The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

The implications for literacy and education with the development of free textbooks in Mexico’s grade schools.


The use and distribution of free textbooks in Mexico’s grade schools stimulated the development of literacy within the country and the outreach of information to the poorest and most isolated areas in the nation. The distribution of these textbooks helped promote national values as well as the democratization of information distribution.

            In this paper, we will briefly review the historical context in which Mexico’s free textbooks were introduced to this country’s educational system as well as analyze some of the implications textbooks had in the development of education and literacy within this country.

Context and development of free textbooks in Mexico

To be able to fully understand the implications of the introduction and use of free textbooks in Mexico’s educational system, we must first understand how this system was established and what were the first steps towards the development of nation-wide textbooks.

Mexico’s educational system as we know it today was formally established in September 1921 with José Vasconcelos as the first Secretary of Public Education. Initially, the Secretary’s tasks were to organize courses, open schools in the various states and municipalities, edit books and create public libraries. All of these actions supported the successful initiation of a nationwide educational system. 

Vasconcelos’ main goals were to strengthen the system and provide education within the various developing professions and occupations in Mexico, such as: railroads, the textile industry, construction professionals, teachers, graphic arts professionals and typewriter technicians. Although Vasconcelos’ efforts were evident in the years he headed the department, the presidential electoral rebellion in 1924 endangered the newly founded department and the entire educational project.

A couple of decades after the rebellion (1944), Jaime Torres Bodet, an apprentice of Vasconcelos and newly appointed Secretary of Education in Mexico, was worried about the high cost of textbooks used in elementary education in Mexico. Although free public education was guaranteed constitutionally, textbooks were very costly and of low quality, making them inaccessible to poor families and people in rural areas in the developing country, since initially they had to be purchased by the students at a relatively high cost.

When Adolfo Lopez Mateos became president in 1958, he was faced with a poor country with high levels of illiteracy and inequity regarding access to education and information. He stated that a school could do very little for the children, if the parent didn’t have enough economic resources to buy the basic textbooks (SEP, 2009). It was at this time that the Secretary of Education Torres Bodet pushed for a nationwide literacy campaign with the idea that every student within grade school age should assist school with a textbook paid for and provided by the federal government. This is how the National Commission for Free Textbooks (Comision Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos- CONALITEG for its initials in Spanish) was born and officially established in February, 1959. The idea of this commission was that the free textbook would be a social right, as well as a vehicle that facilitated dialogue and equity in school.

            Since the intention of the textbooks was to democratize information, facilitate knowledge and reach the entire country, the initial task of developing the books and deciding on their content was crucial. This titanic and critical process was designated to Martín Luis Guzmán: a member of the military, journalist and Nobel Prize winner in Literature whose efforts resulted in the creation and consolidation of CONALITEG’s mission and the production of books which supplied the nation’s educational and information demands. Several books on different topics and for different grade levels were produced and revised for students as well as for teachers.

            By 1972, CONALITEG produced 43 books for students and 24 for teachers (SEP, 2009), these books integrated the educational reforms presented by President Luis Echeverría and were constantly modified to integrate subsequent reforms and new educational content. In 1982, the CONALITEG elaborated books with specific information for each of the states which, in the early nineties were transformed into regional books with historical and geographical information for each of the 32 states.

In 1992, Mexico’s Public Educational System launched an integral reform named the Educational Modernization Program, which gave the free textbook an upgrade in content, presentation and delivery. The goal of this new program in relation to the textbooks was to reach most elementary schools before the school year began.


Socially, historically and education-wise, free national textbooks in Mexico were introduced at the right moment in time and with the necessary support from the federal government. Mexico’s citizens, especially those in rural areas or with low incomes immediately adopted the textbooks, as they considered them a potential solution to the growing problem of illiteracy, resulting in a reduced number of people with the necessary training in the various growing professions and occupations. Having being granted free textbooks, rural families found it much easier to take their children to school to continue their educational development. The educational system, on the other hand, found an opportunity to reinforce nationalism and distribute the same information (historical, scientific, etc.) to the entire grade school population.

            One of the historical events that helped drive the founding of CONALITEG and the elaboration and distribution of textbooks in Mexico, was the institution of the Department of Public Education as it was the ultimate effort to federalize and consolidate educational efforts nationwide. Along with the creation of this Department and the founding of CONALITEG, came the centralization of information to facilitate its distribution and access. Although it might be paradoxical, centralizing these efforts, allowed democratization of education and information in the country.

            With democratization of information the education system in Mexico faced, as it currently does, an extremely difficult challenge which is to integrate and contextualize the information appropriately for these textbooks. The main questions with this issue are: What should (and should not) be included and how should “the story” be told? For many Mexicans, the textbooks provided by the Public Educational System, are the only medium of information they’ll ever have access to (Corona, 1997).  According to Corona’s research on the integration of history textbooks in Mexico: “Mexico/EUA: “guerra de razas” en los libros de texto” (1997), the educational system has modified the textbooks according to the historical, social, economical and contextual needs; pointing out or focusing on different historical events depending on the era and social needs. A clear example is the way Mexico’s textbooks portray its relationship with the United States differently within each historical era: “The USA becomes the “good neighbor”” (Corona, 1997, pg. 12) vs “The relationship between Mexico and the USA are closer to barbaric and war-like of military dominance” (Corona, 1997, pg. 11).[1] Other examples of this “issue” are the science and sexual education or health books which have modified its content to adapt the new information and scientific theories now known and approved. The integration of new knowledge in the textbooks is a polemic issue because of the levels of illiteracy and inaccessibility to knowledge and educational opportunities in Mexico. An important issue to mention in this report is the fact that the Mexican government provides “official” versions (not necessarily historically correct) of the country’s history which mold students’ ideas and value systems. A clear example of this was the way history textbooks portrayed one of the political parties (PRI) that maintained power for over sixty years in the country, always mentioning the positive aspects of the party and of the government in turn.

            We now reflect on the great responsibility the federal government has with its population: to provide the means and information necessary to help them learn on their own. A “risky”, but necessary action is to teach Mexico’s population to think and question the government, its policies, etc.


Textbooks and the federal education system as a whole have faced many challenges throughout the years. First, the challenge was to cover the entire country with schools in every state and municipality; next was creating the adequate resources, and finally to update and renew these materials to adapt them to the historical and changing social needs of the country.

