Literacy used to be a very subtle concept that meant linguistic sophistication. It used to denote a skill that could be developed to arbitrary levels of refinement through practice. Literacy meant using mastery over language — both form and content — to sustain a relentless and increasingly sophisticated pursuit of greater meaning. It was about an appreciative, rather than instrumental use of language. Language as a means of seeing rather than as a means of doing. Reading and writing — the ability to translate language back and forth between oral and written forms — was a secondary matter. It was a vocational pursuit of limited depth. The written form itself was merely a convenience for transmitting language across space and time, and a mechanism by which to extend the limits of working memory. It had little to do with language skills per se.Scribes, people who could read and write were simply tradesmen who took notes of what the actual literary people had to say, who may not have been able to read or write themselves. Venkat uses the example of musical ability and the ability to read and write musical notation, the former has no direct link with the latter, only to provide a written record of the artist's work. He then goes on to describe how he actually defines "literacy":
Before Gutenberg, you demonstrated true literacy not by reading a text out aloud and taking down dictation accurately, but through exposition and condensation. You were considered literate if you could take a classic verse and expound upon it at length (exposition) and take an ambiguous idea and distill its essence into a terse verbal composition (condensation). Exposition was more than meaning-extraction. It was a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities. Condensation was the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words. It was a higher order skill than exposition. All literate people could do some exposition, but only masters could condense well enough to produce new texts considered worthy of being added to the literary tradition. Exposition and condensation are in fact the fundamental learned behaviors that constitute literacy, not reading and writing. One behavior dissolves densely packed words using the solvent that is the extant oral culture, enriching it, while the other distills the essence into a form that can be transmitted across cultures.So, according to Venkat, reading and writing rank low on the totem pole of literacy when compared with "exposition and condensation". He goes on to dispel the notion that oral cultures are simply about memorization. There were in fact a whole series of different types of recitation (11 different types of "combinational recitation") used in India to orally communicate texts. What is actually going on is not simply memorization, but what Venkat describes as "microcosmic creative destruction":
You’re taking a permutations-and-combinations blender to the words, juxtaposing them in new ways, and actively performing combinatorial processing. You are rigorously testing the strength of every single word choice and ordering decision. You are isolating and foregrounding different elements of the logical content, such as implication, subject-verb and verb-object agreement, and so forth. There is an functional-aesthetic element too. Terseness does not preclude poetry (and therefore, redundancy). In fact it requires it. Despite the compactness of a text, room must be made for various useful symmetries. If the original has any structural or semantic weaknesses at all, this torture will reveal it. If the original lacks the robustness that poetry brings, it will be added. Not only does all this not help plain memorization, I claim that it makes it harder. You destabilize the original line in your head and turn it into a word soup. If the original is any way confused or poorly ordered, you will soon end up in a state of doubt about which sequence of words is the correct one. For many students, practicing recitation must have been mindless tedium, but for a few, it would have catalyzed active consideration and reworking of the underlying ideas, in search of new wisdom. These students must have evolved into new masters, the source of beneficial mutations and crossovers in the cultural memeplexes they were charged with preserving. Being forced to juggle words like this must have helped cultivate a clear awareness of the distinction between form and content. It must have helped cultivate an appreciation of language as a medium for performance rather than a medium for transmission or preservation. It must have forced students to pay careful attention to precision of word choice in their own compositions. It must have sustained a very mindful linguistic culture.Venkat mades some interesting claims here. I think he has a point as to our Western dismissal of oral cultures being simply about memorization, there is more to it than that, but is there not more to the Western concept of literacy as well? Here's where his analysis falls short imo. Also his example of Indian oral culture is not meant to appeal to most students, but to "a few" who don't see it as "mindless tedium". The recitation he uses as an example are religious texts, hardly ones to promote critical thinking which is another drawback. I think the main problem is that he is conflating "orality" with "literacy" which are in fact two different things. This distinction is important because the cultural implications are profound. Following Walter Ong's distinctions, we have this:
Orality. In oral societies, all knowledge is personal knowledge; every utterance is subjective and egocentric. Because speech is always connected with specific persons, the idea of objective knowledge apart from an ego remains unknown. Because the ego-element dominates, dialogue in an oral context tends to be aggressive and emotive, “agonistic,” as Ong says, and testy. In oral societies, thinking must be formulaic; the formulas must be “coded” in simple, easily remembered verbal images—of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety. Questioning the coded veracities is rare, because interrogation might destabilize them, and because they are a matter of social survival; the ethos often forbids questioning. An oral context knows no such thing as “critical thinking.” Indeed, confronted with analytic statements or logical summaries, oral people suspect and reject them, as Ong showed by drawing on anthropological fieldwork. Literacy. The written word, as Ong remarks, “separates the knower from the known” and in so doing opens up the space of non-ego-centered objective knowledge. Because writing overcomes the ephemeral quality of spoken language and frees the mind from the task of having to remember things through the medium of simple, “coded” images, it also opens up possibilities of reflection, which, with alphabetic literacy in particular, gives rise to the critical discourses, from physics through moral philosophy to history and law. With the aide of a text, the literate subject can “backtrack,” examining the sequence and relatedness of propositions or the logic of a story. Literacy in this way provides the basis of systematic knowledge in all the higher civilizations. Of course, in introducing the phrase “higher civilizations,” I have made explicit the implication that Ong, for argumentative reasons, de-emphasizes: that the orality-literacy opposition entails a hierarchy.As mentioned in the article, Ong makes no judgement as to which is superior, he simply describes the characteristics of both. In response to Venkat's specific points, I would add that both exposition (essay writing) and condensation (or summary writing) were tested in the Liberal Arts and in teaching English as a Foreign Language prior to the age of mass standardized testing. What has taken us away from this has little to do with orality, let alone literacy, and far more to do with the supposed necessity of mass standardized testing. For instance in the current Cambridge exam of Proficiency in English (CPE), both skills are tested - an essay question on a set book and summary writing of a longer text. The latter is expected to be removed from the next version of CPE, since it requires a human examiner to grade, unlike the rest of the Use of English paper of the exam which is multiple choice/fill in the blank, that is can be graded by computer. This development in turn is linked to the notion that teaching is at most a semi-skilled trade, not a skilled trade, not a profession let along a vocation, which can be preformed by moderately educated and trained people who essentially "teach to test." What I would also describe as the factory paradigm of education run amok. Here it appears I've gone far beyond Venkat's original argument, but this is not really the case, as the next quote will indicate. He provides a specific point in time when exposition and condensation gave way to reading and writing:
