Was the seed of "the medium is the message" sowed in a classroom at Gladstone School during the First World War?

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This article was published 20/7/2011 (3580 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Was the seed of "the medium is the message" sowed in a classroom at Gladstone School during the First World War?

Did Marshall McLuhan first ponder the concept of the global village because of an inspirational teacher at Earl Grey School or Kelvin High School?

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers, a man who foresaw, and possibly propelled, a revolution in global communications and community.

McLuhan moved here to 507 Gertrude Ave. in 1915 before he turned four, attended Gladstone, Earl Grey and Kelvin, and then took both his undergraduate degree and his master's at the University of Manitoba.

He died in 1980.

The author of the profoundly important 1964 work Understanding Media may be a truly global figure, but Winnipeg has largely forgotten he's one of ours.

"It is funny in Winnipeg who we choose to put on a pedestal and who we choose to forget," said Leif Larsen, editor of the The Manitoban, the U of M's student newspaper. The paper has published a special edition containing 14 articles McLuhan wrote while a U of M student. It appears to be Manitoba's sole recognition of the centenary of perhaps the province's best-known citizen.

Today is Marshall McLuhan Day in Edmonton, where he was born, and it's Happy Birthday Marshall day in Toronto, where he taught for more than 30 years. Both the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto are hosting extensive celebrations of his life and works, and they're far from the only communities doing so.

In Manitoba -- alas, no celebration.

"Something of the Manitoba psyche must have rubbed off on him, something his teachers taught him at school. We need to know that desperately. No one I know has studied the Winnipeg connection," said education professor Denis Hlynka, whom the U of M identifies as its pre-eminent McLuhan scholar.

"We're always influenced by our elementary and high school teachers," said Hlynka. "Surely it didn't arrive full-blown when he was teaching in Wisconsin."

McLuhan received his PhD from Cambridge University and also taught in St. Louis and Windsor, Ont., though he spent almost all his illustrious academic career teaching at the University of Toronto.

Nevertheless, Winnipeg must have played a role in McLuhan's development, Hlynka said.

"There must have been an impact. There must have been things from a prairie environment, the isolation."

McLuhan's childhood home at  507 Gertrude


McLuhan's childhood home at 507 Gertrude

So, professor, give us Marshall McLuhan 101, the overview, in terms lay people can understand, if you please.

"The field of communication starts with McLuhan," Hlynka says.

"McLuhan is always asking questions, not only what technology does for us, but also what technology does to us.

"I've always been interested in McLuhan since Understanding Media (McLuhan's pioneering study in media theory), and making media the centre of his discourse. Before that, the media was something in the middle and transparent and conveyed the message from the sender to the receiver," Hlynka said.

Hlynka acknowledged there are countless interpretations of McLuhan's seminal quote, "the medium is the message."

"As a metaphor, it's deliberately ambiguous," said Hlynka. "It's up to the audience to determine what it means to them. 'The medium is what's important' is as good as any.

"Sure, the medium changes the message. It reflects the importance of the medium in the communications model of a message going from a sender to a receiver."

Hlynka teaches teachers how to teach using technology, which is essentially what McLuhan meant by media.

"I have always used him in my courses. I make him a standard underpinning of my courses."

Many people may know of McLuhan or quote him without having read him, Hlynka said.

"Everybody knows his language, everyone knows his term 'global village.'

"He talked about surfboarding electronic waves -- his one-liners were absolutely incredible and right on.

U of M archivist Shelley Sweeney has McLuhan's master's thesis written in 1934 on 19th-century English poet and novelist George Meredith. Sweeney's digitizing the entire collection of The Manitoban -- a project the current compilation of McLuhan's student writings will highlight.

"It's amazing. He's a student, yet his writing is quite sophisticated and quite dense -- it takes more than one reading," said Sweeney.

"People all over the world are celebrating him; he's a guru. There are literally dozens and dozens of events celebrating his birthday.

"This is really the time for McLuhan, because of the way the whole nature of communications is changing and how it fits in with the way his theories were."

A reception hall in the U of M's University Centre was renamed in McLuhan's honour in 2004.

But that appears to be it for McLuhan in Winnipeg -- no plaque on his house, no street named after him, no public facility.

Earl Grey School principal Gail Singer has McLuhan's report card in her office, but under privacy legislation she can't divulge McLuhan's marks without the permission of his estate.

"In Montreal (Singer's hometown), he was a big name. Here, nobody ever mentions him. When I taught at Kelvin, no one ever mentioned him," Singer said.

Maybe, when Earl Grey marks its 100th anniversary in 2015, it should do something special for McLuhan, she suggested.

When the U of M dedicated McLuhan Hall in 2004, two of his children were incredulous Winnipeg has not recognized him.

"That's a mystery to me. It's not as though he were here fleetingly -- he was shaped here," said Elizabeth McLuhan at that 2004 ceremony.

"It's not a flimsy claim to say this is his city," she said. "It nourished him, it sustained him. At a time Winnipeg feels upbeat about itself, it's a good time to embrace it.

"He talked all his life about the effect of living on the Prairies," his son, Eric McLuhan, said at that ceremony in 2004.

"This would be a wonderful place to start a communications studies school, but not a conventional one. That would be a very worthwhile thing to do, and it would make U of M a world leader."

That was 2004. Nothing much has changed.

"That one hall was a long time in coming," Hlynka said.

"The literature doesn't know that (his Winnipeg history). We think of him as being a Torontonian, he was from Cambridge.

"He's certainly our best-known Manitoban internationally."