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Literacy and the Oral Foundation of Education



Drawing upon scholarship in the classics and in anthropology, Kieran Egan traces the richness of oral forms of expression used in non-literate societies from ancient times to the present. In the absence of written records, these peoples have used a particular array of intellectual resources and strategies in order to make sense of their world and to preserve their cultural histories. All children, before they learn to read and write, also depend upon the spoken word for learning and communication; the author therefore suggests that a better understanding of orality may help us to gain a fuller sense of the cognitive tasks that children undertake during their transition from orality to literacy.
Literacy and the Oral Foundations of
Simon Fraser University
Drawing upon scholarship in the classics and in
anthropology, Kieran Egan traces the richness of oral forms
of expression used in non-literate societies from ancient
times to the present. In the absence of written records, these
peoples have used a particular array of intellectual
resources and strategies in order to make sense of their
world and to preserve their cultural histories. All children,
before they learn to read and write, also depend upon the
spoken word for learning and communication; the author
therefore suggests that a better understanding of orality may
help us to gain a fuller sense of the cognitive tasks that
children undertake during their transition from orality to
We have inherited from the ancient Greeks the
notion of a deep-cutting distinction between
rational and irrational thinking. The word they
commonly used for "reason" was logos, which
was also the term used for "word" or "speech."
For the Greeks of the Platonic tradition, then,
taking a rational view enabled one to give an
articulate account of something: "We have a
rational grasp of something when we can
articulate it; that means, distinguish and layout
different features of the matter in perspicuous
order" (Taylor, 1982, p. 90). Rationality entails
trying to perceive things as they are, despite our
hopes, fears, or intentions regarding them. One
may achieve such a view by theoria (sight,
speculation, contemplation): theoretical
understanding results from taking a disengaged
perspective. Only the knowledge that results
from this kind of intellectual activity, Plato
argued in Timeus and The Republic, is true
knowledge. The manner in which Plato
distinguished rational thinking and its product-
true knowledge (episteme) - from irrational
thinking and its various products - confusion,
superficial plausibility, mere opinion (doxa)
-involved setting up a number of enduring
conceptual associations. Among these associated
ideas, and of particular interest in this article,
was that of adulthood with the attainment of
episteme and childhood with doxa.1 This rational
theoretic understanding, Plato and his pupil
Aristotle argued, gives a superior view of reality.
Those who violate the basic standards of the
articulation of this theoretical understanding are,
1 See the parable of the line in The Republic, ed. Cornford,
1941, ch. 24. For a discussion of the sets of associations, see
Simon (1978), pp. 164ff.
in this view, irrational, and they fail to articulate
what is real and true.
With the "rediscovery" of classical Greece by
nineteenth-century European scholars, and the
growing sense of Greece's cultural superiority
over the classical Roman models that had
dominated European intellectual and artistic life
during the previous century, the distinction
between rational and irrational thinking began a
new career. It proved a convenient tool for
dismissing from serious comparison with
Western forms of thought those forms of
"primitive" thought that expanding colonial
empires, early anthropological studies, and
travelers' tales were bringing increasingly to the
attention of Europeans and North Americans
(Jenkyns, 1980; Turner, 1981). When combined
later in the century with the extensions of
evolutionary theory, the distinction between
"rational" and "irrational" thinking helped to
generate theories about the development of
human societies from irrational beginnings to the
refined rationality of contemporary Western
intellectual life. Frazer (1900), for example,
argued that human thought always passes
through a magical stage, to a religious stage, and
finally to a rational scientific stage. This
distinction has entered during this century into
everyday language, finding varied, more or less
casual, use in terms of approval or
disparagement. At the same time, in the
scholarly world, the distinction has come
increasingly into question. Anthropologists such
as E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1937), for example,
have argued the rationality of witchcraft in
particular cultural settings, and classicists such
as E. R. Dodds (1951) have pointed to the
irrationality of significant features of Greek life
and thought. Vexed and problematic though the
distinction is, it remains deeply embedded in
Western cultural history and habits of thought
(Hollis & Lukes, 1982; Putnam, 1981; Wilson,
The mental life of children has commonly
been represented in terms influenced by this
distinction. Children are assumed to begin life in
irrational confusion and ignorance, and
education is regarded as the process of
inculcating both rationality and knowledge. In
his allegory of the cave in The Republic Plato
likens the process of education to unchaining
prisoners in a dark cave; while chained, they can
see on the cave wall only flickering shadows of
what is happening outside, and, when released,
they are led out to behold reality. Similarly,
Christian ideas of education represented the child
as beginning in sin and ignorance, able to
progress only gradually and with great difficulty
to virtue and knowledge.
Children and "savages" have often been
assumed to lack access to certain forms of
thought that are considered the hallmarks of
rational adulthood. Attempts have been made to
capture the perceived differences between the
thought forms of people in oral cultures and
those of literate Westerners in distinctions such
as primitive/developed, irrational or
prerational/rational, mythic/historical,
simple/complex, mythopoeic/logico-empirical,
"cold"/"hot," traditional/modern, and so on (see
Goody, 1977; Hollis & Lukes, 1982). Relatively
recently, attempts have been made to break down
these distinctions as applied wholesale to
particular kinds of cultures. Jack Goody, for
example, has argued that any distinction that
suggests "two different modes of thought,
approaches to knowledge, or forms of science" is
inadequate, not least because "both are present
not only in the same societies but in the same
individuals" (1977, p. 148). That is, whenever
we try to define precisely some distinctive
feature of "our" thinking, we find examples of it
in "their" cultures, and whenever we identify a
distinctive feature of "their" thinking, we find
cases in "our" culture. Robin Horton has shown
that what have been regarded as distinctive
features of scientific thinking are common in
traditional cultures in Africa (1970, 1982); and it
has now, post-Freud, become a cliche that
certain central features of mythic thinking are
common in Western cultures (Blumenberg,
1985). (One wonders, for example, whether
Bronislaw Malinowski's [1922] outrage at the
wastefulness of piles of rotting yams in the
Trobriand Islands would be equally directed at
the "mountains" of dairy foods and grains and
"lakes" of wine that have accumulated in support
of the farming policies of the European
Economic Community.) "We" and "they"
constantly exhibit thinking that is both rational
and irrational, complex and simple, logico-
mathematical and mythopoeic. We are "them"
and they are "us." (See Levi-Strauss, 1966;
Goody, 1977.)
What about the evident differences, then,
between modes of thinking used in oral societies
and those used in complex industrial ones?
While we may indeed recognize common
features in forms of thought that were in the past
considered entirely dissimilar, we need to
recognize also that modern science, history, and
mathematics are hardly identical with anything
found in oral cultures. One can scarcely claim
that differences do not exist. How do we account
for them if we reject explanations involving
"primitiveness" or deficiencies of mind or of
language? And how do we characterize the
dramatic changes in forms of thought and
methods of inquiry made during the Greek
classical period - changes that involved the birth
of philosophy, critical history, and modern
science? Goody (1977) maintains that the
evident differences are best accounted for by
technology, especially the technology of writing.
His argument builds on and extends a growing
body of work that is seeking to clarify how
literacy affects strategies of thinking. The
economy of the mind inclines us to theorize that
members of oral cultures - in which what one
knows is what one remembers - use particular
mental strategies, and that some different mental
strategies are used in literate cultures - in which
various mental operations can be enormously
enhanced by visual access to organized bodies of
The path from orality to literacy is one that we
want all children to take as they pass through our
educational systems. Better understanding of
what this movement entails might clarify some
of our practical educational problems. It might,
for example, help us find ways to reduce the
rates of illiteracy in Western societies, and
perhaps also to improve the quality and richness
of literacy we can achieve. From the research
that has so far drawn on our increasing
knowledge of orality and of the transition to
literacy, it is clear that any adequate conception
of literacy must account for much more than
simple encoding and decoding "skills" and must
encompass significant features of rationality
(Olsen, 1977, 1986). That is to say, even though
there is considerable difficulty in characterizing
rationality with precision, it is increasingly clear
that the acquisition of literacy can have cognitive
effects that have traditionally been considered
features of rational thought - particularly those
associated with "abstract" thinking. Considering
oral cultures, then, may help us to understand
better what is entailed in the transition of
Western children from orality to literacy.
This is not to posit some mysterious
evolutionary recapitulation process in the lives of
our schoolchildren. There is a trivial sense in
which an education involves the individual's
recapitulating the development of his or her
culture; in a matter of years we learn knowledge,
skills, and ways of making sense of the world
that were developed over millennia.
Recapitulation theorists in Europe and North
America have gone further, however, and have
argued that the classroom curriculum should be
designed so that children learn the central
content of their cultures largely in the sequence
in which that content was invented or
discovered. Recapitulation schemes in schools
have been based on notions of biological
recapitulation, logical sequences in the
development of knowledge, and/or psychological
predispositions (Gould, 1977). In what follows,
however, I will be considering the recapitulation
of specific techniques used in thinking. By
making children literate, for example, we are
recreating, in each individual's case, the
internalization of a technology that can have
some quite profound and precise effects on
cognitive processes and modes of
communication. As Walter Ong has observed,
"Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also
interior transformations of consciousness" (1982,
p. 82), and "Writing is a technology that
restructures thought" (1986, p. 23).