Currently, the challenge is to elaborate digital versions of the textbooks to be able to revise and renew its information constantly and at a low cost. Information is changing ever so rapidly such that Mexico cannot afford (economically and socially) the high costs of producing the textbooks with old or obsolete information. Another challenge that the educational system has to consider is the integration of new resources of information to the elaboration of textbooks- collaborative writing and production of knowledge.

The nation-wide free textbooks that Mexico’s educational system provides to its elementary level students has been an alternative to assure that everyone has access to at least the same “official” information, although the challenge to renew and question history, as well as other relevant subjects remains pending.


Corona Berkin, Sarah. (1997). MÉXICO/EUA: una “guerra de razas” en los libros de texto para niños mexicanos. Estudios Sobre las Culturas Contemporáneas, 3(6), 49-69. PDF File Retrieved on October 19, 2009 from EBSCO database, also available in:

 León, Felipe. (Abril, 2006) La liberación de los libros de texto gratuitos en México. Aprender la Libertad. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from:

Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP (2009) Historia De La CONALITEG (1944-1982). Retrieved on October 19, 2009, from:

Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP (2009) Historia de la SEP. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from: The webpage was last updated on October 5, 2009.

[1] All translations in references have been made by Ana Cecilia Tagliapietra

October 31, 2009   1 Comment

Printing a Changing Language

My research project entitled Printing a Changing Language: The Printing Press and the Standardisation of English can be found on the ETEC540 Wiki. The following video gives a great but short overview of the topic I attempted to tackle.


October 31, 2009   No Comments

Unintended Consequences

The Printing Press and European Witch-Hunts

Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in 1440 has been heralded by some as one of the most important inventions of all time. “The invention and development of printing with movable type brought about the most radical transformation in the conditions of intellectual life in the history of western civilization. It opened new horizons in education, and in the communication of ideas. Its effects were sooner or later felt in every department of human activity.”(Gilmore, p. 186) Whether it deserves this status is debatable, but it certainly is what Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) calls “an agent of change. “ Many including Eisenstein credit the ability to mass produce printed text as being an effective agent of change in the Reformation, the European Renaissance, European nationalism, education, and the advance of science and technology. Francis Bacon said, “ We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely: printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the world.” (P. 43)

It is not the intent of this paper to look at all the consequences of the printing press, but rather to look specifically at one unintended consequence; the European witch hunts which occurred from the 1400’s to the 1700’s. These witch hunts resulted in the murder of somewhere between 60,000 and 100, 000 people, primarily women who were brutally tortured and then hung or burned at the stake. Although little research on the causes of the witch-hunts has been completed both Eisenstein (1979) and Schlain (1998) contend that although the printing press didn’t cause the witch hunts, it was certainly a major catalyst.

burning witches

A Brief History of the Witch Hunts
Prior to the 14th century, witches were not a major concern. There were good witches and bad ones, depending on the type of magic they performed. The users of magic did so to meet mundane human needs with things such as love potions, and fertility rituals. Witches, or more often known as healers, were capable of special actions through the use of spells and potions. These people were viewed at the most as having special powers, but were not considered in a negative light. (Ben- Yehuda, 1980) The official belief of the Catholic Church up and into the 13th century was that witchcraft was an illusion. In 1326 Pope John XXII took the papal seat. He believed in the presence of witches and issued Super illus specular, which acknowledged that magic was real, and a heresy. This gave the inquisitors the power they needed to hunt out and punish witches. Punishment for practicing witchcraft at this time was mild – perhaps a day in the stocks. By the end of the 15th century and for the next 200 years witchcraft would become an “elaborate demonological theology” (Ben- Yehuda, 1980) that captured the interest of not only the clergy and the law, but the general public as well. The last official execution for witchcraft was in 1782.

Factors Influencing the Witch hunts.

In his concluding discussion, Ben-Yehuda (1980) credits the new goals set by the Dominicans to extend the inquisition to witchcraft, and the massive social upheaval that Europe was experiencing as a result of the both the Reformation, and the renaissance for creating the conditions for the witch craze. Although these are factors that led to and helped sustain the witch craze, I believe he is omitting one of most important factors; the printing press.

Thirty years after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, two Dominican order inquisitors, James Sprenger, and Henry Kramer wrote Melleus maleficarum or The Witch’s Hammer in order to refute claims that witches didn’t exist. Although this wasn’t the only book about witchcraft published (at least fifteen different books were written (Ben- Yehuda, 1980)) it was certainly the most influential. This book was divided into three parts. The first section provided arguments about the existence of witches, the second was a detailed description on how to identify them and the final section provided information of the legalities of witchcraft and how to sentence witches. Its popularity was almost immediate and was reprinted at least 20 times between 1574 and 1669. (Schlain, 1998) At one point it was only second to the bible in popularity. (Lovelace).


How is it possible that one printed book could be the purveyor of the horrors of the witch-hunts? Ben-Yehuda states “Its enormous influence was practically guaranteed, owing not only to its authoritative appearance but also to its extremely wide distribution.”(p. 11) With-out the printing press the distribution and multiple printings would not have been possible. He also raises another important point-the fact that the book had an authoritative appearance, which was critical for the success of this text.

Europe was in the midst of great social change at this time. The Reformation brought about a challenge to the moral authority of the church. Scientific and technological innovations where changing the way people lived, thought, and worked. People were moving into urban areas, which changed the traditional feudal order and hierarchy. All this change led to social instability and confusion. In a state of upheaval people look for moral guidance and authority to explain what is happening and what can be done about it. Melleus maleficarum offered this moral guidance and authority. Because of its contents, structure and printed form Melleus maleficarum provided a powerful new ideology that people were seeking.

An ideology has several features. It provides an authoritative explanation of events. It contains “suasive images” that have the power to arouse emotions, direct mass action, and a promise that this course will restore the pre-existing situation. (Geertz 1964) Lovelace reminds us that understanding the world according to scientific principal was in its infancy. In an attempt to understand the world, people often accredited unexplainable events to magic. “The Malleus drew upon those beliefs, and, by its very existence, reinforced them and brought them into the codified belief system of the Catholic Church. “ (Lovelace)

It was not just the contents of the book that made it so powerful, but the fact that it was a book was also key. Eisenstien (1979) says “the deep penetration of new controls to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain more easily internalized.” (p. 428) Much of what had been passed down orally was now being recorded in books. Ong (1982) tells us that in an oral culture, information passed along did not have the same permanence as printed text. The information was provided in the here and now and was subject to revision according to the situation. Printed text offered the same information but it was being presented in a new way- one that made it very difficult to ignore or alter. As Eisenstein(1979) tells us, it offered precise rules or codes about how things were to be done. Malleus offered clues to identification of witches. For example the printed texts informed that witches were often older single women with cats. Perhaps before this book was printed, you could choose to ignore this type of gossip, but once it was published, it presented an authoritative voice that one could not ignore. Neighbours and even family members reported one another.

