Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition


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Late Sixth-Century Boeotian Black-Glaze Kantharos with Inscription

Beginning in the mid-1990s and for about ten years I published a number of articles about the dismal state of the humanities and one of its causes: The savage war against literacy being waged in the public schools by the state-university departments of education that set curricula for K-12. My Modern Age article from 2003, “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition,” synthesizes several of my argumentative strands at the time and suggests the dire state of American literacy already nearly twenty years ago. (Click on the emboldened link to go to a PDF of the article, which may be read online or downloaded.) Things have not improved and they are getting worse all the time.

I find myself prompted to call attention to “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” by the appearance at The American Thinker recently of an article by Bruce Dietrick Price under the title “K-12: History of a Conspiracy against Reading,” which I strongly recommend. (Again, click on the emboldened link to go to the article.)

The decline into a post-literate condition, in which there is no intact oral tradition to which the deprived parties might repair, belongs to the general subscendence of our age.

I believe that “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” does a fairly good job of summarizing the findings of three important scholars of literacy: Walter J. Ong, whose Orality and Literacy (1981) is indispensable; Eric Havelock, who wrote on the early phases of alphabetic literacy in Greece (see his Preface to Plato, 1963); and Barry Powell, whose Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), is bold and monumental.

18 thoughts on “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

  1. Pingback: Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition | Reaction Times

  3. I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Price’s insistence that the public schools must be saved. Why must they be “saved,” I ask.

  4. That is the — compromising — style of The American Thinker, which remains valuable nevertheless. I naturally agree with you. Start the carpet-bombing now (after hours when the tykes are not there.) I taught my son the phonics principle when he was three-and-a-half years old and continued before he “went to school.” (1) Very young children can learn the alphabetic principle. (2) Very young children love to learn the alphabetic principle. After three or four days of basic instruction (teach only in lower-case letters), driving our son around in the big grocery-department store in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, he wanted to read aloud every scriptive item that he saw. It is so easy. And it is so perverse not to do so.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you, of course. I have told the story many times of when I was a small tyke just learning to read and spell – I was (fortunately) taught the phonetic principle early on, not by my parents but by my elementary school teacher(s) at Springer Public Schools, near Ardmore, OK. My teacher there was “old school” I suppose, but I vividly remember trying to “sound out” every printed word I would see at the time, driving my parents crazy. Once I had successfully sounded the word(s) out, I would then commit the spelling to memory by silently repeating the spelling to myself. “Silently” because my mother was easily annoyed by my repeating the spellings aloud.
      My wife uses The Writing Road to Reading, which out of curiosity I just pulled off the shelf and looked at to determine which edition – fourth. I see the book is now in its sixth edition, which I haven’t read for changes to content.:

      • Writing, reading, and thinking are one phenomenon; we might separate the aspects for the sake of discussion, but when we are writing, we are also at the same time reading and thinking because any single aspect of the trinity implies the two others. When Prog educators jettisoned phonics for the primitive, mind-stultifying “whole language” and “whole word” methods, they also jettisoned the recognition that writing, reading, and thinking entail one another.

    • It’s worse than this, of course. Mass State education not only fails to actually educate, but does so with the express purpose even in its natal or initial states of indoctrinating the youth of the nation into the cult of the State.

      Burn public schools to the ground not because they’re ineffective, but because they are.

      • Oh, yes! I have said many times to many people that it is not a case of the institutions trying to do what is right and failing, let us say out of ignorance or incompetence; rather, it is a case of the institutions knowingly perpetrating an anti-civilized enormity, which debilitates cohort after cohort of children for life. The outcome that we see is the outcome that the institutions want. If the outcome were, as in fact it is, a nihil, that would be because the fundamental impulse of liberalism is nihilistic.

        There is a parallelism, by the way, between the scheme that, on the one hand, deliberately deprives children of a genuine literacy, and the scheme that, on the other hand, attempts to suppress the default-intuition of sexual dimorphism — boys noticing girls and vice versa. One assaults the cultural reality of three thousand years of alphabetic praxis, with its attendant intellectual achievements; the other assaults the biological reality on which rests any possible future of any particular people or nation.