Technology is a slightly aggressive term to use
for writing, and "tools for thinking" is a handy
but tendentious metaphor. One is led to assume
that spades and computers have similar trans-
forming powers over our manual and cognitive
That they have transforming powers is beyond
doubt, but that these are the same as, or akin to,
what internalizing literacy produces needs
further evidence. I prefer to use a less aggressive
term, coined, as far as I am aware, by Levi-
Strauss. In discussing the structural categories
underlying totemic classification, he debunked
the notion that totemic species are chosen
because of their economic or culinary value; he
argued they are not so much "bon a manger'
(good for eating) as "bon a penser' (good for
thinking with) (Levi-Strauss, 1962). Literacy is a
set of strategies that are not only utilitarian, but
also bon a penser.
One purpose of this article is to explore oral
practices that are also "good for thinking with."
Orality, we shall see, is not a condition of deficit
- to be defined simply as the lack of literacy.
Regarding orality only in terms of literacy is (in
Ong's neat simile) like regarding horses as
automobiles without wheels (1982, p. 12).
Orality entails a set of powerful and effective
mental strategies, some of which, to our cost,
have become attenuated and undervalued in
many aspects of our Western cultures and
educational systems. In the following pages I
shall explore some of the effective strategies of
thinking used in oral cultures, and then consider
their relevance to education.
A word of caution is required. Any simplistic
assumption that equates the thinking of adults in
oral cultures with that of children in literate
societies will be undermined in two ways. First,
adults' have the accumulated experience and
cognitive development that children necessarily
lack. Second, most children in Western cultures
live in environments that presuppose literacy and
its associated forms of thought: constant adult
interactions with young children assume
conventions that depend on literacy, and
preliterate children are constantly encouraged to
adopt forms of thinking and expression that are
more easily achieved as a product of literacy.
My purpose is to focus on forms of thought
that are bon a penser if one is not literate.
Consequently, I will be seeking comparisons
between forms of thought used by members of
oral cultures and those used by modern Western
children. The basis of the comparison, however,
is neither knowledge content nor psychological
development, but techniques that are required by
orality. Keeping this idea to the fore will, I
hope, allow us to avoid the kind of deprecatory
ethnocentrism criticized above.
I shall not try to establish an exhaustive
inventory of the intellectual strategies common
in oral cultures. Further, I do not consider that
the purpose of education in Western cultures is
to preserve and develop such strategies
uncritically. We are not in the business of
preparing children to live in an oral culture -
though it may be worth reiterating that we are
preparing them for a literate-and-oral culture.
Indeed, we see fast developing around us
features of what Ong (1982) has called
"secondary orality." The electronic media are its
most energetic promoters, but even newspapers
and journals are explicitly, and somewhat
paradoxically, relying less and less on strategies
of communication that draw on the skills of
"high literacy" and their associated forms of
thought (Ong, 1977). Although orality is not the
end of our educational development, we might
consider whether it is a necessary constituent of
it, and whether the study of orality might be bon
a penser, as we attempt to construct both a richer
primary school curriculum and a fuller sense of
how children might effectively learn its contents.
A central theme of this article might be
summed up in Levi-Strauss's observation:
I think there are some things we have
lost, and we should perhaps try to
regain them, [but] I am not sure that in
the kind of world in which we are
living and with the kind of scientific
thinking we are bound to follow, we
can regain these things exactly as if
they had never been lost; but we can
try to become aware of their existence
and their importance. (1978, p. 5)
I shall begin with a brief account of some of the
overlapping branches of research in classical
studies and anthropology that have helped to
clarify the kinds of thinking that have proven
effective in cultures that do not have writing.
Next, I shall discuss some prominent features of
orality - the poetics of memory, participation and
conservation, and classification and explanation -
that have proved bon a penser. I shall conclude
by discussing the possible implications of these
features of orality for early childhood education.
Central to this discussion is a reconsideration of
what the foundations of education are when
literacy and rationality are conceived as growing
out of, rather than displacing, the oral culture of
early childhood.
The Rediscovery of Orality
The relatively recent rediscovery of orality by
Western scholars is connected with some
problems presented by Homer's epic poems.
Thinkers could easily apply the influential late-
Victorian evolutionary paradigm to the
development of science, which was seen as a
positive progression from myth to rationality to
empirical science. When applied more generally
to human cultures, however, this paradigm
encountered the anomaly of Homer's literary
achievements. Educated Victorians were more
familiar with long-ago battles on the windy
plains of Troy, the wooden horse, and the
destruction of the topless towers of Ilium than
with much of their own society. How, they
asked, could such vividly powerful epics, with
their richness of human insight, their technical
sophistication and emotional force, and their
overwhelming, engaging reality, be composed by
and for what were in all other regards considered
primitive people? "Primitive" mentality -
supposedly a mess of irrationality and confusion
- must, it would seem, have had the resources to
create some great cultural achievements.
Two other complications arose. First, the story
of the Iliad, long regarded as straightforward
fiction, came to be seen as an account of events
that actually occurred in the thirteenth century
B.C. This historicity began to be established by
Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Troy and
Mycaenae during the latter part of the nineteenth
century and has gradually become fuller and
clearer. (Recently, a persuasive picture of the
period has been pieced together in Michael
Wood's popular television series and book In
Search of the Trojan War [1985]).
The second complication was the growing
evidence that Homer and other poets in his
tradition of wandering "singers of tales" were
illiterate. As Berkley Peabody put it, "Despite
the implications of its name, literature does not
seem to have been the invention of literate
people" (1975, p. 1). The master poet Homer
lived about five hundred years after the events of
which he sang, long after the kingdoms whose
ships sailed for Troy had themselves been
destroyed. Yet growing knowledge of the spread
of literacy in Greece made it increasingly
difficult for nineteenth-century scholars to
imagine Homer - by tradition blind in any case -
sitting at a table writing his poems.
But how could such technically complex
poems, many thousands of lines long, be
composed without writing? Surely no illiterate
bard could make up such supple hexameters in a
matter of hours while he sang, and then recall
them word for word? Virgil, that other great epic
poet of the ancient world, labored for years
writing his Aeneid by hand. We know
(Suetonius, De Poetis) that he revised it
constantly and on his deathbed asked that it be
destroyed; the highly literate Virgil believed that
he had struggled in vain to match the power,
vividness, and quality of Homer's work.
The story of the rediscovery of the Homeric
methods of composition is itself an epic of
scholarly ingenuity. In the 1920s, Milman Parry
(1928), following a number of earlier scholars
(Wolf, 1795/1884; Vico, 1744/1970), contended
in his doctoral dissertation that the structure and
distinctive stylistic features of the Homeric
poems reflect directly the requirements of oral
methods of composition (Burke, 1985; Griffin,
1980). Parry's analyses of the Iliad and the
Odyssey showed that they were composed
largely of verbal formulae - repeated morphemic
clusters - whose form was dictated by the
metrical requirements of the hexameter line. For
example, Homer used a large number of
adjectival epithets for most of the recurring
nouns in the poems - for wine, the sea, ships, the
major characters, and so on. The epithet chosen
at any point is not necessarily the most apposite
for the meaning of the line, but is dictated
instead by its fit into the line's meter (Kirk, 1965,
ch. 1). One-fifth of Homer's lines are repeated
almost verbatim elsewhere in his poems; in
about 28,000 lines there are about 25,000
repeated phrases (Parry, 1928).
The poet who performed orally did not
memorize the poems, as we would have to do.
Rather, the singer learned - through a long, non-
literate apprenticeship the particular metrical
form of his tradition, until it was absorbed like a
somatic rhythm, which habitually accompanied
and shaped his thought (Lord, 1964). The
content of the song was held together first by the
poet's clear grasp of the overall story, and the
meter determined the pattern of sounds. As
Albert B. Lord wrote, "Man without writing
thinks in terms of sound groups and not in
words" (1964, p.25). Traditional oral
performance, then, does not involve repeated
recitation of a memorized poem - the idea of a
fixed text is a product of literacy. Rather, each
performance is a new composition. It may be
very like previous ones, and certain patterns will
recur, but the singer is composing each time, not
repeating something fixed in memory. It is, in
Lord's words, "the preservation of tradition by
the constant re-creation of it" (1964, p. 29).
These metrically arranged units of sound,
then, accumulated line by line in the Homeric
poems to repeat the heroic story. The poet
"stitched" together the formulae to fit the
metrical line, and the episodes to fit the story.
The Greeks called singers "rhapsodes" - literally,
"song-stitchers." It seems likely that Homer, as
one of the greatest epic poets, represented the
culmination of his tradition, and that he recited
his poems to trained scribes.
In the early 1930s, Parry supplemented his
arguments by studying methods of oral
composition being used by contemporary singers
of heroic tales in Yugoslavia. After his death, his
work was supported and extended by Lord's
studies (1964) of comparable singers in the
Balkans. Lord has described in some detail the
conditions of their intensive, and almost
invariably non-literate, training, which cannot be
very unlike Homer's (Lord, 1964, esp. ch. 2).
