Ch. 4 Orality and Literacy

Not surprising, writing has been named as one of the greatest inventions of all time solidified by the realization that since its origin many inventions have been mere extensions of text (ie computers) (Ong, 2002). In Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy he attempts to demonstrate the resistance against introducing writing into the oral cultures. While he does establish some compelling points using actual facts, his book was first published in 1982 (with a revision in 2002) and therefore does not take into account recent developments in the ability to share texts, especially with the enhancement of web 2.0. Through recent advancements to the internet people all over the world are able to connect via text in real-time. This benefit to our current society unfortunately renders many of Ong’s statements obsolete and/or too simplistic to remain valid.

Ong’s focus on how writing has transformed human consciousness can be compared to the movement in education towards personalized learning with a technology integration component (B.C. Education Plan, 2012). By understanding how learning and thought process evolved out of the invention of writing we can begin to appreciate this new need to personalize learning, especially in Canada, where multiculturalism is the norm rather than the exception. According to Ong, many oral cultures developed strategies to increase their ability to remember information delivered orally, and could later apply them during recall (2002, p. 97). This same idea is present in literature concerning how to support many Aboriginal students whose cultures still rely heavily on oral tradition (Tanaka, 2007). As an educator, Ong’s statements about the change in how we formulate thoughts, even in the oral form as a result of writing, further authenticates my belief that in order to provide the best education possible for each individual we need to take into account their entire background (Ong, 2002, p. 77). There is undoubtedly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to education in Canada.

However, in addition to different cultural backgrounds, students may also demonstrate their own learning styles. Ong fails to investigate or refute whether learning styles may have played a role in oral cultures at the time when writing was first being introduced. It may have been the case that some individuals would have been able to increase their academic success because of writing and therefore writing may not have been the burden he portrayed for those who were used to solely learning through oral methods.

Furthermore, Ong uses Plato’s objections to further his beliefs on writing. Plato once believed that writing would destroy memory (Ong, 2002, p. 78). This statement is clearly not scientifically sound. Writing can’t actually destroy the cells and synapses that are components of our memory. Just like reading, writing it is not an inherited trait but one that our society has put importance on developing (Wolf, 2007, p. 11). Therefore, reading and writing may in fact change the way that we turn information into something that can be recalled when needed, but cannot actually destroy our components of memory.

While research on the plasticity of the brain and the use of the internet is still in its infancy, neuroscientists Stanley and Matthew Kutcher’s study suggest that young people spending time with digital technologies may in fact “be changing the physical structure and functioning of their developing brains” (Tapscott, 2009, pp. 29-30). This change does not mean we are able to remember less information; rather, the type of information and how we access and read it has changed.

There are some that may argue that this is a dangerous power, supporting the same objections that were apparent with the invention of writing according to Ong. We, however, must accept that our society thrives on inventions and we will continue to constantly question further discoveries. Alan Kay was once quoted as saying “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born” (n.d.). While we are being encouraged to be adaptable and embrace new discoveries, with every new invention there may be a burden on the society changing to incorporate it, in order that the lives of future generations are improved. Ong’s view that writing was detrimental to the purely oral cultures does not take into consideration how writing has enhanced and furthered current ways of life.

Finally, Ong suggests that writing is context-free because it is detached from the author and cannot be directly questioned. However, with the invention of web 2.0 tools and ‘online chatting’, many texts can be directly questioned with a real-time response just as the case in oral cultures. With the invention of email and other sources, it is very easy to get in touch with authors to directly question their writing. Furthermore, the internet has made it much easier to question facts and plagiarism, as information is accessible to the general public. This demands a greater increase in accountability, when using text and publishing it for the review of others, than when writing was first introduced.

Ong provides a thorough history of how writing influenced purely oral cultures. However, he does not appear to take into consideration how writing has developed our current generations. Furthermore, many of his arguments regarding an inability to directly question writing compared to orality can be erased with the use of the internet, email, and web 2.0. tools. Ong may benefit from revising his statements to incorporate issues and ideas that have arisen out of recent inventions and enhanced technology.

Alan, K. (n.d.)

B.C. Ministry of Education (2011). Retrieved Septmeber, 24, 2012 from

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

Tanaka, M., Williams, L., Benoit, Y.J., Duggan, R.K., Moir, L., & Scarrow, J.C. (2007). Transforming pedagogies: Pre-service reflections on learning and teaching in an Indigenous world, Teacher Development, 11 (1) 99-109.

Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing the world.
New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: HarperCollins.

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