Ong’s Chapter 4 – Writing restructures consciousness

Do people who originate and develop in a solely oral culture ever reach the quality of thought that is achieved by those who originate and develop with writing in a literate culture? Walter J Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy, wouldn’t agree with the aforementioned hypothesis. In Chapter 4 entitled “Writing restructures consciousness” Ong states that writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. It is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior human potentials. Writing heightens consciousness. (Ong 2002, p. 81). Ong therefore believes that writing is a technology which has fundamentally changed that way people think, allowing us to become more analytical in our thoughts. People can argue the hypothesis but there is no debating the issue that literacy can only enhance the learning experience and as educators, we can incorporate some of his beliefs into our teacher to help students reach their full potential.

  • Introduce writing at an early age to allow the students to acquire the writing skills necessary to permit them to advance to writing critical analysis skills. Ong states that we need to provide as much writing practice, across all subjects, as we can for students to gradually move towards writing critically (Ong 2002, p. 81). Additionally, literacy needs to be stress across the curriculum, not just in the English (Language Arts) classroom setting but also, the maths, sciences, socials studies settings. The more proper writing practice that students are exposed to, the more likely they will be able to achieve the critical analysis stage of writing.
  • Allow students sufficient time and feedback required to achieve the critical analysis level of writing. Too often as educators, we are hastily moving through the curriculum and not allowing time for feedback and reflection. Jack Goody points out in his book The Domestication of the Savage Mind, backward scanning makes it possible in writing to eliminate inconsistencies. Unlike oral cultures, writing, once uttered, outered, put down on the surface, can be eliminated, erased, changed (Goody 177, p. 128). Writing is a process that transcends time, allowing the creator to go back to change, edit and rethink. There is no equivalent for this in the oral performance, no way to erase a spoken word; corrections do not remove an infelicity or an error, they merely supplement it with denial and patchwork. Allowing students to plan, organize, write, edit and revise is the benefits writing has and too often enough, students are given that opportunity to fully appreciate this process allowing them to achieve the critical analysis level of writing.
  • When an educator is selecting text, he/she must bear in mind that students need be exposed to sound, fact-based literature that is clearly written. Unlike oral work in writing work, Ong states that the author might be challenged only if he or she could be reached but the author normally cannot be reached in any book (note: some authors are available in this day and age through the internet but I digress). There is no way to directly refute a text. After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before (Ong 1982, p. 78). The more fact based and less opinionated the literature, the more room for student creativity and critical thinking. It’s not to say that the writer’s opinions do not matter or force students to think critically but over exposure to such biases will start to form in the minds of the students. Ong also suggests that writers need to make themselves clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context (Ong 1992, p. 102-103). This is the challenge of the writer (and the educator when selecting literature) to make sure that any material that is used by students is written in a way that the message conveyed is exactly the message that was intended

I agree with Ong in the importance of having a literate education system is invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior human potentials and thus, allows our students to acquire writing critical analysis skills that is essential in the 21st century workforce. However, I do believe in the value that orality plays in this too as many of the knowledge acquire for individuals (especially at an early age) comes from the senses of eyes and ears. The challenge for educators is to try an balance the orality and literacy in our education system to maximize the benefits for students to achieve success and obtain information to allow them to critically analyze.

Goody, J. (1977). The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977)

Ong, W. (2002) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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