K von Meier McLuhanesque - The Hot University


In this article from 1967, Kurt takes on the changing university system in California using a methodology derived from media-critic Marshall McLuhan, himself a university professor in Canada. McLuhan was very influential during the mid-sixties, and his two books published in that time - The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media gained widespread attention. Famous for his slogan "The medium is the message," McLuhan introduced the ideas of "hot" and "cool" media, and that the messages media itself imparts are distinct from the "content" it carries. Kurt was deeply affected by McLuhan's ideas, and in this essay he adapts McLuhan's "cool" and "hot" and extends them: University as Media. Through that lens he explores the emerging impacts of Governor Reagan's Administration in California: charging tuition, a focus on career paths, constraining dissent, racial and economic inequity of educational opportunity and the meaning of education itself. Kurt's use of terms like "negro" date this piece, but his call for radical solutions was urgent. Today, as university tuition creates debt-slaves of students, Kurt's observations and predictions are revealed, sadly, as prescient.


Wow. Another Colloquium on Higher Education at UCLA. Again, all of us Well Meaning. All of us taking the bull by one horn--the older and wiser and tenured knowing full well what the chances are of getting tossed if you grab both. Hence the attitude displayed by some of the more "official" spokesmen, which could be described as dignified reticence. It could be described as practical wisdom, bold and encouraging off the record, while neither inflammatory nor overly-idealistic, of course. It could also be described as chickenshit.

The really practical consideration is that the universities have no time to lose. They are already dealing themselves out of all relevance for a generation that has just begun to drop out. The universities are still the most cybernetically efficient organizations within the "Establishment" - they come closest to the ideal redundancy of control, or the situation of optimum feedback. Indeed, this situation underlies the very concept of teaching; but we all know that it only begins to become viable at the university level. "Lower" education is indoctrination, i.e. no feed-­back. Even the so-called higher educational institutions in California now face direct political pressure to move toward indoctrination. Critical enquiry and its sometime product, dissent, are only the most obvious kinds of feedback that are being eliminated. A condition of terror has begun to pervade the entire system of the universities: Departments, Col­leges, Administrations all cleaning their respective households of any elements that might cause attention to be focused upon them, fearing what that official attention will almost surely bring. This is cause for concern on two important counts: (1) All real conservatives, conscious of the tradition of the universities in Western civilization, will recognize in this move an undermining sacrifice of those values the university has always defended (free enquiry into matters of fact and speculation). (2) All really practical people will see this move as being away from cybernetic efficiency toward a more primitive structure, which in terms of cybernetics anyway means an unstable one.

This instability might be literal and actual. At the recent University Religious Conference at UCLA, the possibility was discussed that the Westwood campus could be literally destroyed this next summer. I mean every stone knocked down, and every page in every book in the library burned. For reasons that should be clear even to the non-paranoid, the reliable, immediate sources of this information were not reported specifically even in that sanctified gathering. If you do not want to think about unpleasant possibilities, that is one thing; but the slightest chance that such a thing could happen suggests the necessity for some instant reflection by the prudential.

Take the hypothesis of a hot summer in Watts and East Vernon. Most of the handy targets were destroyed in the summer of 1965. Anyway, the militant members of the Negro community will have had two years to think about better targets. The militant forces have been growing, and acquiring more intelligent leadership, together with tighter organization and a clearer understanding of tactics. The whole history of the American Negro substantiates the use of terror and violence as the most effective tactics (and that is not by the first choice or failing of the Negro). These are tactics for implementing , as that great figure, Malcom X wrote, not civil rights, but human rights. The whole educational system represents one of the most direct ways in which these rights can be secured and sustained by Negroes. This is what Whitey has been telling him all along. And when it doesn't work, Whitey says, "But you have to get more education, baby...that's the answer, climb that ladder just like we do." Thus the White Establishment, by defining the means (which don't work, of course, because they don't really confront the problem) the same act may well have defined the targets for reprisal.

Because of its geography and general social and political orientation, USC may be the first big target. But UCLA is almost a co-favorite, as it represents the State of California and its new Leader. Whether it passes or not, the tuition proposal clearly indicated the frame of mind of the State--seeking to usurp the control over who gets into the universities (hence, who is allowed a chance to really make it later). This control is currently in the hands of academic politics (administrators, not teachers). As soon as artificial barriers to free entry, such as tuition, are established, this further militates against the opportunities for any member of a minority group, or of the economically underprivileged, to gain admission. And if it is the State that will say who does and who doesn't have to pay tuition, every Negro, every Mexican-American, and every child of non-property-owning parents knows exactly where he's AT.