This work has been further elaborated by
Peabody's ingenious analysis of Hesiod's Works
and Days (1975). Peabody has shown in still
greater depth how the oral poet uses the
techniques developed over uncountable
generations to realize for the audience a kind of
alternate reality. That is, the techniques of oral
poetry are designed to discourage critical
reflection on the stories and their contents, and
instead to "enchant" the hearers, drawing them
into the world of the story. I will describe these
techniques below.
This process of enthralling the audience, of
impressing upon them the reality of the story, is
a central feature of education in oral cultures.
Their social institutions are sustained in large
part by sound, by what the spoken or sung word
can do to commit individuals to particular
beliefs, expectations, roles, and behaviors. Thus
the techniques of fixing the crucial patterns of
belief in the memory - rhyme, rhythm, formula,
story, and so on - are vitally important.
Education in oral cultures is largely a matter of
constantly immersing the young in enchanting
patterns of sound until their minds resonate to
them, until they become in tune with the
institutions of their culture.
The Homeric poems were called the educators
of the pre-classical Greeks because they
performed this social function. Poems were not
listened to or learned solely because of their
aesthetic value; that was incidental to their value
as "a massive repository of useful knowledge, a
sort of encyclopaedia of ethics, politics, history,
and technology which the effective citizen was
required to learn as the core of his educational
equipment" (Havelock, 1963, p. 29). In the
process of such an education a substantial
amount of mental energy is spent memorizing
the chief messages of the culture, because they
can exist and survive only in people's memories.
According to Eric Havelock, little mental energy
is left for reflection on those messages, or
analysis of them, because such activities would
interfere with the need to sink them
unquestioningly into every mind.
Havelock further extended Parry's and Lord's
work. His Preface to Plato (1963), Origins of
Western Literacy (1976), and The Muse Learns
to Write (1986) help clarify the achievements of
the early literate Greek philosophers, by offering
a better understanding of the oral poetic culture
that preceded it. In particular, they highlight
Plato's reasons for wishing to exclude poets from
his ideal state. Havelock read Plato's Republic as
a program for educating people to discard the
residues of oral culture and to embrace forms of
thinking made possible by full literacy. In
Havelock's interpretation, Plato says that the
mind need no longer be immersed in the oral
tradition, memorizing and copying the
paradigmatic structures and patterns of the
Homeric poems, but can be freed to engage its
proper objects - what we might call abstract
concepts, and what he called Forms or Ideas.
Plato characterized this mode of thinking as
opposed to the Homeric tradition; the Platonic
scheme of education, as he saw it, brought the
mind to reality, while Homer's crippled the
intellect through its seductive illusions and
distortions of reality.
The new forms of thinking made possible by
literacy, early in our educational discourse, were
represented as enemies of the oral techniques
that were bon a penser: "Plato's target was
indeed an educational procedure and a whole
way of life" (Havelock, 1963, p. 45). There are
clear ambivalences in Plato's reflections on the
oral tradition (see the Phaedrus and the possibly
apocryphal Seventh Letter) and on Homer, but in
the end those earlier forms of thinking,
education, and society had to be destroyed to
make way for the new abstract forms of thought
and whatever world they brought with them.
Plato did not conceive his educational scheme as
a structure built on the oral tradition, but as a
replacement for it. His work, in Havelock's view,
"announced the arrival of a completely new level
of discourse which as it became perfected was to
create in turn a new kind of experience of the
world - the reflective, the scientific, the
technological, the theological, the analytic. We
can give it a dozen names" (1963, p. 267). Plato's
influence is so strong in Western thought that it
is extremely difficult for us now to imagine the
kind of consciousness created in the oral
tradition, and the kind of experience created for
listeners by a singer of tales or teller of myths.
Havelock's description of the techniques of
oral recitation in the ancient world shows that
audiences received poems rather differently from
the way we read the same texts today. A youth in
an oral culture, whether Greek or Australian
aborigine, needed to expend considerable mental
resources to learn by listening to these
foundations of his or her cultural institutions. But
the messages of the professional singers were
also repeated everywhere by their listeners.
Proverbs and maxims and riddles uttered at
meals, on rising or going to sleep, in the market
or the field, are constantly repeated pieces of the
great myths or epic poems of oral cultures.
African children, for example, traditionally learn
the practices and mores of their ethnic groups
through riddles asked by their grandparents. In
religious schools throughout the Muslim world,
young students commit to memory
phenomenally long passages of Koranic
literature and law. It is likely that biblical stories
were first repeated and handed on by singers and
storytellers, as are the tales of African griots in
many places today.
Learning the sustaining messages of an oral
culture differs from the effort at accumulation of
knowledge with which we are familiar in literate
cultures. In oral cultures memorization is central,
but it is not performed in the way that we might
try to learn something by heart. For us
memorization is usually an attempt to remember
a text so that it is possible to repeat it verbatim
on command; and our techniques are typically
impoverished, involving largely repetition, some
mnemonics perhaps, or saying words aloud with
our eyes closed, and so on. In an oral culture,
learning proceeds more somatically, with the
whole body used to support the memorizing
process. The Homeric singer, and singers
throughout the world, usually use a simple
stringed instrument, sometimes a drum, whose
beat reinforces the rhythm of the telling and
draws the hearer into the enchantment of the
song. The audience does not so much listen to it,
as we might listen to a play, as they are invited to
live it. The acoustical rhythm created by the
singer and his instrument is supported by the
repetitive meter, rhythmic body movements, and
by the pattern of formulae and the story, to set up
conditions of enchantment that impress the
message on the minds of the hearers. The
techniques of the skilled performer generate a
relaxed, half-hypnotized pleasure in the
This semi-hypnotized state is similar to that
often described by anthropologists as the
condition in which audiences receive the
fundamental messages of their culture. Thus,
Levi-Strauss, in his study of mythology, aimed
"to show, not how men think in myths, but how
myths operate in men's minds without their being
aware of the fact" (1969, p. 12). He preferred to
compare this process to a musical performance
rather than to linguistic forms or texts: "The
myth and the musical work are like conductors
of an orchestra, whose audience becomes the
silent performers" (p. 17). While no Western
educator would wish to replicate all aspects of
this phenomenon in our schools, it seems
important to understand the nature of this
receptive state. Anyone familiar with children's
rapt attention to television broadcasts may
recognize Levi-Strauss's descriptions.
Similarly, Edmund Leach (1967) argued that
the structural patterns of myths and their
2 For a full discussion, see Havelock (1963), ch. 9, “The
Psychology of Poetic Performance.”
underlying messages are communicated
powerfully and unambiguously by oral
performances, despite considerable variation in
the surface stories and settings:
Whenever a corpus of mythology is
recited in its religious setting, such
structures are "felt" to be present,
and convey meaning much as poetry
conveys meaning. Even though the
ordinary listener is not fully
conscious of what has been commu-
nicated, the "message" is there in a
quite objective sense. (Leach, 1967,
p. 12)
According to Levi-Bruhl, when a sacred myth is
recited in the course of ritual settings or other
situations characterized by heightened emotion,
"what they [the participants] hear in it awakens a
whole gamut of harmonics which do not exist for
us" (1910/1985, p. 369). The written form of the
myth that we can study "is but the inanimate
corpse which remains after the vital spark has
fled" (1910/1985, p. 369).
In his re-examination of orality, Goody (1977,
1986, 1987) has not only undermined traditional
notions of the move from "primitive" to rational
thought, and instead shown that the differences
typically educed as evidence for such a shift are
better understood as epiphenomena of the move
from orality to literacy; he has also clarified
some specific steps that accompanied the move
from orality to literacy, and has detailed various
consequences of literacy - for example, the
development of Western scientific inquiry and
abstract thought (Goody & Watt, 1968; Goody,
1986, 1987). (For the best current survey of this
field, see Ong, 1982.)
In the following discussion of several
techniques of oral expression common in non-
literate cultures, my choice has been guided not
by a desire to conduct a systematic survey, but
primarily by educational relevance.
Oral Expressions: Bon a penser
In listing certain features of oral cultures I do not
mean to imply that such cultures are all alike; nor
do I imply that they all use precisely the same
sets of techniques for preserving their
institutions. Clearly, there are enormous
differences among the cultures of preclassical
Greeks and those of the early twentieth-century
Trobriand Islanders, Australian aborigines, and
the indigenous peoples of the Americas before
extensive contacts with literate peoples. In
particular, their myths, and the range of
techniques used to transmit them, differ
It is inevitably difficult for us to think of
orality simply as a positive set of tactics that are
bon a penser; the intellectual capacities and
forms of communication that have been
stimulated by literacy intrude upon our attempts
to understand orally sustained forms of thought.
But we need to see orality as an energetic and
distinct set of ways of learning and
communicating, not simply as an incomplete and
imperfect use of the mind awaiting the invention
of literacy. Orality is not at all the same as what
we usually mean today by illiteracy in the
Western cultural context. Illiteracy is perhaps
best understood as a condition in which one has
not acquired the positive capacities that either
orality or literacy can provide.