Although the printing press was not the cause of the European witch craze of the 1400 through 1700’s, it was a technology that allowed for the mass production of material that was instrumental in the dissemination of information that fed the witch-hunt craze. The rapidly changing social order, the pressure to control ones behavior, and the major changes that were happening with-in the church were certainly critical factors. Without the printed texts, the witch-hunts would never have been as devastating as they were.

The witch-hunts do not directly affect literacy or education today, but there is a lesson to be learned. Dewar (1998) warns us that many developments have unintended consequences which often dominate the intended ones. Although the Catholic Church may have seen the benefits of the printing of intentions and the bible, it surely didn’t see the unintended consequence; that being the protestant reformation. The witch-hunts are another example of unintended consequences. “ If the future is to be dominated by unintended consequences, it would be a good idea to get to those consequences as quickly as possible….. or you will be overrun.” (p. 25) He goes on to say that if large institutions such as schools and governments choose to deal with inappropriate use through bans and firewalls, they may well find they have a reformation (or witch-hunt)on their hands. One that may have results of which they have no control. It is critical that we stay on top of these things and deal with them quickly in a creative way- not by pretending they don’t exist.

For more information about the witch-hunts view the following video.


Ben- Yehuda, N. (1980). The european witch craze of the 14th to 17th centuries: A sociologist’s perspective. The American Journal of Sociology , 86 (1), 1-31.

Dewar, J. (1998). The Information Age and the Printing Press:Looking Backwards to See Ahead. US: RAND Publications

Eisenstien, E. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Vol. 1). West Hanover, US: Cambridge University Press.

Gilmore, M. P. (1952). The World of Humanism 1453-1517. In E. Langer (Ed.), The Rise of Modern Europe. New York.

Lovelace, W. (n.d.). Malleus Maleficarum Introduction. Retrieved October 2009, from Wicasta’s Writing: /?p=61

Mullins, W. (1972). On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science. The American Political Science Review.

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy. Great Britain: Routeledge.

Russell, J. (1972). Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press.

Schlain, L. (1998). The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. US: Penguin Compass.

The Burning Times Documentary Part 5,


October 31, 2009   2 Comments

Commentary #3 – Associative Information Structures Revisited

“Indeed, printing made textual overload a permanent condition: more books were produced in each succeeding century, and new editions preserved all books that changing cultural norms continued to regard as important… What many have called the “information revolution” ushered in by the computer is only the most recent manifestation of a problem that is now 500 years old.” (Bolter, p.83)


Were Bush and Engelbart’s claims that associative information structures are likely to improve human ability to approach and solve complex problems valid?

Referred to as the conceptual creator of ‘hypertext’, Vannevar Bush was amongst the first to propose the development of a mechanical machine capable of organizing and displaying information in a way that made it possible to ‘make sense’ of it in the hope of solving some rather complex problems. His article, As We May Think, “…presaged the idea of the Internet and the World Wide Web and was directly influential on the fathers of the hypertext and the Internet as we know it today. Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” in 1967, describes Bush’s article as describing the principles of it.” (Malone)

Bush was convinced that many of the technologies developed by scientists during the war had practical applications for everyday use. “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.” (Bush, p. 1) Bush was clearly frustrated with the archaic way in which information was being stored and retrieved. “Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose… publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” (Bush, p. 2) He pointed out how improvements in the science of photography led to the development of new technologies like the microfilm and facsimile. He foreshadowed how further modification and extension this technology would eventually lead to things almost beyond imagination “… it would be advantages to be able to snap a camera and look at the picture immediately.” as was the case with the Polaroid camera and today’s digital cameras. (Bush, p. 3) Most visionary however was Bush’s notion of a ‘memex’ machine.

“The memex and its description have long been hailed as inspiration for the creators of hypertext and even the web.” (Malone) As Bush explained it, “Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process [intricacy of trails] artificially… but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.” (Bush, p.7) Memex would not only have the capability of storing huge amounts of information (albeit on microfilm), as with the human mind which operates by association, the memex machine would likewise have the ability to select by association. The memex “affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.” (Bush, p.8) The tying together (trail) of information is precisely what hypertext does today.

Douglas C. Engelbart was another one of those early computer pioneers interested in the study of HCI (human computer interaction) and the development of hypertext. He was credited with inventing the computer mouse. Like Bush, he was also committed to the development and use of computers and computer networks in an effort to solve some of the world’s most perplexing problems.

Engelbart understood the uniqueness behind Bush’s memex machine, particularly the notion of duplicating a trail so that information could be shared with others. “Making it easy to establish and follow the associative trails makes practical a new symbol-structuring process whose use can make a significant difference in the concept structuring and b[a]sic methods of work. It is also probable that clever usage of associative-trail manipulation can augment the human’s process structuring and executing capa[b]ilities so that he could successfully make use of even more powerful symbol-structure man[i]pulation processes utilizing the Memex capabilities.” (Engelbart, Examples and Discussions, Background: Comments Related to Bush’s Article) Engelbart tested this principle by developing a sequencing technique and applying it to his computer card coding system.

Engelbart firmly believed that technologies such as computers would someday help mankind by “…improvin[g] the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.” (Engelbart, Introduction) He used computer card coding/punching techniques to demonstrate how associative linking could worked “There was no convenient way to link these cards together so that the train of thought could later be recalled by extracting the ordered series of notecards. An associative-trail scheme similar to that out lined by Bush for his Memex could conceivably be implemented with these cards to meet this need and add a valuable new symbol-structuring process to the system… A very quick and simple human process thus initiates the automatic extraction of the next item on the associative trail.” (Engelbart, Examples and Discussions, Background: Some Possibilities, Associative Linking Possibilities)

Engelbart understood the link between entering data and retrieving results. He realized that more knowledge could be had if we could find some way to link existing knowledge together. He also believed that similar processes could be used to enhance human intellect, something he felt was needed if mankind hoped to keep abreast of the world’s problems “… we will have amplified the intelligence of the human by organizing his intellectual capabilities into higher levels of synergistic structuring.” (Engelbart, Introduction)

Engelbart’s 1968 hypermedia demonstration on human computer interaction showed how the computer could be used to deal with everyday tasks. The information he presented was in a simple hypertext. It demonstrated many different methods of organization and how each was appropriate to the task at hand.