The insulting little programs to add a little color to the UCLA campus are only admissions of guilt; and in their own way, they supply perhaps further evidence of an inadvertent anticipation of attack. The weapons? A Coke bottle with a piece of rag and a little gasoline: the separate elements of a Molotov cocktail are all perfectly legal, and it only takes a couple of seconds to combine them. All the cops in LA can't possibly stop a determined foray. One well-planned excursion could obliterate everything, and do it swiftly--probably with clean getaways too. It is absurd for thinking men to rely confidently upon conventional strong-arm, dumb-head repressive modes of defense.

For the sake of those eager to make inferences I should provide a caveat. I am not suggesting this lawless revolutionary act should be perpetrated. For personal reasons, I am opposed to violence and terror, which is also why I happen to reject politics, and the increasing claims by politics to my soul. It is precisely because I think there is a great deal of value in the university system, in the concept of humanistic education, and specifically even in UCLA, that I am moved to write — not to provide a prescription for revolution (which they already have anyway). Even the Biblical prophets of Doom didn't WANT doom. All of us - students, academics, and administrators alike - had well better begin to realize what is going on in the world around us before we allow the whole artifice of civilization to come tumbling down around our ears.

The basic problem--precisely because it is basic--can be couched in many different karma contexts, both within and without the university. Perhaps the most immediately relevant set of terms involves Marshall McLuhan's concepts of "cool" and "hot" as applied to education. The efforts of Gover­nor Reagan and the people of the State of California seem directed toward making the general process of education become more "hot." Members of the Great Coalition (including the media revolutionaries, teenyboppers, hippies, most minority groups, and almost all of the really creative minds and talents) see education as becoming more "cool," hence more thoroughly integrated with life rather than a fragmented, compartmentalized component of it.

Historically, education was certainly cooler than it is today. Curiously to some, perhaps, the Coalition is conservative (or more properly, radical, which one must always carefully point out derives from the Latin radixmeaning "root," hence "concerned with root, or basic issues"). Reagan and the so-called Conservatives may actually be forebodings of the unintelligent future. Today most education (not only the subject matter, but more importantly, the way the processes are conceived) is already quite warm. Institutional education therefore is, or is becoming irrelevant for members of the Great Coalition. This does not, of course, diminish the threat of violence. On the contrary, the institutions, as they become less relevant, become that much more vulnerable - as if the hollowness of the idol became more apparent until it had to be crushed or crushed itself of its own dead weight. The pattern of increasing drop-outs is only a short-term effect. Pretty soon none of these people will be dropping out; they will not be a part of the institutions in the first place.

The range of education from "cold" to "hot" can be generally characterized in about half a dozen steps. Naturally these overlap and interpenetrate, just as they admit of far more subtle internal distinctions; but they are set out here in order to correspond to the ways we usually think about edu­cational processes.

1. Cold: Meditation, the internal point of reference. A major polar focus of the current "revolution." Evidenced by the interest in Oriental culture (Zen, Lamaism, etc.), and especially by the exponentially growing social and cultural impact of LSD (getting your own head straight, which of course many committed forces and vested interest& of the Establishment try to prevent in a sad, desperate, impossible attempt to perpetuate their fucked-up system of money-property-power-control games). The heritage of this cold element is noble; it corresponds to the medieval vita con­templativa; it is also fundamental to any system of education, ancient or modern, that can claim to be truly Humanistic. A parallel in the realm of politics might be democracy tending toward enlightened anarchy, as docu­mented, say, by the Bill of Rights, or by the writings of Thomas Jefferson. All authoritarian mentalities fear this tradition, and for good tactical reasons attempt to repress it or to eradicate it utterly.

2. Super-cool: Physical education is the next essential step in a system of higher education today, much as it was in the academe of the Greeks. This is also religious in the sense of the human body considered as a sanctuary. In turn this presents implications for many other fields, such as ethics, morality, and other aspects of both law and behavior. For ex‑ ample, even a state of political anarchy does not imply lawlessness: crimes against persons (such as rape or murder) are still crimes from which citizens deserve protection. (It is the "crime" against the State that becomes difficult to rationalize). What you do to or put into your own body should be your own business. Education's business is to help us find out more about our bodies, and to come to accept them as the beautiful, fascinating, and very important things they are. Tolerance and love come in when we begin to respect our own bodies, and then to respect other people as individual sanctuaries, as human beings. It is a matter of some concern that politicians seek to eliminate physical education from the curriculum of the universities. Naturally the place physical education ideally should occupy has little to do with the way it is currently con­ceived. It would be far more encouraging to discover some efforts to take PE out of the hands of fascistic self-righteous and repressive task masters, whose primary obligation seems to lie in glorification of the institution and the Establishment, rather than in glorifying the individual.

