Using New Media to Communicate with a New Generation

In his article “Marshall McLuhan and the Book: A Reconsideration”, Wayne Urban discusses McLuhan’s love/hate relationship with the printed word. The paper examines McLuhan’s work in The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Guttenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). 

The overall idea of McLuhan’s work focuses in on  the both the good and bad that printed word has done for humanity. While it is more than evident, especially today, that we have come quite far as a society because of Guttenberg’s printing press – the negative effects are far less noticeable and, as McLuhan explains, far more detrimental than we may care to admit.

He surmises that “Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, hearing, and smell were developed for practical reasons, to a much higher level than the strictly visual…” When we as a society introduced the written word, our sight climbed to “the head of the hierarchy of senses…”

Literacy allowed for sharing of thought to the masses, allowed for reasoning, scientific discovery. At the same time, however, it diminished our reliance on our other senses and sent us along a track far from where we would have developed naturally.

Print also allows for, as McLuhan puts it, “a fixed point of view… [it] fosters  a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.” This applies to the formalization of language, and the formulation of nationalism.

He goes on to criticize the printing press for its effect on society – “Print created national uniformity and government centralism.” McLuhan also asserts that it allows for protest, organization of dissenting opinion, political ‘watchdogs’ and effectively the building blocks of democracy.

Guttenberg’s press lead to industrialization by way of a more linear way of thinking due to the societal impacts of such a technology – including but by no means limited to nationalism, uniformity of speech, propaganda and so on.

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It is not very often that someone in their early twenties gets to fulfill both sets of shoes in the classroom.

Throughout my college career, I have maintained a handful of part-time jobs to make rent, pay for books, and for all intents and purposes make ends meet. In addition to these jobs, which for the most part have left me stranded behind coffee shop counters, I worked weekends at a synagogue out in Merion Station. My job there, as I have come to understand it, is to provide an engaging alternative to formal “Hebrew High School.” What does that mean exactly? Your guess was as good as mine, two years back when I first started teaching.

Traditionally, Jewish children in secular families attend public school throughout the week as the rest does the rest of the country – eight o’clock in the morning straight through to three o’clock in the afternoon.

Very much like Sunday school, Jewish kids head over to the synagogue once or twice a week through their grade school education to brush up on bible Hebrew (as opposed to modern 2011 state of Israel Hebrew with words for computers, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and so on), learn the basic set of prayers and rituals, and of course the bible stories that define them culturally and morally. The average grade-schooler finds all of this, as expected, pretty boring and inapplicable to their Facebooking, iPod listening, sports blogging lives. Nonetheless, they truck on through because there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah has come to be the turning point in many young Jewish adults’ lives. It is, sad to say, the last day many will spend in a synagogue.

For those that wish to continue their Jewish cultural education, they may carry on at accredited Hebrew High Schools across the country with standard curriculums, testing, leveled classes, and so forth. The issue is the average student has no desire to take up more of their valuable free time. They have SATs, college applications, school sports, plays, clubs, and a million other things they would rather be doing than sitting in a classroom on a Sunday morning learning antiquated lessons that they have a loose understanding of already.

My job, as a Communications major with an interest in New Media, was to provide an alternative based around electives that the kids found interesting enough to come by for a few hours on Sunday mornings. I taught a class on modern Judaism’s relationship with technology, a film study on the American-Jewish story from Eastern Europe through to today, an environmental / green movement class with roots in Jewish life, and a contemporary music genre study that took various styles’ backgrounds and tied them together with traditional Jewish commentary.

We used blogs, video sharing sites, wiki pages, podcasting, digital photography and so on. Over the two years that I’ve taught there, the students have gotten not only more engaged, but bigger in number. They recruit their friends, they show off their work to their families, they tie in their high school projects to what we’re doing on Sundays.  Its been amazing, and wouldn’t have happened without the mediated experiences the kids provided.

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One response to this post.

  1. Ah, the people of the book meet the people of the media! Thanks for sharing your experiences in exploring the intersections of media studies and spirituality in your work in Jewish education. This a topic of great interest to me, and one that is rich in opportunities for creative teachers like yourself to do innovative kinds of activities and promote thoughtful dialogue that deepens the heart, head and spirit. Perhaps for your final project you will want to develop a multimedia curriculum or something else that support and extends your expertise on this topic. It’s interesting that you reviewed McLuhan’s argument as an introduction to one of the founding fathers— he might make us nervous about “what is gained and what is lost” when one medium is displaced by another. Your work as an educator aims to make connections between religious values and cultural concepts that connect present and future to heritage and tradition. McLuhan himself, says Urban, wrestled with the tension between conservative and progressive/revolutionary impulses. Thank goodness it’s not an “either/or” world!

    Reply

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