Both Bush and Engelbart firmly believed that properly constructed associative information structures would be useful in helping mankind to solve some of life’s most puzzling and complex problems. Bush’s memex machine was the precursor to the computer. Engelbart worked with some of the first computers ever built. He knew that these machines were capable of performing complicated mathematical calculations more accurately and far quicker than any human could. Like Bush, he realized that the storing and retrieving of vast amounts of information was the next logical step in the development of computer technologies. It would be our responsibility to ensure that both the information and the technology were used in an appropriate manner and to the benefit, and not the detriment, of the entire human race.


Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), 101-108. Retrieved from:

Engelbart, Douglas C. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Summary Report AFOSR-3223 under Contract AF 49(638)-1024, SRI Project 3578 for Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, Ca., October 1962.

Malone, Erin. (2002). Foreseeing the Future: The Legacy of Vannevar Bush, Boxes and Arrows, 2007.

Picture retrieved from here.

October 31, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary #2 – Which came first, culture or technology?

“It is not a question of seeing writing as an external technological force that influences or changes cultural practices; instead writing is always a part of culture.… technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside.” (Bolter, p. 19)


To answer this question, we need to begin with a definition of ‘culture’ and ‘technology’ as it relates to knowledge. Culture can be defined as “… the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” (Merriam-Webster) Technology is defined as “…the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.” (Merriam-Webster) The distinction between each is clear, as is the connection between the two. Culture is about acquiring knowledge while technology is about applying knowledge. There has been some debate about culture and technology and whether they are inseparable or not. This commentary will take a look at three of these arguments.

In Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, Bolter was very clear as to what he believed, particularly when it came to writing. “The technical and the cultural dimensions of writing are so intimately related that it is not useful to try to separate them…” (Bolter, p. 19) Bolter went to great lengths to explain the connection between technology and culture; how different technologies of writing involved different materials and that these materials were used in different ways and for different reasons. He used ancient writing as an example. Technologies such as papyrus, ink, and the art of book making may have been common to all cultures but what was different were the writing styles and genders of ancient writing and the social and political practices of ancient rhetoric. He argued that modern printing practices followed a similar pattern as does today’s technologies. Computers, browsers, word processors are our writing technologies but these technologies don’t change cultures per say. If anything, culture has a way of initiating changes in technology.

In his book, Orality and Literacy, Ong argued that the introduction of writing and print literacy’s have fundamentally restructured consciousness and culture. In chapter four of his book, Ong discussed the development of script and how this restructures our consciousness. Ong claimed that “…writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment… Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word.” (Ong, p. 80 – 81) Ong suggested that humans are naturally tool-employing beings and that these tools create opportunities for new modes of expression that would not otherwise exist. He used the example of the violinist who internalizes the technology (violin) making the tool seemly second nature, or a part of the self. “The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensifying its interior life.” (Ong, p. 82) In terms of culture and technology, Ong’s technological determinism clearly makes it impossible for him to separate the two.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan argued that technology was nothing more than an extension of man. “The shovel we use for digging holes is a kind of extension of the hands and feet. The spade is similar to the cupped hand, only it is stronger, less likely to break, and capable of removing more dirt per scoop than the hand. A microscope, or telescope is a way of seeing that is an extension of the eye.” (Kappelman) When an individual or society makes use of a technology in such a way that it extends the human body or the human mind, it does so at the expense of some other technology which is then either modified or amputated. “The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence.” (Kappelman) McLuhan later developed a tetrad to explain his theory. It consisted of four questions or laws; what does the technology extend, what does it make obsolete, what is retrieved and what does the technology reverse into if it is overextended. As was the case with Ong, McLuhan did not make any clear distinction between technology and culture.

Bolter disagrees with the assessment of technological determinists like McLuhan’s “extension of man” claim and Ong’s “restructured consciousness”. He uses cause and effect to prove his point. He points to the early beginnings of the World Wide Web, and how technology (hardware and software) was used to create it. According to Bolter, culture was responsible for changing the Web into “… a carnival of commercial and self-promotional Wes sites…” (Bolter, p. 20) Culture then demanded changes to the hardware and software to allow for such things as censorship. “Wherever we start in such a chain of cause and effect, we can identify an interaction between technical qualities and social constructions – an interaction so intimate that it is hard to see where the technical ends and the social begins.” (Bolter, p. 20) Bolter doesn’t adhere to the ‘doom and gloom’ rhetoric of McLuhan who was “…deeply concerned about man’s willful blindness to the downside of technology.” (Kappelman) and he in mindful of Ong who said “Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it…” (Ong, p. 79) Instead, Bolter believed that “… it is possible to understand print technology is an agent of change without insisting that it works in isolation or in opposition to other aspects of culture.” (Bolter, p. 19 – 20)

It seems reasonable to assume that because technology can infringe upon culture and culture can impinge on technology, the two are in a sense inseparable. This may not be a case of one coming before the other as much as both of them coexisting at the same time. Either way, we only need to be cognizant of the fact that both will continue to evolve either as a result of or in spite of the other.


Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

culture. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from

Kappelman, Todd (July 2002), Marshall McLuhan:”The Medium is the Message”, Probe Ministries. Retrieved from

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

technology. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from

Picture retrevied from

October 31, 2009   1 Comment

From Handwriting to Typing

Please visit this link From Handwriting to Typing to view the research project by Catherine Gagnon and Tracy Gidinski.

October 31, 2009   No Comments

Pen and Paper Project

Hello all

Please take a few minutes to explore our Google Website on Pen and Paper.

Ed Stuerle & Bruce Spencer

October 31, 2009   1 Comment

How Did We Get to Number 1?



    Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, once stated that everything could be expressed in numbers (Lahanas, n.d.). Numbers are an integral part of our society; they can represent meaning, communicate significance and conotate importance. The evolution of numbers has infiltrated every aspect of society as it has changed the characteristics of reading, writing, language and therefore communication. Even Galileo declared that the very language of nature was mathematics (Nickel, n.d.).
    In the following paragraphs, the origin and history of numbers will be discussed, along with the impact the development and application of the numeric system has had on our culture; including our social, educational and commercial systems.