3. Cool: The creative and performing arts require deep involvement, in McLuhan's sense, but they also turn outward to the "real" world. There are introspective and expressionistic artists, just as there are private aesthetic gestures and very public exhibitions--a wide range of "cool" and "hot" among the styles and approaches. From the educational point of view, the arts involve the human being in the actual process of doing. Such activity is closely related to the discipline and control necessary for athletics (as opposed to the elements of arbitrary regimentation as in military training which defy the healthy development of individual action and decision); but the creative arts are less cold because they involve, generally, a greater degree of abstraction, and even intellectualization. In so far as specula­tive thought may be conceived as a creative art, it would be cool because it involved a depth participation, but warm in so far as it is abstract. Every real scholar is a creative artist in some way; every effective teacher must be necessarily. A favorite put-down of the student conditioned and corrupted by spending a dozen or so years in our current educational system is to charge a teacher with being an "entertainer." As if everything really serious also had to be somber or dull, just because it always had been before. As if involvement in and love of his material (literally, philosophia) were not the primary requirement of any true humanistic scholar. And as if manifesting this love and involvement (with as few self-defenses and cop-out qualifi­cations as possible) were not the most direct and profound method of teaching,

4. Warm: Skills and techniques more conceptually oriented, more abstract and less immediate, become warmer. For example, a course in creative writing is cooler than one in English grammar. There is good reason to believe that the vital interests in education are shifting to cooler interpretations. Of education, Marshall McLuhan has recently written, "The old education, blueprinting, the imposing of patterns of time and classified data on the young brain pan, that's finished. Acquiring skills in the linguistic sense is not over but certainly the old idea of Latin grammar and syntax is fin­ished." (LA Times, April 11, 1967). It is reasonable to suppose that insti­tutions which adapt to the changing concepts and processes of education will survive; and that those that don't won't.

5. Hot: From warm to hot, the subject is approached more from the outside, more conceptually than intuitively. The traditional notion of the scientific method could be described as hot. Concern with problems of methodology in general are hotter than the more involved concern with substance, i.e. when it is no longer the subject matter itself but how we study it that becomes a primary consideration. In some ways history and the social sciences are hot--although they cool down when they become involved with problems of re-creation, or the depth analysis of iconology, for example. In many fields, such as art history, there is a desperate need for new thought to be turned to problems of methodology (hotter than analysis). The point is not that cold or hot is "good" or "bad," or any more or less necessary. There are different needs in different disciplines; but as various disciplines begin to merge or converge, it becomes the manifest problem for humanistic education as a whole to face a complete restructuring. This means actively developing radical new educational approaches, from cold to hot, inclusive.

6. Red hot: A great deal of our education as it is conceived and practiced today is already red hot. This means minimal individual (or group) involvement — fast, objective, abstract, clear-cut, superficial (literally, staying on the surface of things: the world as it appears to be instead of the world as it IS). A good (bad) example is the name-date concept of history. It is good in so far as it is a very efficient and accurate way to order and to present an accumulation of factual data; it is bad when it pretends to involve understanding of that data or comprehension of what it really means. From the standpoint of the humanities, it is a concern with incidentals rather than with essentials. Hotter is the process of rote memorization, which educators have, by and large, ceased to identify with more genuinely educational approaches. This is not to say that red hot methods are totally out of place in the university--only that after some much-needed thought, they should be restricted to their appropriate domain, such as safety precautions, rules for using and caring for equipment, tools and machines.

The great danger we must confront immediately is an undermining of the basic ides of the university and humanistic education by an enormous massing of political force and the popular sentiment it has so far been able to seduce. The threat is to turn the university into a super trade school for the economically privileged, or for those who will sell-out by committing them­selves to the rigid support of the Establishment in return for a privileged position on the pyramid when they get out. The general direction of this counter-revolutionary movement is toward a hotter concept of education. But in emphasizing the vita active, the Establishment often applies totalitarian pressures in restricting other active elements that do not con­tribute to the defense of the rigid pyramid of power and prestige. At the same time the Establishment is becoming pathologically obsessed with the cool revolution of youth and the rest of the Great Coalition.

If only the Establishment realized that the university is just about the last institution it has that can function anywhere near efficiency. But by becoming centers for indoctrination rather than education, the university only decreases its cybernetic functions as it cuts off more and more feedback, it becomes less self-regulating, more rigid, more subservient to politics, and hence more apt to come crashing down with the rest of the Establishment’s artifice. It is just in this critical position, however, that the real and immediate promise of the university is to be found. If they - that is, the people within the universities - are not prepared to take the bull by both horns, the university may very soon lose the opportunity for preserving a great deal of what is good and beautiful in Western civilization. There are really two directions - or two revolutions, if you wish. The university in a unique position of being able to mediate between the considerable forces on both sides. So far its commitment to the side of the Establishment has been emphatic and almost entire. Events within the last six months suggest that it may already be total and beyond hope. We must have clear thought and straight talk on a whole string of issues. We must sort out what directions do offer hope, and turn in those directions, and act. And damn fast.

Kurt von Meier