Education in your own hands


In 1940 Peter Drucker attended a meeting of some learned society during which selected people read papers to an audience of bored department chairmen on the lookout for new hires for the next academic year.


He said that he does not remember what his paper at that meeting was all about nor does he remember anything of the meeting, not even what learned society’s meeting it might have been. All he remembers is that he was fully prepared to be bored but clearly remembers the reading of the paper of a young man of 29 who just got masters in English and who later at 32 got his Ph.D.


The young man started reading his paper in a flat, nasal Midwestern voice with a Canadian twang to it. He had then just started teaching as a very young English instructor at St. Louis University in Missouri, and was of course totally unknown. He looked most ordinary – ungracefully tall and thin.


The title of the paper – something to do with the origin of the modern university curriculum – did not sound particularly exciting either. And at first the paper sounded exactly like any first paper read by a young academic to an audience of bored department heads.


But soon this ordinary-looking English instructor began to say some strange-sounding things. The medieval university, he said, became obsolete with the printed book. Everybody nodded since that much was part of conventional wisdom. But he went on to contend that the modern university came into being in the 16th century because of printing, which not only changed the method of instruction and the form of presentation but changed the nature of what was being taught and what the university intended to teach.


The new learning, that unknown man seemed to say, has little to do with the renewed interest in old classical writers, that was for the teachers not the students. On the contrary, these great events of intellectual history were themselves results of Gutenberg’s new technology.


One of the professors ask when he was finished reading, “Did I hear you right, that you think printing influenced the courses the university taught and the role of the university altogether?” “No Sir,” said the young man, “it did not influence; printing determined both, what was taught and the role of the university, printing determined what henceforth was going to be considered knowledge.”


That young man who predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented and known for the expression “global village” and “the medium is the message”, is Marshall McLuhan, whom we at EXIT, honor for his contribution to education.