Book Review: “Orality and Literacy” by Walter Ong

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

A few years back, Nicholas Carr wrote an article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, arguing that the nature of reading online alters the way that people think.  Reading on the internet is different than reading a printed page in that the online environment pushes us to scan, skim, and hurry through our reading material.  We are impatient to get to the point quickly so that we can move on to something else.  The result is that people who regularly get their information online not only have less patience but also less ability to understand sustained and detailed argumentation.  Google is, in fact, making us stupid.  Our ability to think and reason is being impaired.  Carr’s research and insights were eye-opening and disturbing for myself and many others because we as human beings often embrace technology without realizing the effect that it is having on us.  Only in retrospect do we see how our tools have changed us.  And those changes are not always good.  Because the advent of the Internet is near enough to us in history for many people to remember what it was like without it, Carr’s article created a sense of sorrow for what we are losing in a digital age.  Namely, the ability to think.  

However, there also is another technological shift that dramatically altered our thinking ability.  But nobody talks about it.  Nobody knows.  Nobody remembers.  Except perhaps Walter Ong.

In “Orality and Literacy,” Walter Ong gives a fascinating account of how the development of writing and moveable print has forever changed the way people think and process information.  His account has more than just historical interest, however, as there remain in the world today many cultures that are primarily oral.  Some of these folks can’t read, but many who can at a basic level are still living in a vastly different world than truly literate people.  Understanding the difference between oral communication and literate communication is essential for literate people who want to communicate effectively and understandable with oral communicators.  As a missionary to Thailand, a nation of primarily oral communicators, I found Ong’s book very insightful and practical.

In this review, I want to briefly summarize the differences between literate and oral communicators that Ong points out, and then share some insights that I gained from Ong for working among the Thai people.

What are Oral Communicators Like?

Ong points out a number of times that it is difficult for literate people to understand what life is really like for oral communicators.  When literate people interact with oral people, many are shocked to find out that, as they say, common sense is not as common as one would think.  In reality, it is not wisdom or intelligence that is missing in oral cultures, but rather literate forms of thinking which are produced by reading and writing. So, what is common among oral learners?  Oral people learn without “studying” (9), but by watching and imitating.  They do not reflect privately but practice corporate introspection (9).  The self is not defined by looking inward but looking outward.  What tasks do I do in life?  Who am I related to? Where do I live?  They rely upon their memory and think memorable thoughts (34, 69) in formulaic ways because non-formulaic thoughts (like outlines and abstract principles) can’t be easily.  Stereotyped stories of the heroic and the bizarre abound because they are easily remembered (69).  Oral thought is additive, not subordinative.  That means that thoughts are piled on top of one another instead of being organized in points and sub-points, and sub-sub-points.  Oral thought is redundant because things are remembered only when often repeated (39). Oral thought is conservative, not branching out into new areas of speculation and hypothesis because what one already has might be lost (41).  Originality consists in tailoring old information to a new audience, not in coming up with something that no one has ever thought of (46).  Oral thought is concrete and participatory, close to the real world (42-43).  When you ask an oral person, “What is a tree?”, he will not describe what a tree looks like, but will likely say, “Why are you asking that?  Everybody knows what a tree is.  There, go look at it.”  The world is concrete and external, and the things that matter are the ones that you need for daily living.

What are Literate Communicators Like?

In contrast, literate people have been trained by the technology of writing to turn inward.  Writing and reading enables one to isolate oneself from other people and makes introspection possible (73, 104).  Literate people are not afraid to think new thoughts or to to continually strive after new information because the old information can always be looked up in case it is forgotten.  With the written word, you can lay out all your information before you, rearrange it, draw connections, discern patterns, and otherwise take it apart and put it back together again without fear of losing it.  Thoughts don’t need to be memorable and characters in stories don’t need to be stereotyped because writing makes abstract thoughts and complex anti-heroes accessible anytime.  

The False Assumption of Literate People

People who have been trained to think literately make the assumption that oral people can also think in linear, logical, abstract ways.  As long as they can read, then the playing field is level.  But even with reading ability, oral people are living in a different world.  In Thailand, I have met many people who claim, “I can’t read” but in reality they can read, albeit slowly.  But what I have often failed to appreciate is the fact that linear, logical, deductive thinking is beyond them.  That doesn’t make them less intelligent.  It simply means that by virtue of where I grew up and the type of education that I received, I have learned to think differently.  The technology of writing did that to me.  In fact, it was the cumulative effect of years and years of reading and writing that did that to me.  I didn’t realize it at the time.

Promoting Literacy without Idolizing It

In Ong’s discussion of orality, it was helpful to be reminded at several points that many oral people want to become literate.  People in oral cultures value their traditions but they want to achieve literacy for the benefits that it can bring (171).  When one can read and think in a literate way, a vast world of resources are opened that are not available in an oral culture.  The printed word and literate thinking have made possible scientific advances that would have been impossible without them (125).   

In the context of missions, it is important to know that just because we are working with oral learners, we shouldn’t abandon helping people gain greater literacy.  Literate missionaries and literate Thai Christians should teach oral people with oral methods but also seek ways to advance them in literacy.  Increased literacy can bring with it economic and spiritual benefits.  Of course, this approach must be tempered by the knowledge that some people want Western-type education for the wrong reasons.  They don’t want to learn or develop, but just to get a piece of paper that will give them a trump card to advance past their peers.  But merely mimicking the external forms of literacy doesn’t achieve anything meaningful.  

There is also the temptation for both Westerners and Thai to believe that because the literate methods used in the West have been successful there, those same methods are therefore the best methods for the Thai and for other primarily oral societies.  Usually, they are not.  Literacy is a good thing but if people are still primarily oral learners, then literate methods will be a mitigated failure.  People will get something from learning the Christian faith through these methods, but not nearly as much as if oral methods were used.  As in construction, it is necessary to use the right tool for a particular job, otherwise nothing gets done.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I found Walter Ong’s book to be extremely helpful in understanding both literate and oral cultures, and in reflecting on the intersection between them.  I must admit, however, that I found his explanations too detailed in places.  The history and case studies were interesting but the technical details put me to sleep at times.  Maybe that merely shows that I am not ensconced in the same academic field as Ong, and thus I don’t share his all of his technical interests.  Or maybe it shows that I am affected by residual orality and prefer the stories and case studies over abstract explanations.  Either way, “Orality and Literacy” is helpful and informative, and I would recommend this book to any literate thinker or Western-educated missionary who wants to move towards more meaningful communication with oral people.




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