Orality, Literacy, and Education

It is difficult if not impossible for a person living in a literate culture to truly understand what living in a primary oral culture would be like. A primary oral culture is defined by Walter J. Ong (1982, p.11) as one that is completely void of any knowledge of writing or print while a secondary orality is a new orality ‘sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and function on writing and print’. In an oral culture knowledge must be stored in the collective memory of the people, not in texts written by people. The concept of looking something up does not exist. In ‘Orality and Literacy’, Ong discusses the differences between oral and literate cultures, and makes an argument that thought processes in literate cultures are different than those in primary oral cultures.

‘Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human conciousness.’ (Ong, 1982, p.77)

Ong describes thought in an oral culture to be carried out in mnemonic patterns to increase retention and states that serious thought is sustained by communication and must be memorable. For example, after thinking through a solution to a problem there is no way to leave a permanent solution for others to see, therefore communication of information in a memorable way is vital if the solution is not to be lost. The characteristics of thought in an oral society are described as being additive, aggregative, redundant, conservative, agonistically toned, empathetic, participatory, situational, and close to the human lifeworld. In an oral society memories which have lost their relevance to the present are quickly lost (Ong, 1982).

The invention of writing allowed thoughts to be captured and to live on, unlike verbal words which are lost immediately. Written text is described as ‘context-free’ as it is read separated from the author and cannot be directly questioned as the speaker of language can be. Although text is accused of destroying personal memory it also functions as a permanent record or external memory for a society. Members of a literate society have thought processes that rely on the technology of writing and tend to be analytic and dissecting, rather than the aggregate and harmonizing tendencies of thought by members of an oral society (Ong, 1982).

Ong’s analysis of oral and literate societies is classified as a ‘Great Divide’ theory for suggesting that such different modes of thinking exist in the two different types of societies. Others criticize the idea that a single technological invention such as writing could create such a divide and suggest that a continuum rather than a dichotomy exists between oral and literate societies.

‘Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed. Differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated.’ (Chandler, D., 1994)

Chandler (1992) points out there is a danger of viewing oral societies as inferior to literate cultures such as our own, especially when the differences are portrayed as a dichotomy. He discusses how research shows many similarities exist between oral and literate societies that should not be overlooked. Differences exist amongst oral cultures that can be as significant as those between oral and literate cultures. He argues that there is not a distinct divide between oral and literate cultures as most societies and individuals show variety in their use of oral or literate modes of communication depending on the situation.

While discussing education and technology, Neil Postman states ‘orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility’ and ‘print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy.’ For four centuries teachers have been carrying out a balancing act between dominant print texts and orality in the classroom (Postman, N., 1992, p.17). According to Postman (1992, p.20), we now need to consider not the best use of a computer as a teaching tool but how the computer is altering our interests, our symbols, and the nature of community.

I found Ong’s analysis of primary oral cultures and literate cultures extremely interesting despite finding it hard to believe that the invention of writing has single-handedly transformed human thought processes. I see value for educators in Ong’s work of explaining the thought processes tied to orality and literature as the knowledge can be used when choosing delivery methods based on the educational setting and learning goals. Computers need careful consideration as a technology that is capable of blending literate and oral modes between learners that are physically separated.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 10 October, 2010 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New york: Vintage books.

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One Response to Orality, Literacy, and Education

  1. vschrader says:

    Hi Shannon,

    Your opening comment is an excellent frame through with to view Ong’s work, and really, any work on primary oral cultures that we consider through literate eyes. I like that you put this in the forefront to acknowledge our inherent bias and limitation.

    Postman’s views are a nice balance in here too. 🙂


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