Origin of Numbers

    The first and oldest calculating system was the hand (Ifrah, 2000). Then came notches (tally sticks: various dates are debated), pebbles, followed by numbers on strings (Ifrah, 1985). These are all considered memory aids or mnemonic devices, which allowed society to store and record imperative information (ETEC540, 2009). The abacus, (which is a direct descendant from pebble counting: pebble meaning calculus in Latin), was than followed by Roman numerals (Ifrah, 1985). The invention of numbers was not a linear process; some cultures developed numbering systems independent from each other, or tried to improve on an old system when they discovered that it did not meet their needs.
    Egyptian, Chinese, Roman, Greek, Mayan, Babylonian, Inca, and Indian numbering system were developed; some of which were base 10, 20 and 60 (Uhl, 2008). Our present numbering system is a base-ten system, which means numbers 0 – 9 are used and multiplied by increasing powers of ten (Uhl, 2008). This is a Hindu-Arabic system developed in 60 AD, which was preceded by the Roman numeral system (Uhl, 2008). The Mayans, Aztecs, Celts, and Basques had a base 20 systems, while the Sumerians and Babylonians had a base 60 system (Ifrah, 2000).  This is where the division of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and the division of a circle being 360 degrees originated (Ifrah, 2000).
    Numbering systems came out of necessary economic and social development, and therefore there are no differences between prehistoric rock paintings, memory aids (mnemonic devices), winter counts, tallies, knotted cords, pictographs or the alphabet; these were all forms of necessary information storage and messaging (ETEC540, 2009).

Changes to Culture

Impact on the Social System.

The technology of numbers has infiltrated every aspect of our culture, and is closely linked to language and the alphabet. “To realize that representation begins with language, actualized in the creation of a reproducible formal structure, is already to apprehend the fundamental tie between language and number[s]” (Zerzan, 2009, p.1). The numerical system has had a substantial impact on the social systems that followed. The meaning behind 1st, 2nd and 3rd place or level 1, 2 and 3 on the salary scale, are some examples. 

Numbers have significantly impacted the communication system, and therefore the social structure of society. Whether it is a telephone number, fax number, e-mail address, pager number or cell phone number, it is the basis of many forms of communication. And how a society communicates with one another determines its boundaries and defines its communities. Technology creates a new language in society and along with it a different way of communicating.

Some argue that numbers were more than a cultural invention; that it reflected more of a cognitive evolution (DeCruz, 2006). Whereas others believed that numerical concepts were a gradual accumulation of mathematical knowledge, and therefore the result of cultural evolution (DeCruz, 2006). Regardless, the technology of numbers has evolved to fill the necessary voids of knowledge, information storage, and data analysis.

Impact on the Educational System

The invention of time using numbers altered the educational system. Time allowed the increments of classes. Numbers permitted the use of grades, along with the conditioning of the technology of numbers (Postman, 1992). Grades, IQ and GPA’s communicate to society one’s level of intelligence. Numbers have given us chronological age with various meanings. We start school at age 6, age 16 comes freedom and independence with a driver’s license, and we end school at age 18, at which age we are considered an ‘adult’. Completing these milestones is an expectation of society

With numbers came the advent of calculation, math and science. “The invention and democratization of our positional number-system has had immeasurable consequences for human society, since it facilitated the explosion of science, of mathematics and of technology” (Ifrah, 2000, p. 594).  Scientists have linked math to art and music, and surmise that the language of mathematics involves a particular kind of visual and sensory motor thinking that goes beyond ordinary language (Peat, 1990). Mathematics is considered a unique language related to clear cut criterion that can begin or end communication (Nickel, n.d.).

Numbers allow easy referencing. The dewy decimal system is built into every library while numbering of chapters and verses in the bible allow access to passages. Previously the religious elite would have to read through many papyrus scrolls or manuscripts to locate a specific verse or passage.

 Impact on Commercial and Commerce System.

Numbers and time have had a significant effect on the commerce system.  “The division of time into regular, predictable units is fundamental to the operation of society” (Weisman, 1995, p.1). For example, the clock was invented by monks in monasteries to provide precision in worship rituals. Now it is a product of capitalism, for without the clock there would be no workday, no standardized production or standardized product (Postman, 1992).

Numbers created a clearer way of communicating trade. Quality, quantity and grade of product are all assigned a numerical value, each representing or denoting a specific concept. Grade A eggs or a ton of number 2 grade Winter Wheat has definition and meaning to those in agriculture.

The banking system is number based. Every business transaction has numbers associated with it. Whether it is in the form of pay cheques, taxes, social security numbers, account numbers, property tax roll numbers, hydro account numbers, etc. Credit card numbers are large financial gains for credit card companies, and allows the acquisition of goods that otherwise would not be amassed by the population.

Language of Computer

The creation of numbers allowed the binary system – the language of computers – to be established. Computers have changed every aspect of our culture, including the way we learn and think, acquire education, commerce, our community identities and how we conduct business.

Digital books have replaced papyrus rolls, manuscripts and paperbacks. One manufacturer advertises that their digital book holds up to ten bibles, thereby replacing the standard unit of measuring manuscripts, which was sheep (Keep, 2001). Parchment was originally made of sheep and a 160-page book was referred to as a forty sheep book (Keep, 2001).

The advancement of computers has changed the very nature and space of reading and writing, and challenges our concept of knowledge. It has impacted the entertainment and news industry, which is the very mode of communication that feeds society. The long-term effects of computers are still to be seen.


     The advent of numbers has had a profound impact on society; from a social, education and commerce viewpoint; providing the foundation of many essential aspects of one’s life. “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with.  And they alter the nature of community” (ETEC540, 2009). Numbers have changed how we communicate, the spaces in which we read and write, how we perceive meaning, store data and organize information. In essence, everything.  


    DeCruz, H. (2006). Why are some numerical concepts more successful than others? An evolutionary perspective on the history of number concepts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 306-323.

    ETEC540. (2009). Text technologies: the changing spaces of reading and writing. Retrieved from!-170808859!!20001!-1!2016739437!!20001!-1

    Flegg, G. (1983). Numbers: Their History and Meaning. New York: Schocken Books.

    Glaser, A. (1971). History of Binary and other nondecimal numeration.Pennsylvania: Tomash Publishers.

    Ifrah, G. (1985). From one to zero. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc.

    Ifrah, G. (2000). The universal history of numbers from prehistory to the invention of the computer. New York: John Wiley & sons, Inc.

    Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (2001). The electronic labyrinth. Retrieved from

    Lahanas, M. (n.d.). Pythagoras: The whole thing is a number. Retrieved from

    Nickel, G. (n.d.). Reason’s Nature— The Role of Mathematics. Retrieved from’s+Nature+-+Role+of+Mathematics+G-Nickel+Madrid.pdf.