Poetics of Memory
Let us begin considering orality by focusing on
what seems to be the central reason it involves
some different tactics of thinking from literacy:
its need to rely on memory. If the preservation of
the institutions of one's culture depends on the
memories of its living members, then the
techniques that most effectively impress the
appropriate messages upon their minds and
sustain them are vitally important. The
Victorians, who judged members of oral cultures
to be mentally "incapable" because of their
supposed reluctance or inability to perform
mental functions that are commonplace in
literate Western cultures, often failed to
recognize this fact at work in the intellectual
"anomalies" of traditional societies they
encountered. Lucien Levi-Bruhl, writing in 1910,
described various feats of memory that seemed
to him prodigious, but to the oral peoples he
studied, commonplace:
This extraordinary development of
memory, and a memory which
faithfully reproduces the minutest
details of sense-impressions in the
correct order of their appearance, is
shown moreover by the wealth of
vocabulary and the grammatical
complexity of the languages. Now the
very men who speak these languages
and possess this power of memory are
(in Australia or Northern Brazil, for
instance) incapable of counting beyond
two and three. The slightest mental
effort involving abstract reasoning,
however rudimentary it may be, is so
distasteful to them that they
immediately declare themselves tired
and give it up. (Levi-Bruhl, 1910/1985,
p 115)
Levi-Bruhl perceived there were no differences
between his own capacities and those of his
subjects on any simple scale of mental
superiority or inferiority, but that the conditions
of life in oral cultures stimulated different mental
developments to deal with those conditions. The
people he observed had a highly developed set of
techniques for learning and remembering, and
their apparent incapacity for "abstraction," as
such, lay in the dissociation of the problems
Levi-Bruhl gave them from their lives. It may be
helpful to remember this as we investigate the
development of our children's capacities for
abstract thinking (Hayek, 1969; Egan,in press).
Goody's experience with the LoDogaa of
Ghana (1977, pp. 12-13) makes this clear. When
he asked some tribesmen to count for him, they
responded with the - to them - obvious question,
"Count what?" The LoDogaa have not only an
abstract numerical system, but also several
sophisticated forms of counting that are chosen
according to what is being counted: their
methods for counting cows and for counting
cowrie shells differ. "Abstract reasoning" is
beyond no human mind; but abstraction that is
very heavily dependent on writing is not
available to people who do not write or read.
In describing the apparent anomaly of
prodigious mental feats executed by the
supposedly mentally deficient, Levi-Bruhl
(1910/1985) perceived that there were no
differences between purely oral and literate
peoples on any simple scale of mental
superiority/inferiority, but that the conditions of
life in oral cultures stimulated a difference in
mental developments to deal with those
conditions. He located a wide range of those
differences precisely. The uses of memory in
oral cultures, Levi-Bruhl concluded, "are quite
different because its contents are of a different
character. It is both very accurate and very
emotional" (1910/1985, p. 110).
Oral cultures engage the emotions of their
members by making the culturally important
messages event-laden, by presenting characters
and their emotions in conflict in developing
narratives - in short, by building the messages
into stories. Levi-Strauss pointed out that "all
myths tell a story" (1962, p. 26), and Lord
concluded that the story provides the firm
structure for the constant reconstruction of heroic
songs. The various linguistic structures in the
end "serve only one purpose. They provide a
means for telling a story. . . . The tale's the thing"
(Lord, 1964, p. 68). The story form is one of the
few cultural universals - everyone, everywhere,
has told and enjoyed stories. They are one of the
greatest cultural inventions for catching and
fixing meaning. Perhaps "discovery" is a more
appropriate term than "invention": some enor-
mously creative person or people discovered that
messages shaped into the distinctive form of the
story were those best remembered, and they
carried a charge of emotional identification that
greatly enhanced social cohesion and control.
Myth stories also, of course, have what we
would consider aesthetic value. But whereas we
distinguish aesthetic from utilitarian values, for
members of oral cultures these are bound up
together (Durkheim, 1915, ch. 4; Cassirer, 1946).
The story form has been one of the most
powerful and effective sustainers of cultures
across the world. Its great power lies in its ability
to fix affective responses to the messages it
contains and to bind what is to be remembered
with emotional associations. Our emotions, to
put it simply, are most effective at sustaining,
and helping in the recall of, memories of events
(Bartlett, 1932). This should not be a surprise if
we reflect on the events of our lives that are most
memorable. Almost invariably we find that they
are accompanied by vivid emotional
associations, and retain quite clearly a particular
emotional tone. Most of the world's cultures and
its great religions have at their sacred core a
story, and indeed we have difficulty keeping the
facts of our history from being shaped constantly
into stories. It is likely that the simplified
histories sanctioned in the schools of most nation
states (Ravitch, 1983) have at least as much in
common with the origin myths of oral cultures as
they do with the austere ideals of historiography.
The story form also has important implications
for schooling. Its survival among oral peoples as
a technique for sustaining culture speaks to its
appropriateness for education, despite our recent
tendencies to neglect it. There are many ways in
which we might use this most powerful of
communicative media in education today,
especially in the primary school (Egan, 1985, in
Rhyme, rhythm, meter, repetition of formulae,
redundancy, the use of visual imagery - figures
of speech used to create enchantment in oral
cultures throughout the world - are also among
the techniques used in Western poetry, and the
state of mind they induce is close to what we
describe as poetic. Like the singer of heroic tales
or the reciter of myths, the literate poet shapes
sound to create particular emotional effects and
fix particular meanings. The shaping of sound
finds one outlet in poetry and another in rhetoric.
These two, along with music, are perhaps the
most evident and direct manifestations of the
oral tradition that have survived in the literate
Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are
important among the linguistic tools that are bon
a penser. In oral cultures, thinking moves
according to the complex logic of metaphor,
more readily than it follows the systematic logic
of rational inquiry. As Ernst Cassirer notes, "It is
a familiar fact that all mythic thinking is
governed and permeated by the principle [of
metaphor]" (1946, p. 92; see also Levi-Strauss,
1966, esp. ch. 7). Although the logic of mythic
thinking, with its reliance on metaphor, has been
difficult for some Westerners to make sense of,
we should appreciate and find readily accessible
this metaphoric power, for it suffuses all
languages. It is one of the foundations of all our
mental activity, upon which our systematic
logics of rational inquiry also rest, or - a better
metaphor - the soil out of which they grow. Both
myth and our everyday language, then, are
permeated with metaphor; as Cassirer concluded,
"The same form of mental conception is
operative in both. It is the form which one may
denote as metaphorical thinking' (1945, p. 84).
Or, as Levi-Strauss observes, "metaphor. . . is
not a later embellishment of language but is one
of its fundamental modes - a primary form of
discursive thought" (1962, p. 102; see also
Cooper, 1986).
The characteristics of oral literature that I have
mentioned are generated by a people's need to
memorize and be committed to their cultural
institutions. We find these techniques to a
greater or lesser degree in all oral cultures: "At
different periods and in different cultures there
are close links between the techniques for mental
recall, the inner organization of the faculty (of
memory), the place it occupies in the system of
the ego, and the ways that men picture memory
to themselves" (Vernant, 1983, p. 75; see also
Finnegan, 1970, 1977).
We remain familiar with these tactics that are
bon a penser, but usually in a much attenuated or
altered form. Rhyme, for example, seems little
more than fun for us now, a part of children's
games, anachronistic and therefore ironic in
modern poetry. We would hardly consider its
systematic use a matter of vital social
importance. We can write, so we do not need
rhyme to sustain the memory of our institutions.
These survivors of orality - rhyme, rhythm,
meter, story, metaphor - serve largely (I am
tempted to write "merely") aesthetic purposes for
us. While metaphor and story may still seem to
us culturally important in some imprecise way,
we tend to think of rhyme and rhythm as only
casual cultural survivors, anachronisms serving
merely to entertain the literate - like the lords
and ladies of a defeated civilization made into
clowns and dancers. But art has a utilitarian
purpose when it supports faith - whether in gods,
in the validity of one's cultural institutions, in
one's society, in one's sense of oneself. The
origins of any of the tools of spoken language
invented to create and sustain memory lie in the
remarkable human ambition "to liberate the soul
from time and open up a path to immortality"
(Vernant, 1983, p. 95). All the world's amazing
cultural and technological achievements since
the development of literacy have been built on
the efficacy of these oral tools of communication
and the intellectual space they once did, and can
still, generate. We would do well, therefore, to
consider carefully their actual and potential roles
in early childhood education.
