Wilbur Lang Schramm was a multifaceted man. His colleagues and students have likened him to Proteus for changing careers and Don Quixote for his “high goals” for technology (Chaffee, 1974). Everett Rodgers called Schramm the “founder of communication study” while others called him the voice of the age. Steven Chaffee, a colleague of Schramm’s, says “Let’s not claim that Schramm built the zeitgeist of this field, or designed its most useful paradigm". Wilbur Lang Schramm is recognized as the principle disseminator of that zeitgeist, those paradigms and the knowledge yielded by mass communication research (1). Christopher Simpson, in his book Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 , agrees that Schramm was the articulator “of the zeitgeist of the field of mass communication and education” (1996, p.111).
How did this man born in 1907 in Marietta, Ohio, during the age of newspapers become a world renowned expert in mass communication? His work as a reporter for the Marietta Daily Herald, the Boston Herald in college, a desk editor, correspondent, and an Associated Press member contributed to his interest in communication. Schramm graduated from Marietta College with highest honors, earned a masters’ degree in literature from Harvard, played the flute with Boston Civic Symphony, and played professional baseball. His newspaper and academic work, as well as his energy, marked him an innovative individual.
After Harvard, Wilbur Schramm worked as a professor at University of Iowa. He earned his doctorate from Iowa in 1932. In addition to teaching he also wrote tall-tales which were often printed in the Saturday Evening Post. He won the O. Henry Award for one of his short stories. While at the University of Iowa, his scholarship and work earned him full professor status, and he founded and directed the Iowa Writers Workshop. The notable authors Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren were often speakers. Schramm may have continued to publish such papers as “Parkman’s Novel”, “The Cost of Books in Chaucer’s Time” and "Approaches to a Science of English Verse" for the rest of his career; however, here is where Schramm became like Proteus and moves toward his career in communication.
It is not known to what extent his German parentage and the war activity influenced his job change, but in 1941 Schramm took a leave of absence from the University, to work at the Office of Facts and Figures as the Educational Director. He later became the Educational Director of the Office of War Information. During this time, one of the key elements used in World War II was propaganda, even before the U.S. entered the war. Millions of leaflets were dropped on both sides of the war along with war posters, games for children, and radio broadcasts of speeches. Each side tried to make the other look unreasonable and manipulate people’s opinions. It was believed that people were easily swayed, and that communication was more of transference of thought rather than a message sent between sender and receiver. The Offices of Facts and figures and War Information were places where information relating to morale, public opinion and propaganda techniques were studied, regulated and changed. In a 1946 New York Press article, Leo J. Margolin, representative of the Overseas Branch, United States Office of War Information, wrote, “To Americans, propaganda has always meant a horrible, nasty word like "spit." It always had a foreign meaning and we considered it good only for foreigners” (Moonen). The term propaganda was changed to the more neutral sounding term-mass communications.
Everett Rogers says that “Schramm’s vision for communication study was formed while he was the director of education" at these two offices (Glander, 1996. p.379). According to Glander, Schramm recommended targeting educational institutions to start a “comprehensive propaganda network” using media and textbooks, and “organizing faculty and student groups to disseminate information and monitor public opinion” (379). He wrote “The job that is really the purpose of all these others…is bringing the mind of the colleges and universities into closer contact with the mind of which they are a part- the mind of the state” (380). He stressed the importance of using educational broadcasting in the post-war period to solidify a national ideology. Wilbur Schramm’s humanist or neo-humanist viewpoints have colored communication studies and his students are now experts in the communication field.
In 1943, Schramm left the Office of War Information to become the Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Iowa. In 1947 he became the Director of University of Illinois Press, persuading Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver to publish their book The Mathematical Theory of Communication which expands on their communication model, launching the field of Information Theory. Schramm built upon this theory, to include human communication interactions, as detailed in the model section of this presentation. Dr. Schramm later became the Director and Founder of the Institute of Communications Research, establishing the first doctoral program and the first university-based communication research institute. Schramm procured funding from the government and private institutions (such as the Rockefeller Foundation) interested in spreading democracy. This scientific, research-oriented program worked together with similar studies in journalism and television.
Schramm wrote many journal articles on a variety of topics: “Reading and listening patterns of American university students, “What radio news means to Middleville”, “Effects of mass communication”, “Anticipated audiences as determinants of recall”, and “The Soviet communist theory”. He also published four books The Reds take a City, Procedures and Effects of Mass Communication, Mass Communication, and Four Theories. These books are still used as textbooks in communication studies, covering the history of communication from the founding fathers (Lazarfeld, Lewin, Hovland, and Lasswell) to basics of psychological persuasion, political theories of information and tenants of international communication. In 1957 and in 1973, he established research institutes at Stanford University, and the East-West Center respectively. At the end of his career, he had written over twenty-five books and forty articles, with many translated into other languages. His last book, produced posthumously by his friends was The Story of Human Communication, which covers communication from cave paintings to computers.
As a director of these research institutes, Schramm looked closely at educational broadcasting which led him to work in El Salvador, Columbia, China, Korea, and Samoa. Jack Lyle says, “No one else has done so much to explore the potentials of mass media for instruction and to rationalize the use of mass media in education” (Chaffee, 1974. p.15). Schramm studied the effects of television and wrote numerous articles on "Television in the lives of our children" (with Jack Lyle and Edwin Parker) He believed that children were more active individuals and suggested that the effects of television violence vary according to class; the more educated did not succumb to violence. Schramm later published educational broadcasting studies on Denver school, American Samoa, Japan, and Buenos Aires.
His many honors include: the George Polk prize, University of Missouri Gold Medal, Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and first annual Japan Prize lecturer. Perhaps more laudatory than these honors is that there is a Wilbur Schramm Chair in Communication and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and a Wilbur Schramm Award of Excellence given for program excellence in the production of instructional television programs for use in K-12 classrooms in the United States.
A memorial resolution made by his friends gives a personal tribute to this pioneer and leader:
“The best part of Wilbur Schramm was not the scholar, not the writer of fluent and forceful prose, not the founder and director of institutes. His colleagues can carry on that work, having been shown how. What they will miss is the man, with his intimate, concerned, friendly warmth. The master of the mass media was also a master of personal communication, a broad, humane, gentle man…. All over the world there are former students and colleagues of Wilbur Schramm’s who mourn his passing as they might mourn the death of a helpful, urgent, considerate, and affectionate elder brother.”
“One thing we know about human communication, it is that nothing passes unchanged in the process, from person to person” (1973. p. 52). Wilbur Lang Schramm died in 1987 at the age of 80.
Bibliography of Sources