Peat, D. (1990).  Mathematics and the language of nature. Retrieved from

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

 Uhl, T. (2008). Evolution of Number Systems. Retrieved from

  Weissman, J. (1995). A Brief History of Clocks: From Thales to Ptolemy.Retrieved  from 1995

 Z rzan, J. (2009). Number: Its Origin and Evolution. Retrieved from

October 31, 2009   No Comments

The Role of the Play

Theatre scripts and plays have had an important role since ancient history. This influence has continued throughout modern history, especially the way in which they have combined orality and literacy and adapted to or incorporated each new technology as it has appeared. Ong mentions several times the importance of theatre and drama, which, since the Greeks, “was composed as a written text and in the west was the first verbal genre, and for centuries was the only verbal genre to be controlled completely by writing” (2002, p.139). Hornbrook also mentions that “Although theatrical events have been a part of human culture since antiquity, prior to the twentieth century, drama was confined to sporadic and occasional bacchanals, festivals, rituals, celebrations and theatre performances,” (1998, p.151) whereas, Cimolino assures us that, “Theatre is one of the surest signs of democracy. Its roots are to be found not in despotism, but rather in ancient democratic Greece, which created the debating forum in order to engender lively thought among a free people” (2006).
I believe that while literature has been revered for the impact which it has on academic minds, it is the play and theatre which have the ability to reach out to all of us. Worthen explains “Our understanding of language and knowledge have been forever altered by the impact of print; yet the Western stage remains an important sight for the transformation of writing into the embodied discourses of action, movement and speech” (2003, p.2). Literature is for the elite, whereas plays and theatre have always been for the common man. A play can be dissected by intellectuals, but once it is performed it “is an important device for communities to collectively share stories, to participate in political dialogue, and to break down the increasing exclusion of marginalized groups” (Van Erven. 2000, p.2)
In academic research there is a distinction made between drama in which a play can be analysed in a similar way to literature and theatre, which is considered to be a non academic pursuit. Fortier states that “despite the assimilation of drama into literary studies and despite the attempt to see theatre as non-verbal literature, literary theory ignores those who have made the most profound contributions to a specific theory of theatre: drama and theatre belong to literary theory but theatre theorists do not.” (1997, p.4). In many universities this distinction is made, as it is considered that an academic study of a play in drama can be graded quantitatively, whereas a theatre production can only be graded qualitatively. A possible reason for academics to view theatre as a lesser art is given to us by Ong when he explains that “Analytic explicatory thought has grown out of oral wisdom only gradually, and perhaps is still divesting itself of oral residue” (2002, p.169). In practical terms a student who decides to study drama in an English university is required to study the same number of theoretical hours as a literature student, plus an equal number of practical hours, not counting rehearsals and performances, in order to receive the same number of credits. Another explanation for this discrimination between oral performance and the written script could be that academic life has been gradually setting itself apart from the common people. Van Erven explains that “Community theatre is an important device for communities to collectively share stories, to participate in political dialogue, and to break down the increasing exclusion of marginalized groups.”(2000, p.2)
Hornbrook relates that there have been four major changes in the way that we communicate: spoken language, written language, the printed book and finally electronic forms of communication. He also explains that the “Examination of the contrasts between oral, manuscript, literate, and finally, electronic cultures can generate insights into the biases and proclivities of a culture dominated by one form of communication or another. Interestingly, these moments of transition coincide with pre-eminent periods in theatre history” (1998, p.152). He agrees with Ong that the written script or play has existed since the Greeks, became prolific from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, became a weapon for social change in the twentieth century challenging the social norms of this period and finally its role may well be changing as “Antithetically, naturalistic drama, in the theatre and on television, denies inventive experience to its spectators, ensuring that they are further silenced in an age in which participation and active engagement are not easily come by” (1998, p160).
Rush explains that in the past theatre began as a celebration of public events in which most of the populace took part. Political, religious and cultural aspects were all incorporated into performances and unlike modern audiences the spectators did not “perceive a great difference between participating in a ritual where issues of belief are paramount, and attending a theatrical performance where suspension of disbelief is at issue.”(1994, p.3) The main ontological difference appears to have been the way in which the actors performed. Cimolino proclaims “Shakespeare’s work is eternal, universal … It tells stories of people like you and me — in our diversity, across time and origin and experience, we share a common humanity. And Shakespeare’s genius was that he seemed to predict the challenges that future societies would face.”(2006). Cartwight tells us that “English drama at the beginning of the sixteenth century was allegorical, didactic, and moralistic; but by the end of the century theatre was censured as emotional and even immoral.” (1999, p.3) Censure has always existed, but the written play has confronted many taboos both in print and in performance. Ibsen was one of the most controversial, modern playwrights. Tans tells us that “A Doll’s House, which many consider the first true feminist play, was banned in England for a time. Despite resistance to his work, Ibsen continued to raise awareness for women’s rights” (2007, p.93) It was not until well into the twentieth century that Ibsen’s plays were accepted and yet he had a profound influence on other playwrights as Tans mentions “Ibsen found support among his artistic peers, such as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), who was influenced by Ibsen’s example to examine social concerns in his own work.”(2007, p.93) Ibsen is an example of how plays, allow us to step out of ourselves and to look at life from someone else’s point of view. Literature tends to be a solitary activity, whereas plays and their public performances allow a playwright’s message to have a much more direct impact on society.
Modern playwrights such as Willy Russell tackle universal social issues such as class stigma. His most famous play Educating Rita started out as a working script which he read to drama students at his ex college in Liverpool to get their feedback. Willy Russell then honed his work and it was then performed at a local theatre where it met with great success as it related so well to local social issues. However, the play was so successful that it gained national attention, from there it caught the attention of the film industry and finally it ended up as an international film. This example shows the power of a play not to be original, (Pygmalion has almost the same plot) but to be in touch with fundamental human issues which have existed and will continue to exist across generations. His plays are written for the everyman instead of the academic elite.
In recent years many education authorities have cut their budgets for the arts in schools. As these subjects are considered less academic it has been felt that children and their education will not be seriously affected. However, there are studies which show that the opposite is true. Catterall in the book “Critical Links” edited by Deasy comments on the work of Goodman and tells us that “dramatic play is a vehicle whereby children can both practice and learn about literary skills and begin to develop “storying skills” which might be used in story writing” (2002, p.37)
Hornbrook warns us that “Now, most of us witness, via television, what would have amounted to several lifetimes of drama for previous generations.”(1998, p.151) This may be true and the play may change its appearance, but I believe it is unlikely that it will disappear. Prenki and Selman explain that “Theatre can say the unsayable. This capacity is perhaps its most central asset. Whether at the individual, group, or public level, theatre gives us ways to express: our dilemmas; our political views, whether conservative or radical; our insights, however tentative; our problems, shortcomings, fears, intentions, complaints, angers, commitments.” (2000, p.101) Theatre, drama and the written play have always been an important part of our lives. They have lived in a constant flux of change and will continue to do so in the future. The recent advances in technology will assure that there will be major upheavals in the way that plays will be written and performed. Oddey and White state that, “it will be shown that the central characteristics of the mediated stage lie in the conceptualization and design of the coalescence between actuality and virtuality, between materiality and immateriality and between physicality and virtuality.” (2006, p.157). Yomiuri (2008) gives us a concrete example of what can be expected in the future in his write up in the “The Yomiuri Shimbun” of how “Robotic technology will enter unfamiliar territory Tuesday when two humanoid robots make their stage acting debut alongside human performers in a play at Osaka University.”