Participation and Conservation
An Ojibwa Indian observed: "The white man
writes everything down in a book so that it will
not be forgotten; but our ancestors married the
animals, learned their ways, and passed on the
knowledge from one generation to another"
(Jenness, in Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 37). This
sense of participation in the natural world, of
having knowledge that is different from the
kinds of propositions generated by rational
inquiries, reflects a mental condition
anthropologists have often tried to describe as a
kind of oneness with nature; by comparison, our
normal relationship with the natural world seems
alienated. "The mainspring of the acts, thoughts,
and feelings of early man was the conviction that
the divine was immanent in nature, and nature
intimately connected with society" (Frankfort,
Wilson, & Jacobsen, 1949, p. 237). All the
attempts to pinpoint the causes and character of
this sense of participation in nature display a
conviction that, despite their inadequacies when
it comes to pragmatic control over the world,
myth and consciousness in oral cultures
somehow enable people to feel that they are
comfortable participants in their life world. But it
is not a simple condition, obviously, nor one we
can feel unequivocally regretful of having
largely lost. Ong describes it this way:
The psyche of a culture innocent of
writing knows by a kind of empathetic
identification of knower and known,
in which the object of knowledge and
the total being of the knower enter
into a kind of fusion, in a way which
literate cultures would typically find
unsatisfyingly vague and garbled and
somehow too intense and
participatory. (Ong, 1977, p. 18)
One of the cornerstones of Western rationality
is knowing, as it were, where we end and the
world begins: distinguishing the world from our
feelings, hopes, fears, and so on. This form of
thinking seems to be very largely a product of
literacy. As Ong puts it, "Writing fosters
abstractions that disengage knowledge from the
arena where human beings struggle with one
another" (1982, pp. 43-44), or, in Peabody's
words: "The shift in medium from utterance to
record affects the way such an institution works
and tends to change what was an immediate,
living, active agent into an increasingly distant,
timeless, passive, authority" (1975, pp. 1, 2). In
an oral culture the ear is most highly attuned to
picking up cultural messages, supplemented by
the eye. In our case it is usually the other way
Sound is alive and participatory. It is
effective within only a short physical range. The
hearer must be in the presence of the speaker-
there are no carefully crafted memos from the
president or manager. "The living word," as
Socrates put it in Plato's Phaedrus, "has a soul...
of which the written word is properly no more
than an image" (Jowett, 1892, p. 279). The
living word is the word in the arena of human
interactions and conflicts. It is not the distanced
and "cooled" word of the written text. Language
use in an oral culture tends to be, in Ong's
phrase, "agonistically toned" (1977, p. 113); it is
charged with the direct energy of the speaker's
body, and thus with the speaker's hopes, fears,
wants, needs, and intentions. Oral heroic tales
are full of bragging, elaborate abuse of
adversaries, and exuberant praise of leaders or
those from whom the speaker wants a favor. The
tensions of daily struggles are felt face-to-face in
an oral culture. These facts of oral life lead to a
verbally highly polarized world, of good and
evil, friends and enemies, fear and security. Ong
points out that the mental life of oral cultures "is
sure to carry a heavy load of praise and
vituperation" (1977, p. 112), because "if one
does not think formulary, mnemonically
structured thoughts, how can one really know
them, that is, be able to retrieve them, if the
thoughts are even of moderate complexity?" (p.
104). Thus, because oral cultures "necessarily
store knowledge largely in narrative concerned
with interacting human or quasi-human figures"
(1977, p. 112), there is a powerful pressure to
polarize. The African Batomba, for instance,
have two typically polarized paraphrastic names
for White foreigners: "The white man, honored
by all, companion of our chiefs" or, as occasion
may demand, the pointed expression "You do
not touch the poisonous caterpillar" (Ong, 1977,
p. 112). In such societies the forms of verbal
play also tend to be "agonistically toned"
-riddles, tricks, and jokes are often characterized
by a playful competitiveness or even
In an oral culture "the meaning of each word
is ratified in a succession of concrete situations,
accompanied by vocal inflections and physical
gestures, all of which combine to particularize
both its specific denotation and its accepted
connotative uses" (Goody & Watt, 1968, p.
306). As a result, words typically are not
themselves objects of reflection, and thus oral
cultures have no epistemology as we might
define it. When words are closely tied into their
context of reference, philosophical problems do
not arise. People in oral cultures do not
dissociate words from things to the point where
they might wonder how short the legs of a small
table have to be for it to be considered a tray.
This feature of their thinking has nothing to do
with "defects" or "inadequacies" of the mind, but
is rather a function of the uselessness of many of
our forms and techniques of thought in the
conditions of most oral cultures.
In nearly all oral cultures, for example, time is
reckoned in terms of the significant daily
activities of the social group. An "abstract" or
dissociated system for measuring time, such as
we employ, is useful only when it is necessary to
coordinate a large number of quite diverse kinds
of activities. Such diversity does not exist in
most oral cultures, where time measurement
reflects the sequence of activities that constitute
the rhythms of daily life.
In his studies of non-literate peasants in
remote areas of the Soviet Union, Alexander
Luria (1976) posed to them apparently simple
problems, such as "In the far north, where there
is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in
the far north and there is always snow there.
What colors are the bears around Novaya
Zemlya?" His subjects, no doubt politely wishing
to play their part in the conversation, would
reply that they had never been to Novaya Zemlya
and so didn't know, or that they had seen a black
bear but never a white one, and so on. The rules
and underlying forms of thought of the kind of
conversation in which Luria tried to engage these
non literate people are familiar to us, but
appeared bizarre to them. The point is not a
concern with mental capacity, but with social
utility, and the influence of the latter over
cognition. Pragmatic thought in oral cultures
participates more intimately in the life world; it
does not treat the world and experience as
objects distanced from people's emotional,
aesthetic, and utilitarian needs. As such, it makes
"no clear-cut distinction between subjective
states and the properties of the cosmos" (Levi-
Strauss, 1969, p. 240).
Oral cultures have been described as being
intellectually inclined toward homeostasis,
conservatism, and stability in ways that our
modern literate cultures are not (see Geertz,
1973, esp. ch. 5). Such cultures, of course,
undergo changes of many kinds - migration,
disaster, invasion, merging with other groups -
but the mental forms dominant in oral cultures
strive to maintain verbal accounts of the culture's
life that assert continuity and stability.
One striking difference between oral and
literate cultures is in their different attitudes to
the past; literate peoples have and value accurate
historical accounts; oral societies cultivate what
J. A. Barnes has called "structural amnesia" -
systematic procedures for "forgetting," or wiping
out from the oral records of the culture's past
(Goody & Watt, 1968, p. 309). Although oral
cultures often preserve the memory of particular
historical events in stories or in memorized
genealogies of leading families, it usually turns
out that the record kept does not reflect past
reality with complete accuracy. Rather, it is
faithful to present social conditions and statuses.
As conditions change, so do the accounts or
genealogy. Malinowski (1954) showed this
process at work among the Trobriand Islanders.
As changes occurred in the structure and power
relationships of their society, the myths of origin
changed to reflect the current social structure;
that is, historical changes were gradually effaced.
Malinowski concluded that "myths serve to
cover certain inconsistencies created by
historical events" (1954, p. 125). The oral record,
then, ensures that "the individual has little
perception of the past except in terms of the
present" (Goody & Watt, 1968, p. 310).
We find it hard to think of this structural
amnesia as anything other than an unawareness
of history, another difficulty resulting from the
lack of literacy. It seems merely a way of making
the best of things, or the only strategy
manageable if the society cannot keep written
records. But the positive value of such structural
amnesia is that it tends to preserve a sense of
stability and clarity. The social structure and its
prevailing institutions are constantly supported
by whatever sanction is contained in the myths,
whether of sacred ancestors or gods, and are
constantly renewed: "time is recorded only
biologically without being allowed to become
'history' - that is, without its corrosive action
being able to exert itself upon consciousness by
revealing the irreversibility of events" (Eliade,
1959, pp. 74-75). One technique constantly used
to achieve this end is the assertion of continual
rebirth - rebeginning as the first beginning. We
preserve a vague shadow of this sense of birth in
our New Year festivals. Even if we, like
Malinowski (1954), discount other functions of
myth, we ought not to disregard the sense of
intellectual security conferred by sloughing off
the memory of events that are no longer relevant
or useful to present life. This is indeed another
way in which orality is bon a penser. While
direct comparisons are difficult to make, this
process may have relevance as we consider
preliterate children's conceptions of time and the
implications this may have for developing a
history curriculum based on the telling of stories.
We may wish to make better use of the children's
imaginative lives as vividly lived in the present
This emphasis on the preservation of stability
through selective memory of events relevant to
present social conditions leads to what is often
characterized as a conservative frame of mind. It
is indeed conservative, but in a radical sense.
The pressure to preserve in memory the
institutions of one's culture does not invite
innovation or experimentation. Although some
oral cultures are undoubtedly more resilient in
this regard than others, on the whole
anthropologists attest to the powerful sanctions
against change. "The most apparently trifling
innovation may lead to danger, liberate hostile
forces, and finally bring about the ruin of its
instigator and all dependent upon him" (Levi-
Bruhl, 1910/1985, p. 42). The cultural
institutions support a limited stock of archetypal
forms of appropriate behavior for each member
of the society, and the repetition of these alone is
sanctioned and validated by the myths. These are
believed to be the behaviors of sacred ancestors
or gods, which it is the human task to imitate:
"The inhibition against new invention, to avoid
placing any possible strain on the memory,
continually encourage[s] contemporary decisions
to be framed as though they were the acts and
words of the ancestors" (Havelock, 1963, p. 121)
or, we might add, gods. As Mircea Eliade wrote,
the individual in oral cultures "acknowledges no
act which has not been previously posited and
lived by someone else, some other being who
was not a man. What he does has been done
before. His life is a ceaseless repetition of
gestures initiated by others" (1959, p. 15). In
such a culture, "only the changeless is ultimately
significant" (Frankfort, 1961, p. viii).
