On Learning

From Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.

I’m putting together resources for a research paper on the cultural and social impact of photography. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of my sources, but I also picked up The Medium is the Massage, because it looked interesting (and, for a change, SHORT). I’ll have more to say about both books in the upcoming weeks, but I liked this quote about learning and thought I’d share it.

McLuhan’s books are full of gems like this. I just started browsing through them and didn’t know what to expect when I started; but nearly every page strikes me in some way or another. This particular quote leads a short piece that expresses admiration for the potential of technology, but simultaneously contains the warning that we aren’t good at grasping the effects of technological transitions. We lock ourselves in psychological and intellectual straightjackets, McLuhan suggests, because “the interplay between the old and the new … creates many problems and confusions.” McLuhan’s remedy:

The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of … new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view….

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration….

About Me

I’m a southern-transplanted upstate New Yorker. I’ve lived in Atlanta, Georgia since 1988, having moved here when a job I was well-suited for gave me the opportunity to relocate from the small town where I grew up. I was always a bit of a city-guy at heart; so I made a smooth transition from a community of a few thousand people, to one with several million.

My career has been in information technology. I fell into it, frankly. One of my first full-time jobs was as a desk clerk and auditor at a hotel, before computers made their ubiquitous appearance in and permanent attachment to all our lives. The auditor job led to a bookkeeping job; the bookkeeping job morphed into an IT job shortly after the company I worked for bought this gigantic steel box that was an IBM System/34 computer. It was early enough in the IT industry’s development that people still taught themselves how to do things; I taught myself several programming languages and developed some extensive business application experience, then jumped at the chance to move south to take a job supporting the very system and applications I had taught myself to use.

The IT career has served me well. It’s been fascinating, exciting, frustrating, and maddening at turns; anyone with even the faintest involvement in IT knows what I mean by that. But I’ve always had very strong interests that had little or nothing to do with IT or with computer technology. Writing, photography, literature, history, philosophy, and politics have run various threads through my life and my thinking since I was old enough to read. Some would characterize it as a left-brain/right-brain phenomenon. The left-brain, you might say, drew me to the hard logic of computing; but the right-brain kept forging a path of its own. There are other – a whole slew of other – psychological and personal considerations, I’m sure, but this is just an introduction, not psycho-babble or an autobiography. So let’s just leave it at that.

In any case, once upon a time a few years ago, I decided to try and formalize all those things I had been learning on my own. It took me a while to figure out what direction to take; I think I spent about a year just trying to come up with a general approach. I looked at local Georgia schools – there are certainly some good ones – but in the end returned to something I had tried years earlier. Shortly after high school, I had enrolled with Empire State College – a distance-learning arm of the State University of New York – with an eye towards a degree in philosophy at the time. I re-enrolled at ESC in the fall of 2002, but this time began pursuing my bachelor’s degree in historical studies. I was able to pick up where I left off, to some extent, because of the nature of the courses I had originally taken. Here’s a list of the earlier courses I moved into my new degree program, in no particular order:

• Elementary French
• French Conversation
• Political and Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy
• The Philosophy of Aristotle
• Survey of English Literature
• The Romantic Period in English Literature
• Creative Writing

Here are the courses I’ve completed since re-enrolling, in approximately the order I finished them:

• Educational Planning/Degree Program Planning
• United States History 1492-1865
• United States History 1865 to the Present
• World History I, to 1600
• European Civilization Since 1815
• The American Political System: An Introduction to American Government
• The United States Constitution: A Survey
• The United States Constitution: Topics for Our Times
• The Enlightenment
• Introduction to Web Publishing with HTML
• American Intellectual History
• American Modernism
• Historiography
• Science and Technology in Western Culture
• Exploring Place: History
• Pacific Asia: Culture and History
• Nature in American History

Here are the courses I have left:

• Modern Russia (in progress, started May, 2009)
• Statistics
• The African American Experience
• The Middle East
• Eastern European History
• International Politics and Relations
• Globalization: Business and Society in the Information Age

One of the best things about taking on the program through ESC is the freedom it has given me to explore on my own. I’ll usually read a half-dozen related books on my own for each class I take, using the course materials and required texts as my guide. Several of the classes have been (and will be) independent-study, where I have worked or will work directly with one of the college professors, giving me excellent guided opportunities to tailor the classes and research to my interests. American Intellectual History and American Modernity, for example, were independent study; the kinds of discussions I had with the professor and the guidance he gave me through some very complicated material was an intellectual-life-changing experience. Of particular importance was the writing I did for both those classes, writing which my professor evaluated as graduate-level quality – great news since I’m already thinking ahead to graduate school.

It’s been a little odd cranking all this up in my forties, yet I couldn’t even explain how glad I am that I did it. As I continue – juggling one or two classes at a time against my still full-time career in IT – I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve done so far and completely open about where it all might lead me. As this blog (whose name and design, by the way, stems from some work I did for the HTML class) develops, I’ll write more about what I gained from some of the classes. The constitutional interpretation, intellectual history, enlightenment, and historiography classes – for example – changed my thinking permanently and significantly altered how I view society and culture. Equally important, those classes more than any others have helped me clarify my own thinking, allowing me to turn a more thoughtfully critical eye on the world around me. It has been and is an amazing intellectual adventure; and now it’s part of the story of my life.