Oral cultures are not just, or even primarily, about quality assurance in transmission. They are primarily about quality assurance in composition, and training in the basic moves of exposition and condensation. When you think about it this way, there is no mystery. Oral culture persisted long after the development of writing because it was not about accurate preservation. It was about performance and cultural enactment through exposition and condensation. The Costs of Gutenberg And then Gutenberg happened. The results were not immediately apparent. The old culture of literacy persisted for several centuries. The tipping point came in the 1890s, when printing technology became sufficiently cheap to support mass media (there is a world of difference between ubiquity of bibles and a culture of daily newspapers). So sometime in the twentieth century, we lost all the subtlety of oral culture, turned our attention to the secondary vocational skills of reading and writing, and turned literacy into a set of mechanical tests.It is not that this view is wrong so much as it is misleadingly incomplete. Also this is an old argument which was explained in clear text by Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death over 20 years ago. Postman also saw the tipping point in the 1890s, but it was not in cheap newspapers, but in their use of photographs and illustrations in them. Prior to that newspaper stories, even advertisements, had to be structured logical arguments, not simply a picture with a slogan, the decline of what Postman calls "Typographic culture" is the rise of the Image. Technology's influence on communication unleashed a storm with the printing press, but this development continued with the invention of telegraphy and the de-contextualization of information, as well as radio, TV and the internet. Still, Postman has some interesting things to say about the character of a text-based culture as opposed to what came before and what followed:
From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached. I do not mean to imply that prior to the written word analytic thought was not possible. I am referring here not to the potentialities of the individual mind but to the predispositions of a cultural mind-set. In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. The public for whom it is intended is generally competent to manage such discourse. In a print culture, writers make mistakes when they lie, contradict themselves, fail to support their generalizations, try to enforce illogical connections. In a print culture, readers make mistakes when they don't notice, or even worse, don't care. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America. The spread of typography kindled the hope that the world and its manifold mysteries could at least be comprehended, predicted, controlled. It is in the eighteenth century that the scientific method preeminent example of the analytic management of knowledge--begins its refashioning of the world. It is in the eighteenth century that capitalism is demonstrated to be a rational and liberal system of economic life, that religious superstition comes under furious attack, that the divine right of kings is shown to be a mere prejudice, that the idea of continuous progress takes hold, and that the necessity of universal literacy through education becomes apparent. Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp 51-52Notice that what Postman is talking about is more than just "reading and writing" but an interactive process between writer and reader whereby the reader performs a critical analysis of the text, what Jacques Ellul refers to as the "second stage of education" beyond the first of basic literacy. It is precisely this "rational" culture, this typographic or print-based culture which has been in decline in the US since at least World War II and the cause of that is definitely not reading and writing. Postscript There seems to be a bit of confusion as to what Postman's talking about. He's not talking about different "technologies", but rather different "mediums". I think this also applicable to my critique of Venkat's article since it is his assumptions as to what the "medium of orality" can carry that I disagree with. So to Postman:
Such a hope represents exactly what Marshall McLuhan used to call "rear-view mirror" thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth. What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce? These are the questions to be addressed in the rest of this book, and to approach them with a minimum of confusion, I must begin by making a distinction between a technology and a medium. We might say that a technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates. Of course, like the brain itself, every technology has an inherent b ias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral. There is an old joke that mocks that naive belief. Thomas Edison, it goes, would have revealed his discovery of the electric light much sooner than he did except for the fact that every time he turned it on, he held it to his mouth and said, "Hello? Hello?" Not very likely. Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold. the printing press, for example, had a clear bias toward being used as a the Ae of Show Business linguistic medium. It is conceivable to use it exclusively for the reproduction of pictures. And, one imagines, the Roman Catholic Church would not have objected to its being so used in the sixteenth century. Had that been the case, the Protestant Reformation might not have occurred, for as Luther contended, with the word of God on every family's kitchen table, Christians do not require the Papacy to interpret it for them. But in fact there never was much chance that the press would be used solely, or even very much, for the duplication of icons. From its beginning in the fifteenth century, the press was perceived as an extraordinary opportunity for the display and mass distribution of written language. Everything about its technical possibilities led in that direction. One might even say it was invented for that purpose. the technology of television has a bias, as well. It is conceivable to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question, What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, and "talking heads" are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For these reasons and more television will not have the same meaning or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum. But in America, this has not been the case. Television has found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a technology of images could be exploited. Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp 83-86This is what I think Venkat did in his article. He conflated the two technologies - printing press and telegraph & TV - as well as the two mediums, print and TV, and saw the decline in literacy as being due to the first set when in reality it was due to the second.