Although these generalizations may be
somewhat less appropriate for some oral cultures
than for others, they do point to further common
ways in which their orality is, in their cultural
context, bon a penser. The pressures against
change and innovation serve stability, order, and
intellectual security. One's familiar territory is
intellectually mapped out, categorized, and under
secure control. The resources of orality
considered in this section help to provide
intellectual security and a sense of persisting
order in society despite historical changes. They
also help to preserve a sense of participation in
nature which users of literate forms of thought
find somewhat alien. Not entirely alien, of
course; attempts to recapture this sense of
participation in nature find their most common
literate expression in poetry. It is in the work of
poets such as Wordsworth that the sense of
participation in nature is most plausibly
recaptured, and, significantly for my general
argument about the cognitive effects of orality, it
is in preliterate childhood that he most vividly
locates it:
Blest the infant Babe. . .
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed.
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.
(The Prelude, Bk. II, 241-244-)
Classification and Explanation
Members of oral cultures often have remarkably
detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna of
their environments, but their systems for
classifying this knowledge tend to be very
different from ours. Many anthropologists have
commented on members of traditional societies
who could give remarkably precise inventories
of kinds of plants, trees, or weather conditions
but had no words for "plant," "tree," or
"weather." This phenomenon further supported
their conclusions about such people's inability to
"abstract. " Yet, indeed, some purely oral
languages use abstractions where speakers of
English would prefer concrete terms (see Boas,
1911). For example, the proposition "The bad
man killed the poor child" is rendered in
Chinook: "The man's badness killed the child's
poverty" (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 1). A major
difference between oral cultures and our own lies
not in their incapacity for abstraction, but in our
dissociation from the life world. This kind of
dissociation is a product of the techniques of
writing, not some property that some human
minds possess and others lack: "Writing, and
more especially alphabetic literacy, made it
possible to scrutinise discourse in a different
kind of way. . . this scrutiny favoured the
increase in scope of critical activity, and hence of
rationality, scepticism, and logic" (Goody, 1977,
p. 37).
Among the common basic techniques of
classification in oral cultures is the use of what
Levi-Strauss called "binary opposites": "All
classification," he wrote, "proceeds by pairs of
contrasts" (1966, p. 139). These are not
necessarily opposites in any precise logical or
empirical sense, but become used as such by
serving as the basis for further discriminations:
"The substance of contradictions is much less
important than the fact that they exist" (p. 95).
Levi-Strauss began his four-volume analysis
of myths by identifying sets of binary opposites
on which each myth was built. Although many
of his critics have regarded this as a rather
arbitrary procedure, he presents a compelling
argument by demonstrating the prevalence of
such oppositions giving structure to the contents
of myths.
Attempts at classification are fundamental to
rational thought. It makes little sense to consider
people who develop sophisticated taxonomic
schemes "irrational" (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 15).
The differences between classificatory schemes
in oral cultures and those in our scientific culture
commonly rest on the qualities of phenomena
used as the basis for classification. Levi-Strauss's
study of myth is, as he puts it, an attempt "to
prove that there is a kind of logic in [the]
tangible qualities" of the concrete phenomena of
everyday life - of the raw and the cooked, honey
and ashes, and so on (1969, p. 1). While our
children's constant classifications of their
universe are necessarily less sophisticated, an
understanding of the logic they use in forming
them may help us understand their development
of literacy.
The kinds of explanations offered in oral
cultures about natural and cosmological
phenomena often seemed to Victorian
intellectuals perverse or crazy, and were taken as
clear evidence of oral peoples' infirmities of
mind. Unfamiliar medical practices were
considered bizarre (although today a growing
body of anthropology literature elucidates the
physical or psychological efficacy of many
traditional practices). Levi-Strauss, however,
pointed out that the mistake of earlier interpreters
of such explanations "was to think that natural
phenomena are what myths seek to explain,
when they are rather the medium through which
myths try to explain facts which are themselves
not of a natural but a logical order" (1966, p. 95).
We must, he said, attend to the form as well as
the content of such explanations if we are to
understand them.
For us, explanation is a central part of our
efforts both to understand and control nature, to
have practical effects. But its main purpose in
oral cultures "is not a practical one. It meets
intellectual requirements rather than or instead of
satisfying needs" (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 9). In
serving such intellectual purposes it does not,
like our logic, tie itself to the ways the world in
fact works; indeed the "savage" mind "does not
bind itself down, as our thought does, to
avoiding contradictions" (Levi-Bruhl,
1910/1985, p. 78). Certainly in the myths and
medical lore of oral cultures, the literate,
rationalistic concern with noncontradiction is not
a prominent structuring feature. Underlying the
surface of explanations that may seem bizarre to
Western observers, however, is a quest for order
in diversity whose motive should be familiar to
us from the similar motive that drives our
science (see Horton, 1970, pp. 131-171).
The mode of thought that directs the
approaches of various oral cultures to
classification and explanation is closely linked
with the modes of expression discussed earlier.
Malinowski observed of the Trobriand Islanders:
"They never explain in any sense of the word;
they always state a precedent which constitutes
an ideal and a warrant for its continuance, and
sometimes practical directions for the procedure"
(1954, p. 110). What seem like explanations in
oral cultures do not focus only on the relevant
relationships among content features, but they
mix in the whole equipment of the psyche-the
explanation, that is, is cast in the form of a
narrative in which characters, events, motives,
and emotions carry the ideas forward - leading to
what Goody calls the "personalization of theory"
(1977, p. 42).
Implications for Early Childhood
The research on orality sketched above has a
number of implications for early childhood
education; here I will consider just two. The first
concerns the early childhood curriculum; the
second concerns methods of teaching.
The implications turn on the validity of the
connections that can be established between
characteristics of orality and the thinking of
young children in modern literate cultures. I
started by noting the need for caution in making
such connections. First, psychological
developmental connections seem particularly
inappropriate. For example, the fact that adults in
oral cultures commonly cannot perform
intellectual tasks such as properly concluding
"disembedded" syllogisms or successfully
achieving Piagetian conservations (Ashton,
1975; Buck-Morss, 1982), does not mean that
they are psychologically or developmentally
equivalent to children in Western literate
cultures, nor does the fact that adults in Western
literate cultures can commonly perform such
tasks make them psychologically superior or
intellectually more fully developed. It means
only that Western adults have adapted to a
cultural environment shaped by centuries of
elaboration of the thinking techniques made
possible by literacy. Second, it is inappropriate
to seek connections in the content of thoughts
between adults in oral cultures and children in
Western cultures; the concern here is, rather,
what they think with. The connections I am
focusing on are in certain formal characteristics
of thought, in the strategies and resources the
human mind has available and has developed
over countless centuries in oral cultures. As
young children in Western literate cultures
themselves inhabit an oral culture, they have
access to the intellectual resources of early
orality until such a time as literacy is
There are two ways in which we might hope
to establish relationships between the resources
available to thought in oral cultures and those
deployed by modern Western children. The first
is analytic. This focuses on the necessary
requirements of thought in oral conditions, and
on what is entailed by the need to memorize
when written recording is not available. Such
analytic work obviously goes forward most
securely and fruitfully when combined with the
second method, which is empirical. We can
observe characteristic features of language and
thought in oral cultures around the world, and
see whether we find similar features in the
language and thought of preliterate children in
Western cultures; we may then be able to suggest
some research issues that are worthy of further
attention. The empirical observations alone can
provide us only with correlations; it is the
analytic work that can posit causal relationships
between observed forms of language and the
requirements of an oral environment.
The body of this article has outlined a variety
of formal characteristics of thought inferred from
observations in oral cultures. One obvious source
of equivalent material about modern Western
children is in ethnographic studies of their lore
and language. Fortunately, there are a number of
quite substantial studies of children's oral
cultures, notably those made by the Opies (1959,
1969, 1985) in Britain, and the Knapps (1976)
and Sutton-Smith (1981) in the United States.
Those techniques used in oral cultures to
shape sound into more memorable forms we find
also to be prominent in children's oral cultures.
Rhyme, rhythm, meter, and the story form are
ubiquitous. The prominence of rhyme in
everyday speech will in all English-speaking
countries elicit the response, "You're a poet and
didn't know it" (Opie & Opie, 1959, p. 73). The
strength of rhythm and meter is such that many
children's songs are made up of parodies of well-
known, usually solemn or sacred, songs carried
on echoes of the same rhythms and meters. The
Opies report variants of this practice all over
Britain (1959, p. 108). A children's taunting
rhyme recalls the lively competitiveness and
moral core of many verbal games observed in
oral cultures:
Liar, liar, pants on fire!