  5. Big problem I’m seeing in schools is its female centric nature and boys suffering as a result. I don’t remember so many boys failing or having “ADHD” when I was in school. Could be a result of older mothers but its not just a reading/linguistics problem.

    • I have seen it argued that the ADHD phenomenon is simply the product of not teaching according to the phonics principle, a proposition that I find entirely plausible. If the schools taught literacy by the phonics method, the ADHD phenomenon would largely disappear. Content also plays a role. Boys should read boys stories (Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs) and girls should read girls’ stories. As it is, boys and girls are forced to read pseudo-girls’ stories, which seek to propagandize the girls and are of absolutely no interest to the boys. No wonder the boys are distracted and fidgety!

      For diagnostic reasons, I always ask my undergraduate students to read aloud in class. Few can do it in a non-stumbling, non-halting way. Late-adolescents schooled in phonics can pronounce words that are not in their vocabularies, but there are fewer and fewer of them.

      @Rhetocrates: We need a new Constitutional amendment beginning with the phrase, “Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of education…”

      • Dr. Bertonneau:

        My experience with young boys diagnosed with ADHD is that nine times out of ten the source of the problem is a severe lack of discipline. Most of the time the disciplinary issue is a direct result of family dysfunctionality, usually (but not always) involving divorce. If I’m right about this (and I’m pretty certain that I am), teaching boys the phonics principle is not the solution. I couldn’t agree more with you that teaching literacy through phonics ought to be done in any case.

  6. More or less reading and speaking in public is a trained activity apart from normal reading. Voice actors are the best at it but they are paid to do it. Teleprompter training also works.

    When I was in High School I had to read the Iliad and the Odyssey in Latin but I can’t see that happening now. We also read Beowulf in a separate class but no one can read that without stumbling unless they know old German.

    I wonder what you think is the solution for even younger children like boys under 10. I see many of them struggle. They did teach phonics as part of reading at my sons school but girls do far better with the current education model than boys.

    • At Santa Monica High School, which I attended from 1969 to 1972, Public Speaking was a required course. You are right that oratory is “a trained activity,” but the training is not difficult and it used to be an element of secondary education.

      From age seven to twelve, boys need to play freely outside, improvising their games, with minimal adult intervention. Unfortunately, playing freely outside is no longer possible, as it was in the 1950s and 60s in many places. Free spaces — like the unbuilt hillsides and canyons near the Highland Park house on Division Street where I spent the first eleven years of my life — have mostly vanished. Adults have become too prone to intervene. And would a group of eleven-year-olds in 2018 even know how to play Cowboys and Indians? Playing outside is not incompatible with pedagogical rigor. The two are complementary. If we wanted the boys to sit still during the spelling, vocabulary, reading, and arithmetic lessons, we would need to allow them the physical activity by which they might work off their restlessness. As far as I can determine, this no longer happens.

    • The electronic devices are another bane. They are impoverishedly “verbo-motor” and undermine the development of literacy. Combine the devices with the bad instruction and we get what we see.

  7. I agree that physical activity seems to be missing. Boys need physical activities not virtual or video game centric activities to burn up their energy.

    The single best activity for public speaking has to be debate. There is nothing like impromptu debate for students to learn how to speak and think on their feet. I don’t know how common it is in classrooms now but it has been around since ancient Greece.

    • Real debate is excellent for intellectual development. Most “debate” in modern schools — and colleges and universities — is phony debate: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most intersectional of them all?” The Left dislikes debate: It wants conformity now!

      I can remember discussions with my school chums in the fifth, sixth, seventh grades, and beyond that turned, sometimes heatedly, on (e.g.) which was the best single-engine fighter-plane of World War Two; or which could sink the other, the Bismarck or the Yamato? What made the arguments into actual debates was that they had to be argued on the facts, as far as they were ascertainable. We knew the facts because we had all checked out from the public library the books on fighters and bombers of World War Two and the out-of-date issues of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Sports never much interested me, but they interested people whom I knew. I would say that the schoolyard argument about who qualifies as the best pitcher or the best batter would also necessarily draw on facts — that is, it would need to be informed — and therefore it would qualify as a debate.

  8. Pingback: Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition — The Orthosphere – COMM10porary


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