Ryder McEntyre


A New Environment with Old Tools, Liberal Arts is the Solution

Lately, I've been reading my new bible: The Medium is the Massage written by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, and in this holy tome is a wealth of societally important ideas. Like how we're currently in an electric environment with non-electric tools and perspectives. They call it the "rear view" society, who continues to latch onto the old environment, which was largely defined by the invention of the printing press. 

I think a lot about how the postmodern condition, that of a world experienced almost exclusively through electric circuitry via the internet and computing, and how that impacts myself and my peers. This book deals with just that.

The young today live mythically and in depth. But they encounter instruction in situations organized by means of classified information - subjects are unrelated, they are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture. It could be their door to all past achievement if studied as an active (and not necessarily benign) force.


It is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive “outside” world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery — to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
— Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore

None of these ideas are all that new, but never - in my experience - have they been stated so parsimoniously and poignantly. As I read through the excerpted chapter of the book, I was astounded to realize that my liberal arts education is just that -- a tool for discovery. I was given a framework to apply to things in my junior year called artistic theory, and I've discovered so much about my world and my self, that it almost seems impossible that I could have learned it in a classroom. Instead of classification, Fiore and McLuhan argue, we should be teaching pattern recognition.

The qualities of postmodern texts are an excellent example of how pattern recognition can help us immediately understand a variety of texts (in the academic sense, any media that can be viewed or read). Each media - the written word, the painted canvas, the illuminated screen, is influenced by overarching theories which prove it is sourced from humanity at a particular place and/or time. 

I believe that pattern recognition is something closely tied to a concept which is near and dear to my heart: negative capability. Negative capability is the ability of human beings to transcend context. A certain arrangement of facts in one media, say a book, could lead to one meaning. A certain arrangement of those facts in a different media, say a television show, could also lead to the same meaning. People with high negative capability have a higher chance of noticing and manipulating these patterns. In my experience, I have never been particularly good at a lot of things, but the one thing I am good at is only getting the beginning and end of something, noticing a pattern, and following it to its logical conclusion as if the idea were my own. 

Pattern recognition, if you're good enough, can lead to things like sensory overload. I don't want to toot my own horn here, but I think I'm too good at pattern recognition, so much so, that I cannot stop witnessing them, and I never allow my context to be taken for granted. What does that last part mean? Well, look at your hands. Objectively. Think about how strange it is that you have hands. The shapes of them are really, really weird. You can move each finger, curl it up, uncurl it. I never take my hands for granted. 

What does that have to do with patterns? Well, if I'm used to looking at my hands, I never notice anything about them. I never begin to ask questions about my hands, what makes them work, I never begin the discovery process because my hands are being taken totally for granted. That's a very small, silly comparison, but it's something that happens to me a lot. I forget what it's like to have hands for a second, and it's pretty trippy.

So we've gone from a consistently failing educational system to forgetting about always having hands.... Why am I still writing? Because I'm really trying to tell you that liberal arts are the way of the future. If you take your general education classes like your major classes, you'll be able to learn much more effectively than your peers who might see those classes as wastes of time. Popular opinion dictates that we should hate our general education classes, but as a senior entering my last semester at a fantastic and small liberal arts school, I am here to tell you that discovery can happen with your hands, or in the classroom. 

So you're in your major classes and you're very good at them. Of course you are, that's why you picked that as your major. What you might not realize is, very similar concepts coexist constantly right under your nose. For example, I was studying postmodern theory in a literature class, two communication classes, and an art theory course. That's a very obvious thing to draw, but my learning of one area of postmodernity enriched my readings in the other classes and vice versa. I never thought to separate the theories from one another, even if they had different names or different people that suggested those theories because at the end of the day, human expression will be able to studied the same as every other variety of human expression.