Nose as long as a telephone wire. (Knapp &
Knapp, 1976, p. 11)
Children's easy use of metaphoric thinking is
evident in their ability to understand the kinds of
metaphors that fill all languages - "It's bitter
cold," "He feels bouncy today" - and their easy
perception of the distinction between literal and
metaphoric usage - "Mom killed that plan!" In
what might be expected to be the constraining
circumstances of constructed tasks, Gardner et
al. (1975) report that nursery school children are
much more likely than older children to use a
metaphor to complete a sentence of the form,
"He looks as gigantic as______." This ready
grasp of metaphor and punning is prerequisite to
an understanding of the jokes that are common
in children's oral culture: "What did the quarter
say when it got stuck in the slot?" "Money's very
tight these days"; "Why does Fred work in the
bakery?" "I guess he kneads the dough," and so
endlessly on.
Children's sense of the story form seems to
exist very early in life; it is clearly evident in the
language of many children by age two
(Applebee, 1978; Pitcher & Prelinger, 1963).
Themes framed as binary opposites, too, are
evident as the most prominent structuring
elements in the classic folktales (Bettelheim,
1976) and in children's invented stories (Paley,
1981). The stories are particularized versions of
the struggles between such moral concepts as
good and evil, bravery and cowardice, fear and
security, hope and despair, and so on.
Rhyme, metaphor, and stories are, of course,
found in adult cultures as well. This in no way
undermines their identification as prominent
features of orality. In literate Western cultures
we do not move from orality to literacy, but
rather from orality to a combination of literacy
and orality. The techniques that are bon a penser
for oral peoples do not disappear with the
acquisition of literacy; they may be attenuated,
but even the most highly literate people are also
dependent in many circumstances of their lives
on some aspects of orality. In addition, literate
adults use techniques of thinking encouraged
specifically by literacy; the Western forms of
rational inquiry and the standard written forms
for reporting their results have developed in part
by their exclusion of the techniques of orality.
Attempts were made in the past to reach
accommodation between the two in the field of
rhetoric (see Ong, 1971; Todorov, 1982, ch. 3),
but their clear separation, institutionalized by the
dominance of positivistic science, is evident in
the commonly dismissive use of the phrase
"mere rhetoric." Previously, mingling the
features of orality and literacy was not
considered odd. Orality tends to survive,
however, only in the daily lives of literate
peoples; it is attenuated to the point of near
invisibility in the cultures of positivistic science
and technology, and in the realms of the most
refinedly "literate" scholarship.
It is possible to take each of the characteristics
of orality indicated in the body of this paper and
find clear analogies in the oral culture of modern
Western children (Egan, forthcoming). That such
empirical connections are unlikely to be merely
coincidental is suggested by the analysis of
orality and what it implies for linguistic forms
and techniques of thinking - an analysis owed
largely to the main authorities cited above; in
particular, Goody, Havelock, and Ong. Let us
provisionally assume that this kind of study of
oral cultures throughout the world can yield a
better understanding of orality and that an
understanding of orality can help us better
understand young children's minds in literate
Too often, I think, our perception of young
children is clouded when we consider them
illiterate and lacking in the skills of Western
rationality. It is far better, I would argue, to
regard them as oral in a positive sense: they have
a distinctive culture of their own. While the
image of young children as tabulae rasae, or
empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, is no
longer prominent in educational discourse, we
persist in characterizing young children in terms
of the absence of the development and
knowledge that constitute the mature condition.
Even otherwise liberating theories such as
Piaget's, for example, represent the
developmental process as the gradual
accumulation of increasingly sophisticated
capacities and their hierarchical integration
(Inhelder & Piaget, 1969). Such theories, when
used to reflect on education, focus attention on
the sequence of capacities to be developed,
helping further to define young children in terms
of what they lack. In Piaget's scheme, for
example, they are pre-operational.
Developmental schemes focused on the
acquisition of the forms of thought characteristic
of literate cultures, such as Piaget's focus on
logico-mathematical structures, show a gradually
rising scale of achievements to adulthood. If we
were to focus instead on the thinking techniques
of oral peoples, we would surely produce a quite
different "developmental" profile. If the
techniques of orality are, as I suggested earlier,
conducive to formation of the imagination, we
might have cause to be very concerned about
Perhaps we need a New Science of childhood
based on the insight that led Vico (1744/1970)
towards a better understanding of the "irrational"
thinking of early peoples: He argued that notions
of irrationality were beside the point; rather, they
were "poets who spoke in poetic characters. This
discovery, which is the master key of this
Science, has cost us the persistent research of
almost all our literary life because with our
civilized natures we cannot at all imagine and
can understand only by great toil the poetic
nature of these first men" (Vico, 1744/1970, p.5).
Vico's thesis was that literacy and rational
prose, and the forms of thought associated with
them, which Westerners consider so fundamental
to their "civilized natures," were late
achievements in human thinking. He contended
that they grew from, and on, our "poetic nature."
If, instead of viewing children's transition from
orality to literacy as unqualified progress, we
were to view it as a trade-off made for obvious
functional advantages in a literate culture, then
we might gain a different view of what is
entailed in early education. This might make us
more wary of displacing orality with literacy,
and more sensitive to how we might preserve
some of the more valuable characteristics of
orality. We cannot hope to preserve orality in
children just as it existed before the achievement
of literacy, with all its cultural consequences.
But we can hope to preserve or regain some
things we have been in danger of losing, or have
lost, in the dominant conceptions of early
childhood education. These conceptions, I would
argue, focus primarily upon the absence of
literacy and the skills of Western rationality, and
fail to recognize the presence of positive orality.
3 Referring to dominant conceptions in an area of such
diversity as present educational discourse can leave some
uncertainty about what is meant, and on what the impression
of dominance is based. I mean here those conceptions of
early childhood education that see the primary task as
initiating the child into the basic skills of literacy and rational
forms of inquiry, with little attention to the character and
sophistication of children’s orality and their imaginative
lives. Such conceptions are evidenced in the practice of all
too many classrooms, as reported, for example, in J. I.
Goodlad’s A Place Called School (1984). This bias may also
be seen in curriculum guides in various subjects, in textbooks
designed for children’s use. To take more or less random
examples of such general texts on early childhood education,
What are these valuable characteristics of
orality, then, and how can we hope to preserve or
regain them? They are the characteristics Vico
summed up by calling people in oral cultures
"poets" - in the sense of people whose culture
relied on, and whose cultural environment
stimulated the development of, the features of
orality sketched above. (The poet in Western
cultures is, of course, the person who most
forcefully retains and deploys the resources of
orality - the sensitivity to the sounds of words
and their emotional effects, the precise use of
metaphor, the arrangement of sound in metrical
patterns, the use of rhyme, and so on.) The
young child, as a "maker" of imaginative worlds,
is a kind of poet, and is in command of some
considerable intellectual resources developed
and exercised by such imaginative work. It is
worth remembering that in our attempts to create
artificial intelligence in computers, the most
refined mathematical and logical operations have
proven the easiest to simulate, while we still
have no idea how to simulate these sophisticated
and complex "poetic" operations.
The need to remember led, in oral cultures, to
the invention of particular techniques to convey
and make memorable ideas and information. We
saw as prominent among these techniques the
story-shaping of narratives - myths - made up of
vivid characters and events which carried those
ideas and information. What we generally call
the imagination is a mental capacity that is
evoked, stimulated, and developed by the needs
of orality. Its value for literate culture persists;
yet we have been in danger of depreciating it.
We would be wise to preserve it as fully as
possible (Egan & Nadaner, in press). Valuable
too is the fluent and flexible use of metaphor, as
it is fundamental to language and thought, and is,
along with the systematic logic of Western
rationality, one of the tools of effective thinking
(Cooper, 1986). In the education of modern
children into literacy, then, we will want to
ensure that fluency of metaphoric thinking is
maintained and, if possible, increased. Similarly,
the sense in which members of oral cultures see
themselves as participants in nature, rather than
as set off against it and "conquering" it, seems a
which circulate widely in North America, one might cite
Sheperd and Ragan (6th ed., 1982) and Broman (1982).
Examples of textbooks intended for teachers include, for
social studies, Michaelis (7th ed., 1985); for science, Gega (5th
ed., 1986); and for mathematics, Troutman and Lichtenberg
(1982). Children’s text series that typify current practice
include Addison-Wesley’s Mathematics, Ginn’s Reading
700, Rand McNally’s Elementary Science Study, and
Guiness’s Cultural Studies for Children.
valuable characteristic that we should try to
preserve in children and regain for literate
Western cultures. The development of this
sensibility in some form may save us from
destroying the natural world that sustains us.
What kinds of curricula will stimulate the
development of young children's orality? Two
main concerns will need to guide development
of such programs. First, they must ensure the
fullest possible development of the techniques of
orality. This follows the recognition that
associating literate/oral with the polarities of
rational/irrational is inappropriate. Oral and
literate are not opposites; rather, the
development of orality is the necessary
foundation for the later development of literacy.
Second, it must be remembered that our school
curricula are preparing children not for an oral
culture, but for a literate one, with distinctive
forms of thought and understanding. They must
prepare children for particular kinds of scientific
understanding, logic, and historical
consciousness, among other things. During the
early school years, children will also be learning
to read and write with increasing sophistication.