Cartwright, K. (1999) Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. New York, USA. Retrieved the 10th of October 2009 from:

Cimolino, A. (July 4, 2006). Theatre defines us.(Comment)(Column). Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), A15. Retrieved October 17th, 2009, from Global Issues In Context via Gale:

Deasy, R. Editor (2002) Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development. Retrieved October 21st, 2009 from:

Fortier, M. (1997) Theatre Theory:An Introduction. Routledge London, England. Retrieved the 7th of October 2009 from:

Hornbrook, D. (Editor). (1998) On the Subject of Drama. Routledge
London, England. Retrieved the 14th of October 2009 from:

Oddey, A. and White, C. Editors. ( 2006) Potentials of Spaces : The Theory and Practice of Scenography and Performance. Intellect Books. Bristol, England. Retrieved October 29th, 2009, from Global Issues In Context via Gale:

Ong,W. (1982) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. Methuen. London, England.

Prenki.T. and Selman.J. Editors. ( 2000) Popular Theatre in Political Culture. Intellect Books. Bristol, England. Retrieved October 29th, 2009, from Global Issues In Context via Gale:

Rush. R. (1994) Greek Tragic Theatre. Routledge. Florence, USA . Retrieved the 7th of October, 2009 from:

Tran, L. (2007). Art, Drama/Performance. In F. Malti-Douglas (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History, Vol. 1(pp. 92-96). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved October 17, 2009, from Global Issues In Context via Gale:

Van Erven, E. 2000. Community Theatre : Global Perspectives. Routledge
London. England. Retrieved the 27th of September 2009 from:

Worthen. W. 2003. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance. Cambridge University Press. New York. USA. Retrieved the 27th of September 2009 from:

Yomiuri. S. (2008) “Robot actors to make stage debut in Japanese play.” Global Issues In Context. Gale.Tokyo, Japan. Retrieved October 29th, 2009, from Global Issues In Context via Gale:

October 31, 2009   No Comments

Comic books and graphic novels: The transformation of reading in the classrooom


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            Ask many librarians or classroom teachers and they will often remark that the comic is a low form of the written word and does not denote “serious” reading on the part of their students.  Many will not count reading a comic as part of a home reading program or, at the elementary level, will not allow students to read this type of material during class silent reading periods.  Even librarians who willingly add them to their collections often dismiss their importance (Tilley, 2008).  In recent years however, the tide seems to be turning in favour of these pulpy little stories.  Innovative teachers are beginning to accept the role that comics, and their closely related cousins, the graphic novel, are capable of playing in the education of our children (Viadero, 2009).


      Even though there is evidence of the existence of comics dating back over 150 years they became most readily available during the 1930’s in North American news agents and drugstores (Aleixo & Norris, 2007).  This coupled with the low price of the publications made them easily accessible to the public in general and children in particular.  In addition there was little competition from other media at that time for, “the time, money, and attention of children” (Jacobs, 2007).  Jacobs explains that this ease of availability meant that comics offered a different option for the practice of literacy that was beyond the bounds of a child’s formal education (2007).  This increased literacy practice has propelled many children forward as literate members of society and despite the criticisms leveled at the comic world these little books may be better positioned to prepare today’s students for the multiple literacies required in a world where they are constantly inundated by visual images.

Modification and Multimodality

      While comics have been much maligned by educators and were even the topic of televised US Senate hearings in 1954 (Kannenburg, 2008), their potential role in literacy education in the classroom is somewhat more positive.  It is still rare for teachers to embrace their use in literacy training but it seems that regardless of how scholars define the comic form what seems constant is that in this genre the visual is an important element and, “should not be seen as subservient to the written” (Jacobs, 2007).

      It is this combination of text and image that Gunther Kress calls multimodality (Jacobs, 2007).  Jacobs maintains that this shift to thinking about comics as multimodal text rather than as a lesser form of writing is significant in the culture of text (2007).  It is also significant in terms of understanding the power of comics to teach multiliteracy skills required by today’s students.  This valuing of visual literacy has been slow to take hold.  Teachers are taught to believe that beginning readers rely on text and that good readers move beyond pictures but the inclusion of comics and graphic novels into the classroom has provided a new generation with an opportunity for layered deconstruction that may help them scrutinize the manner in which interdependent text and imagery creates what has been called, “a strong sequential narrative” (Williams, 2008).  This layered deconstruction will involve not only an examination of the text and images but will need to consider the comic author’s use of panels in the creation of the story.  These panels guide the reader’s attention and pace the reading in the same way that, “poets use line breaks and punctuation” (Tilley, 2008). 

James Bucky Carter (2007) contends that integration of graphic novels into the classrooms of today will transform the study of English.  A move away from the notion that literacy is purely text-based will help educators move beyond what he calls, “one size fits all” literacy education (Carter, 2007).   This means that the impact of this form of reading may not have had its full impact yet.  Its time may still be coming thanks to technological developments that increasingly rely on the user’s ability to process visual images.

Pathways to learning

      In many curricular areas the reading of comics affords the educator and the reader a unique opportunity to engage in concepts and ideas that would be, depending on the age of the student, unreachable or difficult in traditional text formats.  The inclusion of pictures adds a scaffolding element to learning that can be particularly advantageous in the area of social studies.   Williams (2008) argues that, “graphic novels, like a compelling work of art, or a well-crafted piece of writing have the potential to generate a sense of empathy and human connectedness among students”.  Visuals combined with text allow comic and graphic artists to ask their readers to consider a different point of view and look at a situation through the eyes of another.  In the teaching of social studies this is fundamental to real understanding of both past and current events and represents deep learning on the part of the student.


