the rounds, year after year, as we move through the Torah portions, parsha by parsha.

This parsha also establishes the laws of inheritance, and in response to a claim made by the daughters of a man who had no sons, God rules in favor of the women, a highly unusual demonstration of progressive thinking in those ancient days:  "Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (Num. 27:8).  It is an incredibly rich and diverse section, one that also includes Joshua's selection to succeed Moses and lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, and various directives about ritual offerings are also listed.  

And this parsha says, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, [you shall offer up] a Passover offering to the Lord. On the fifteenth day of this month, a festival [begins]; you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days" (Num. 28:16-17).  Note that the first month is the month of Passover, the month of Nisan.  In other words, the new year begins in the spring, not the end of summer, as it does for us now.  This makes perfect sense, because Passover is the defining moment for our people,  the birth of a nation, so to speak, the exodus from Egypt is our Independence Day, and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 40 days later is our Constitution Day.  And a little later, it states, " On the day of the first fruits, when you offer up a new meal offering to the Lord, on your festival of Weeks; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall not perform any mundane work " (Num. 28:26).  The festival of Weeks is Shavuot, when we commemorate God giving us the Ten Commandments and the other 603 that constitute the Law, the Torah.

Later on, it says, "And in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work. It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you" (Num. 29:1).  Although not identified by name, this is Rosh Hashanah, at this time not the head (rosh) of the year (shanah), not the new year, but a special day nonetheless.  It was not until after the Babylonian exile that Rosh Hashanah became the New Year's Day for the Hebrew calendar.  And a little later, "And on the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls. You shall not perform any work" (Num. 29:7).  This is the basis of Yom Kippur.  And a little further on we find, "And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work, and you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord for seven days" (Num. 29:12).  And this is the festival of Sukkot, a harvest festival where we also commemorate the nomadic lifestyle of our ancestors.

So we find in this parsha the beginnings of our cycle of festivals and holy days which, like the cycle of Torah readings, is a way in which we reenact the wanderings in the desert, which were not wanderings without purpose, but natural cycles and rituals of purification and spiritual communion.  Our Parsha comes from what is called the Book of Numbers, but the message is not about numbers, not about doing things by the numbers, for the original, Hebrew name of the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar, In the Desert.  And so, in the many deserts that we wander today, may we find justice and redemption, spiritual purification and communion, continuity with a  living tradition and a covenant with a power greater than ourselves.

At this point, we continued with the service, and in lieu of a closing hymn, we sang the song written and originally performed by Bob Dylan, Blowing in the Wind--here are the lyrics:

Blowing In The Wind
Bob Dylan
How many roads must a man walk down,

before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove fly,

before she sleeps in the sand?
And how many times must a cannon ball fly,

before they're forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist,
before it is washed to the sea?

How many years can some people exist,
before they're allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many times must a man look up,

before he sees the sky?

And how many ears must one man have,

before he can hear people cry?

And how many deaths will it take till we know,
that too many people have died?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

And while I have nothing against Bob Dylan's rendition, why don't we return to Peter, Paul, and Mary to get a sense of the simple spiritual beauty of this song:

In Hebrew, the word for wind, and breath as well, ruach, also means spirit, and in this sense we can understand the prayerful intent of this song.  And with that, the service was concluded.