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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Building a Learning Culture

Director, McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology

The issue at hand is: what is learning? It's an old question. Is it a matter of skills? Is it a matter of information that you take in and regurgitate? That question has been raised so many times and without very conclusive answers.

I'd like to displace it and put it on a different level. Learning is an issue of the relationship between identity and the community; how people's identities are formed and how that relates to the community. And this is one of the most serious questions of our present time; the transition that we are going through.

Here at Couchiching, we're repeating a 2,500-year-old experience, which is the Agora. We're doing the same thing at this present stage of our culture as the Greeks did when they got on to the public stage and discussed public matters.

Education in those days was meant to develop citizens, who would be able to relate to this common good, this common law. And this is what is very critical today; it is exactly what kind of citizens we are making and what kind of citizenry and what kind of world we are making for our citizens to share in?

I have been extremely moved by a film done by a black group of film makers called, Boyz N the Hood. It had a very strong impact on me because it placed that question right at the core; that question of identity and community. The film seemed to bring out the kind of schizophrenic approach we have to our own culture, where we can have a large number of people that are not included in this public space.

I was reminded of that film by a very powerful show in Rochester called Soul Shadows, which is about urban warriors, who are those young black kids in and out of schools, dealing with a very hostile environment, becoming hostile themselves and having a very strong reaction to technology. Whether it is technology for killing or technology for information processing, they seem to have a very hostile relationship to it.

Soul Shadows is what Dawn Dedeaux did to create a new sense of community. The first thing she did was to put the technology that was much responsible for the social attitude of these children in their hands.

She put video in their hands and made them express their own stories; these were kids from the underprivileged areas of the inner city – what she called the urban warriors of the big cities. This was in New Orleans. She put video cameras in the hands of kids who regularly dropped out of school and asked them to tell their story by video.

Soul Shadows is a kind of a step-by-step story of what happens to children and young people as they move out the school system and begin to get into the street violence and begin to work into a kind of syndrome that often ends in death, or prison, or a complete loss of identity.

The reason she did this, she explained, was to show how TV creates a certain type of mental space.

Television, as the principal system of mass communication, has no doubt served significant educational purposes. But inherent in the existence of commercial television, its advertising and ratings is the making of a late 20th century material man who is made of what he owns.

The collision of Mercedes and BMWs into the home of the poor, whose only possession may be the television set itself, has had troubling results. Compounded by the content of television shows like Dallas or Dynasty, which paraded excess, crime – soaps which paraded violence – and the news, which paraded the values of Milliken and Boesky, it's little wonder the past decade saw the juvenile crime and death rate shoot through the roof.

The bottom has mirrored the top.

What's fascinating about that is that the same time as Dawn Dedeaux recognized the problem, she also recognized in some ways the solution. And this is the educational value of what she has done... because we really need to include, rather than exclude people, in the common space that we have to now recreate.

With the advent of the multi-channel world, 200 channel universe and so on, television, which once provided a kind of public space and a common mind through a large number of people – in fact through the population of North America as a whole – is going to be splintered into so many different specialty channels and specialty services that the publicness of that medium may be soon disappearing.

The issue of public space is a very powerful one. It's the one where a community recognizes itself and dialogues with itself the way we are doing now.

What Dawn Dedeaux has done is to actually re-create a mythology that is now recognizable to these kids and recreate a space where they can all together recognize themselves as part of a culture that is now being given some attention.

So it's very important to do an anchoring of one's identity, especially in situations where that identity is not fostered by a private elaboration.

The problem with television, versus the old literacy development, is that television gives you a corporate identity because when you watch TV you take on a corporate mind; you take on the values and the problems and the preoccupations that are presented to you, whether it's a sitcom or the news – it doesn't make any difference, you don't have a private self working itself through your interaction with the medium, you have a public self.

TV is very good, but it has to be understood properly and we have to relate to it in a proper way.

What Dedeaux does is to heal; to provide a public space which is made for the people who need to recreate an identity, which is not reflected by the characters they see on their television – they create their own television in some way and they anchor it.

Television is thinking collectively. It's extremely important not to neglect it when one thinks in terms of media.

But, I want to move on to the more recent developments in the media world; the whole issue of interactive media, of virtual reality – the world of the cyber space.

In cyberspace one finds a world of network communication, whether it is a humble modem and the data network, or whether it is the more prestigious full video, motion, data, images, sound network of which video-conferencing is one example, or whether it is the even more prestigious – and rarer for the moment – virtual reality world where you can, indeed, get into a world that is recreated entirely according to your desires and whims by plunging into the sea of electrons, putting on mask and gloves and a costume and here you are floating in cyber space with all kinds of new possibilities.

Paul Virilio, a French intellectual who likes to put down technology, once described the question of cyber space as one of the great problems of loss of time and space, as the loss of lifesize.

Since we have been involved in telephoning and faxing and networking and multi-media, we have lost lifesize and this loss of proportion – this loss of sense of self – is a very serious problem.

And today one of the very big intellectual discussions in cyber world is, do we still have a body? Do we still need a body? So, the question of the body is very much an issue.

Nicholas Negroponte says that the invention of the fax machine has delayed our growth; our mental and technological know-how growth, by 10 or 15 years.

He says the fact that you can use the network by simply an extension of your printer or by a writing telephone makes you much lazier regarding the much greater capacities and power of the modem and the use of interconnection on things like Internet and all kinds of much more instant and flexible and useful forms of network communication.

And I think he's correct.

That's a question I think schools should address. If we are going to be networked, and there are some schools that are networked, we better have people teaching kids not to rely on the fax, but how to use the modem and get on the net.

This network education is really very important. It's just as important as the other big buzz word – the multi- media education. The real value of multi-media is going to happen when the network environment makes accessible to everybody from their home and their school data bases with images, sound, data that people will be able to access and, in fact, combine and create and become their own producer, their own editor. Again, empowering the people. People want to get in on the act.

My last point has to do with one of the major changes underway; that generations are not based on age any more; they are based on sensibility. I've seen many examples of this, the last of which was this Rochester show, where the older people in the community and the youngest would join helping visitors to see this new technology being shown. It was wonderful to see all the generations working together in perceiving a new kind of transparency; a new form of community that was being fostered by complete elimination of the age- based kind of differentiation. What is happening is a new kind of approach to generation. If this idea is true, it is not true enough.

How do you make it truer?

A certain kind of learning environment; a certain kind of learning culture...a certain kind of sharing of our experience, our understanding and our knowledge in a larger state will create a new common space, a new public space – one which is including and not excluding cyber punks or urban warriors – and which will include age groups and certainly women.