                  In these ways, comics and graphic novels will continue to impact and modify our views of text in education.  As innovators in the field continue to encourage children to explore this genre the idea that comics are only transitional literature may someday become a thing of the past.  Over the past 80 years the progress may have been slow and there have not been any opportunities for comic-like exclamations like “Pow” or “Ka-bam” but new technologies that require a different form of literacy just may be what the comic needs in order to legitimize itself in education.   


 Aleixo, P., & Norris, C. (2007). Comics, Reading and Primary Aged Children. Education & Health, 25(4), 70-73.

 Burton, D. (1955). COMIC BOOKS: A TEACHER’S ANALYSIS. Elementary School Journal, 56(2), 73-75.

 Carter, J. (2007). Transforming English with Graphic Novels: Moving toward Our “Optimus Prime.”. English Journal, 97(2), 49-53.

 Jacobs, D. (2007). Marveling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy. (pp. 180-205).

 Kannenberg Jr., G. (2008). The Not-So-Untold Story of the Great Comic-Book Scare. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(37), B19-B20.

Tilley, C. (2008). Reading Comics. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 24(9), 23-26.

 Viadero, D. (2009). Scholars See Comics as No Laughing Matter.  Education Week, 28(21), 1-11.

 Williams, R. (2008). Image, Text, and Story: Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom. Art Education, 61(6), 13-19.

 Williams, V., & Peterson, D. (2009). Graphic Novels in Libraries Supporting Teacher Education and Librarianship Programs. Library Resources & Technical Services, 53(3), 166-173.

October 31, 2009   No Comments

Remediation of the Chinese Language


The Chinese logographic system has faced pressures to reform both from within and from external forces over the course of its almost 4000 year evolution. As communication needs of greater numbers of people and wider levels of education were introduced into the language community, more strains were put on the developing linguistic system. The foundation of the Chinese logographic system can be traced back to at least as far as the Shang dynasty’s use of Oracle Bones (1600-1100b.c.e.) (Britannica). The linguistic system that is most widely seen as a unifying force in China was beginning to show in the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) (Norman). The current universal system of Chinese logography has been a strong push of the 20th century leadership (Halsall).

The concept of language remediation is apparent within the Chinese logographic system. In an alphabet-based system only a few dozen characters are required in order to create meaning, whereas in a logographic system each new meaning of an older word requires a new symbol. It is estimated that there may be as many as 80,000 symbols for language meaning units in the Chinese system, but to be fluent in the language requires knowledge of only 3000 to 4000 unique characters (Norman). Each time a new descriptor is added to a word, a new symbol had to be created to coincide with it. In line with Bolter’s view of linguistic remediation (Bolter 2001, p. 23) the new language is built upon the old language, keeping it recognizable but creating something new and worthy of its own recognition.

The use of a logographic system to unify diverse ethnic and dialectic groups would seem to make it easier to control a larger area. The logographic system remains constant throughout the region, but different pronunciations are permitted or expected for each region. The symbol for “dog” would be universal, even if the individual aural versions are different. The Chinese logographic system developed from a system of pictographs used to describe a specific unit of language, typically one item or object (Halsall).

A major problem in trying to unify vastly different areas of a country like China lies in the regional dialects. Cantonese, the second most-spoken Chinese language, is focused in the southern regions of the country. Hakka and Min (both Northern and Southern dialects) are common in the south-eastern coastal regions. Hsiang is found in the south-central portions of China. Wu and Kan are spoken along central regions of the eastern coast. Mandarin dominates the majority of the country. Beijing Mandarin, specifically, has been implemented as the official language of communication in China during the 20th century (Halsall). Regional dialects have not been eliminated since the introduction of the new language policy, but Mandarin is now the required language of educated communications. A powerful central government in Beijing has attempted through its language programs to bring the country together as a single united voice.

Without an easily reproducible way of recording and disseminating written material, art and information of a culture risk being lost in an oral-based history. The technologies of moveable type and the printing press were developed in China, in no small part because of the strains involved in having to reproduce complex symbols repeated for any type of manuscript. The earliest surviving woodblock prints are from the Han Dynasty. Each page was sculpted from a wooden block for use rather than keeping a full set of symbols in supply. Clay-based movable type was invented in the 11th century, followed by wooden type in the 13th century and metal (bronze) type in the 15th century (Needham, pp201-206). Each of these leaps forward in technology provided opportunities to refine and expand upon the language that had come before.

Remediation of the Chinese language can be seen in the 20th century efforts to update the written and spoken word. During the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese intellectuals saw the script as
a serious problem in China’s attempt to become a part of the modern
world. The Chinese language was portrayed as cumbersome, difficult to learn and out of date. (Norman) The goals of reform have been to simplify the logographic process by reducing character strokes, introducing a phonetic alphabet, and instituting a common spoken language. The current spoken language of Putonghua (common language), commonly called Mandarin, was adopted in 1949 and become the language of school instruction in 1956. It is based on Beijing Mandarin (Halsall). Pin yin is the phonetic written alphabet based on Romanization of the logographic system and was introduced in 1958, meant to help spread the learning of Chinese symbols (Britannica). During the Cultural Revolution it was used in part to create common spellings for place names in the country.

The Chinese logographic system and current attempts to modernize communication in the country show how strong the roots of the language truly are. It has survived both subtle and punctuated evolution over nearly 4000 years of use, each time bringing it closer to a universal language for all people in the country. The 20th century’s attempts to update the language are unlikely to antiquate a system that has lasted for millennia, but the continual remediation process may make older works more accessible to the current generation. Efforts like pin yin introduction of symbols in a phonetic way is the gateway to symbolic understanding. The language is not being modified because of obsolescence. It is being updated because of a passion for the long history that the language embraces. Any steps that can be taken to bring together over a billion people so that they can share in a united voice, a united history, and a united sense of self must be seen as a step forward for the evolution of the country. In this particular instance, Bolter’s view of remediation indicates a bringing together of China’s ancient past with its future position as a world player through the power of language.


Bolter, J. D. (2001) Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Halsall, Paul. Chinese Cultural Studies: The Chinese Language and Writing. based on David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Needham, Joseph. (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.

Norman, Jerry. (2000) Tradition and Transformation in the Chinese Writing System,.

October 31, 2009   No Comments


Please review my research paper on my wiki-  Photography:  Historical and Cultural Impact.


October 31, 2009   No Comments