Editorial

Will our own ‘Aristotle’ be a prophet without a home?

Peter C. Newman March 17 1980
Editorial

Will our own ‘Aristotle’ be a prophet without a home?

Peter C. Newman March 17 1980

Will our own ‘Aristotle’ be a prophet without a home?

Editorial

Peter Newman

"Marshall McLuhan and John Kenneth Galbraith are the two greatest modern Canadians the United States has produced,” British novelist Anthony Burgess once wryly observed. That has never been a more sadly appropriate remark than at this moment, when McLuhan, one of our few seminal thinkers, is being threatened with eviction.

What’s involved is a decision by the University of Toronto, where he has taught since 1946, to shut down McLuhan’s world-renowned Centre for Culture and Technology. Although his reputation has endowed the building with an impressive title, the Centre is actually little more than a converted garage about the size of a modest Victorian stable. It employs a staff of three and its most prominent decoration is McLuhan’s rowing oar from his days at Cambridge. The U of T budgets an annual $75,000 to house its most illustrious professor, but now it has ordered McLuhan to vacate his premises by June 30,1980.

McLuhan, who first came to nonacademic prominence in 1959 with his aphorism that “the medium is the message,” is currently recovering from a stroke. But his Centre has eight research projects under way and continues to sponsor weekly seminars.

His dozen books, his Schweitzer Fellowship at New York’s Fordham University, his countless lectures and

what he likes to describe as his “probes” have turned McLuhan into a contemporary Aristotle. Ironically the province of Ontario declared him a “natural resource.” The term “McLuhanism” was recently listed in the The Oxford English Dictionary and he is almost certainly the only Canadian whose name has been transmuted into that ultimate of accolades by appearing in graffiti—such as MCLUHAN READS BOOKS!

The influence of the man’s intellectual pyrotechnics was probably best caught in a Financial Post article by Alexander Ross: “There was a time when every university in Germany had a free period at 11 in the morning, because that’s when Hegel was lecturing at Berlin. McLuhan is that kind of man, in our very own midst. So be proud.”

Proud we should be, but the University of Toronto’s ruling represents all too well the Canadian syndrome of playing down our few resident geniuses. Typically, most of the pressure to restore McLuhan to his ramshackle Centre is coming from Americans, including Buckminster Fuller, Woody Allen and Tom Wolfe, the tart-tongued New York journalist. It was Wolfe who once coquettishly inquired: “Suppose McLuhan is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov—what if he is right?”

To which Marshall McLuhan, with that Gary Cooper smile which signals most of his sallies, replied: “I’d rather be wrong.”