According to W. Terrence Gordon’s introduction in the critical edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, 1994), Gordon tells the story of how McLuhan began to write a Claude Bissell, then-president of University of Toronto in 1958, was only vaguely aware “that an English professor toiling away in a remote corner of the campus was beginning to enjoy a reputation for his work on media” (Gordon 477). That English professor, none other than Marshall McLuhan. At that point, the U.S.-based National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) had approved McLuhan’s proposal for a study of media during his sabbatical year in 1958. And so, NAEB project #69 was launched.
McLuhan called it “Vat 69,” a caldron where he tossed in as many ideas as he could seize, hoping to eventually turn his study into a book. Later, his enthusiastic but frustrated editors for the original edition of Understanding Media would innocently believe that he also intended to give his subject a more orderly treatment.
I am curious to learn more about Project 69, or “Vat 69,” because this is where McLuhan also started developing a bit of an attitude against teachers.
The NAEM apparently set McLuhan to designing a teaching method and syllabus for introducing secondary school students to the nature and effects of media. With sponsorship from both the NAEB and the United States Office of Education, McLuhan’s research focused on interviews with educators and a program of media-testing conducted with the help of the Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto. He began to work as soon as possible, heading to Philadelphia to study with Harry Skornia, then professor of radio and television broadcasting University of Illinois at Urbana and president of the NAEB, and with author Gilbert Seldes.
It was clear that the project would absorb McLuhan fully, with a final report scheduled for submission at the end of his sabbatical year in June 1960. But he had a sample syllabus ready (text is in the book Understanding Media) before the end of 1959. As an objective for prospective courses, he gives priority to examining the following:
– the interaction of media
– the nature of print
– and new electronic technologies
McLuhan later admitted (Gordon 1994) that he himself emphasized that he had neither a theory nor a point of view – only percepts and probes.
He points out that achieving increased awareness of the forms of media is not an end in itself but provides a means of anticipation and control.
Linguistics, and the organizing pattern imposed on experience by language – was made into “the medium is the message,” a far cry from what “the medium is the message” meant when McLuhan said it to reassure worried broadcasters with extinction by television.
He castigated educators for insulating themselves against cultural change by taking shelter in bureaucratic structures. Ouch!
Since he was gearing up for his sabbatical anyway, it was probably a time for him to get reflective on why teachers and teacher education as a field might be resistant to new modes of learning.
His writing seems to evolve from metaphor; in fact, his entire life’s work came from Poe, James Joyce, and other Renaissance writers. He was an English professor because there was no “comparative media studies” or other such fields of study that he, himself, is later credited for beginning.
Heavy credit to W. Terrance Gordon and his revised preface to Understanding Media is due, as I have never seen that particular study researched or documented elsewhere.