Oral Culture vs. Literate Culture

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I’ve been reading The Information by James Gleick, (NYT review, exerpt) which, like most Gleick books that I have read (Chaos, Genius) is an absolute nerdgasm of science, technology, and history. But it gave me a context of thinking about Rachel’s latest foray into the big time, a little kerfluffle with mostly-progressive Matt Yglesias.
In an early chapter, Gleick describes the transition from an oral culture to a literate culture, and all of the changes in human thought that came along with that transition. It was no accident that Aristotle and Plato were basically inventing logic; Gleick argues that logic wasn’t supported by a culture based on oral traditions. In some anthropological studies today, he cites evidence that some recently discovered non-writing cultures do not recognize syllogisms:
All bears from the north are white.
My bear Fozzie is from the north.
What color is Fozzie?

People from pre-literate cultures will answer: I don’t know, I have never seen Fonzy. Gleick lays out the case that a number of the modes of abstract thought that we now take for granted were developed only because of the advent of written words, which were two times removed from the world (they signified spoken words, which signified the world). It is a really fascinating book, and incredibly well written. I know it is thick, but I am loving it so far.

Ok, so back to Yglesias. I see modern day blogging as bringing some of the elements of oral culture back. Gleick cites Marshall McLuhan as the first to bring this up, and there is no shortage of screeds against blogging, twitter, or how google is making us stupid. To me, Yglesias’ blog embodies the dual capability of this streaming mentality. On one hand, looking at his economic and political pieces, you can see a commentator reflecting on incoming news, but also accumulating specific knowledge, and applying this growing knowledge. Despite his youth, his political pieces reflect a wide reading and knowledge in politics. His financial pieces likewise reflect (and document) his growing expertise in interpreting the US economy. This is where I see one amazing benefit of the internet – it enables amazingly fast learning of specific knowledge. This goes as well for applications like twitter, which can organize communities of like-minded people, and enable sharing of information.

But Yglesias’ education reporting shows the “dark side” of blogging. He is not a teacher or a parent, has not even attended any public schools, and yet he leverages his blogger credibility to write about the deficiencies of public education and benefits of a particular approach (the No Excuses model). He reads a report on KIPP and interprets it in a way that doesn’t reflect any knowledge of how parenting works, how KIPP works, or even how educational research works. His recent posts on education reflect a facility and fluency with language (“labor force success,” “bourgeois modes of behavior”) but a lack of sophistication or knowledge when it comes to the common characteristics of public education for the poorest or lowest scoring students, the dimensions of choice for a curriculum, or even the difference between things that parents can teach through explicit instruction and the things children must learn through modeling or simply maturing. There is science for each of these, as well as some common sense through experience, Yglesias knows neither.

It is this side of blogging which I see as reflecting an oral culture. Within an oral culture, it is difficult to evaluate individual claims of a speaker, rather, we must judge the overall credibility of the speaker. Within an oral culture, it is difficult to bridge different kinds of evidence, trying to differentiate exactly what makes KIPP’s approach different from that of traditional public schools. Within an oral culture, there is less emphasis on a historical approach, where people might ask, “Have people tried elements of No Excuses before? What were their results?”

The interesting thing is that blogging is not a unitary, oral culture activity. Some blogging involves deep explorations of a topic, developing a theme or a content area over time. But the kind of blogging that Yglesias does, at least in education, does not seem to match this. It is memory-less, in that he is repeating the same things that David Brooks wrote about Harlem Promise Academy two years ago, without reading any of the responses.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education. Bookmark the permalink.

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