Wrong medium for this student’s message

May 18, 2013

Published in The Carillon (Steinbach).

“The medium is the message.” That prescient observation was made in 1964 by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Basically, McLuhan meant that the way in which a message is transmitted was just as important as the message itself.

For example, those who watch a political leader’s speech on television may react very differently from those who listen to the same speech on the radio. As a case in point, people who watched the famous Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates on television judged Kennedy the winner while those who listened to the radio version preferred Nixon. Kennedy looked better on television and, for many viewers, this outweighed the substance of what he and Nixon had to say.

McLuhan died in 1980, long before the advent of the internet. Were he still alive today, he would probably be amazed at how the internet has confirmed his theory. Release one video on Youtube that goes viral and you can achieve instant worldwide fame. In fact, a young person’s entire future could end up being determined by one video clip.

Last week, Jeff Bliss, an 18-year-old Texas high school student, found out just how easy it is to become famous. Frustrated with the quality of instruction he was receiving in his world history class, he challenged his teacher in front of the class and let her know that he thought she was a terrible teacher. One of his classmates recorded the exchange and uploaded it to Youtube. In only a few days, the 90 second video clip was watched more than 1.7 million times.

To be fair, much of what Bliss said during his rant makes sense. He talked about the need for teachers to be more active with their teaching and engage students face-to-face. He also correctly observed that simply handing out worksheets and expecting students to figure out everything themselves is not a good way to teach. Bliss apparently wanted to take a more active role in his own learning and this is commendable.

However, the way he went about expressing his views was not commendable. In fact, his poor attitude and disrespectful tone overshadowed the good points he made during his rant.

“And if you would like, I’ll teach you a little more so you can actually learn how to teach a freakin class,” said Bliss as he left the room. These types of statements made Bliss look arrogant and rude. No matter how upset Bliss was with the quality of instruction, insulting the teacher in front of the class was the wrong way to express his concerns.

During an interview on the Roy Green Show, Bliss acknowledged that he did not discuss any of his concerns with the teacher before his public outburst. If Bliss really believed in the importance of face-to-face interaction, the least he could have done was meet with the teacher privately to express his concerns. Publicly attacking her without warning displayed poor judgment and undermined the point he wanted to make.

Will this 90 second video clip lead to a serious examination of teaching practices in schools or will it simply provide further confirmation that too many young people no longer respect authority? I think the latter is more likely than the former. In contrast, had Bliss met with his teacher privately to express his concerns, registered a formal complaint with the school principal, or written a thoughtful op-ed in his local newspaper, his message might have been taken more seriously.

In the internet age, it is more important than ever that we choose our medium carefully. For Jeff Bliss, this 90 second video clip was the wrong medium for his message.