Stimulating orality is not incompatible with the
early stages of acquiring the skills of literacy -
indeed a sensitive program of instruction will
use the child's oral cultural capacities to make
reading and writing engaging and meaningful. I
think one can plausibly argue that Western
schools' relatively poor achievement in teaching
literacy is due in significant part to the failure to
recognize and stimulate the development of a
rich orality in the first place, and then to use the
capacities of orality to teach literacy. Following
Ong (1982), I think the "transforming" effects of
literacy do not begin to have significant impact
on children's oral culture until literacy is fluently
mastered, used for pleasure, and "internalized," a
process that occurs around age seven or eight in
most Western cultures.4
A useful guiding question for the curriculum
developer considering how best to initiate
children into science, logic and philosophy, or
history would be, "What is the oral foundation of
science, or of logic and philosophy, or of
history?" Throughout, our focus has been not on
knowledge content or psychological
development, but on the techniques that are bon
a penser. The question about oral foundations is
not, therefore, about curriculum content; it does
not lead us to magic, astrology, or myth, but to
4 For a more extensive accountof an “oral” curriculum, see
Egan, in press.
the forms of thought that undergird them. In
history, for example, our aim is not to teach
children myths, but to provide them with the
foundations of historical understanding that
underlie myth. This involves the sense of
intellectual security that comes from knowing
one's place in a wider context of human
We might, for example, construct an early-
childhood history curriculum that tells the story
of Western culture as a struggle for freedom
against tyranny, for peace against arbitrary
violence, for knowledge against ignorance, for
power against powerlessness, and so on. In the
first year the overall story of Western culture, for
example, might be taught as one such struggle of
binary forces. In each of the next two or three
years the overall story could be taught again
using different binary organizers to illuminate
further dimensions of the culture's history. In my
view, such a curriculum would be more
engaging, meaningful, and educationally
valuable than the typical content of the social
studies curriculum. Such a presentation of
historical content need not falsify history,
though, like all historiography, it must simplify
it. And its problems of ideological bias are no
different in kind from those of any
historiography (Egan, 1982).
What are the oral foundations of science?
Among the characteristics of orality noted above
are a sense of participation in nature and a sense
of inquiry about it. In oral cultures those
inquiries might lead to magic, witchcraft, and
forms of classification that seem strange to
Western science. Yet if our elementary
curriculum is concerned with providing
foundations that will remain constituents of
scientific understanding, we might consider how
to encourage respect and appreciation for the
natural world and our place in it.
One part of our elementary science
curriculum, then, might involve children in close
and systematic observation of some particular
natural object or process - a tree, rain, a spider's
web, a patch of grass. Each child would have his
or her own object. It might become usual, for
example, to see young children observing that
object at length - say, for twenty-minute intervals
three times a week. They might break off other
activities to observe how a tree moves in winds
of different intensities, how the leaves hang in
the sun, or how rain water drips down. This
would not be a matter of "training in observation
skills," with checklists and reports. Rather, the
activity would have no end beyond itself; the
child would be encouraged to share the life of
the tree, let his or her imagination flow into it,
feel its branches and stretch with it toward the
light, let stories form about it, converse or
commune with it. This brief example may
indicate how our conception of the range of
human characteristics that are appropriately
addressed by the curriculum is changed by a
focus on the oral foundations of education. Such
efforts might reinforce the sense of participation
in nature that scholars have seen as characteristic
of oral cultures.
Another capacity that tends to be very largely
ignored in present curricula is the sense of
humor. The early stimulation and development
of the sense of humor, and even the sense of the
absurd, seem to me to be ways of setting in place
the foundations of logic and philosophy.
Recognition of the categories deployed in
arguing and thinking, and fluency in analyzing
them, are integral to those disciplines. One of the
arenas of oral culture in which fluency in
manipulating categories occurs is the joke. Lewis
Carroll was one logician who seemed keenly
aware of this, and used such category-
manipulating jokes extensively. His Alice
adventures, which grew from stories invented
aloud for children, contain many examples of the
kinds of jokes that stimulate flexibility in the use
of categories, and which highlight the limits of
the grasp our categories have on reality. The
beginnings of logic and philosophy, then, might
involve encouraging each child to "see" jokes
and become jokesters. From there we could
move on to more sophisticated jokes, like Zeno's
paradoxes, and later to consideration of
paradoxes in the nature of knowledge, morality,
art, and so on.
What implications follow for teaching? I will
focus briefly on some that seem to follow from
the prominence of the story form in oral cultures.
We might think of teaching the curriculum as
telling young children the great stories of their
culture. In the case of Western culture these
involve the stories of their history, mathematics,
logic, arts, and sciences. They are terrific stories.
At present, teachers are encouraged to plan by
organizing the curriculum into sets of objectives
to be attained. If we were to think of lessons and
units as good stories to be told rather than (or in
addition to) objectives to be attained, we might
be able to organize our content in ways that
make it more accessible and engaging to young
If we consider just a few features of the story
form, we should be able to develop a technique
for the planning and teaching of lessons and
units that would offer an alternative to the now
dominant objectives-content-methods-evaluation
schemes derived from R. Tyler's model (1949).
The selection of content for the class or unit to
be planned would be determined by identifying
what binary opposites best catch and expose its
most important themes. A unit on heat, for
example, might be planned around the
dichotomy of heat-as-helper/heat-as-destroyer. A
class on the Vikings might use
survival/destruction as central story themes. We
might recreate the terror induced by a Viking
raid on a monastic community. We would not
have to explain the value of manuscripts or
sacred vessels, but instead would show their
value through the horror felt by the monks at
their destruction. Then we could select the
remaining content according to the related
criteria provided by the central binary conflict, to
elaborate and develop the story. The conclusion
of the lesson, or unit, would come with the
resolution or mediation of the binary opposites
whose conflict set the story in motion. Mediation
might be sought, for example, by indicating the
value of the constructive energy of the Vikings
in the overall story of Western culture.
Evaluation of such lessons or units might focus
on children's understanding of the content in the
context of the overall story, and on their coherent
use of the content in stories of their own (Egan,
I recognize that the prominence of binary
opposites here will seem a little odd to many
people. Their use need not lead to extreme
reductionism. My argument, made at length
elsewhere (Egan, in press), is simply based on
the prominence and utility of initially grasping
the world in binary terms. Some (for example,
Levi-Strauss, 1966) argue that the use of binary
opposites is simply a function of the structure of
the human mind. I think one need not go so far in
order to recognize their ubiquitousness in the
forms of thought common in oral cultures and in
the ways young children spontaneously make
sense of the world and experience.
Some of the teaching and curriculum practices
sketched above are, of course, already evident in
some classrooms. If my description of orality is
accurate and relevant to the education of young
children, it would be surprising if many teachers
had not shaped their lessons and teaching
methods, in their own ways, to draw on some of
the same observations about children - even
though those observations might be articulated in
different terms. I do not claim originality for
these ideas on educational implications of
orality; rather, I am concerned to establish a set
of principles that might help us more
systematically and routinely to achieve the kinds
of successes that good teachers manage daily.
The most general implication of this brief
exploration is that we should consider children
when they come to school as already in
possession of some features of orality that are
bon a penser. Their ability to think and learn is,
in general, sophisticated, but structured
according to norms significantly different from
those of literate adult cultures. Two corollaries
follow. First, clear understanding of children's
orality is essential if we are to make what we
want to teach engaging and meaningful; second,
orality entails valuable forms of thought that
need to be developed as the foundation for a
sophisticated literacy and Western rationality. If
we see the educational task as simply to put
literacy in place, we risk undermining the very
foundations on which a rich literacy must rest.
Stimulating children's imaginations, metaphoric
fluency, and narrative sophistication can become
more prominent aims of early education. Such a
view might help to resolve what is often seen as
a conflict in early education between the need to
establish the "skills" of literacy and rational
thought and the wish to encourage more varied
experience and imagnative development. This
brief exploration should have shown that these
are not competitors; rather, the fullest
achievement of literacy requires the fullest
achievement of oral capacities as well.
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I would like to thank the Editorial Board of the Harvard
Educational Review, and especially Polly Steele, for their
most helpful comments and criticisms; they have much
improved this article.
Reprinted with permission of the Harvard Educational
Review from Vol. 57 No. 4 November 1987 Copyright © by
President and Fellows of Harvard College.
... L'analyse suggère également que les tâches narratives stimulent potentiellement la créativité des apprenants, et que cette créativité n'est pas en principe préjudiciable au processus d'apprentissage scientifique parce qu'elle mélangerait de manière inadmissible faits et fiction. Nous avons plutôt l'impression que le mode narratif et le mode scientifique se sont influencés dans ces textes d'élèves (Egan, 1987), et que c'est précisément cette interaction qui peut potentiellement contribuer au processus de "fabrication de sens" personnel. Au-delà de ces premiers résultats, nécessitant des études supplémentaires, nous visons à questionner le récit comme prédisposition langagière et mode d'organisation d'objets de discours en sciences. ...
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... L'analyse suggère également que les tâches narratives stimulent potentiellement la créativité des apprenants, et que cette créativité n'est pas en principe préjudiciable au processus d'apprentissage scientifique parce qu'elle mélangerait de manière inadmissible faits et fiction. Nous avons plutôt l'impression que le mode narratif et le mode scientifique se sont influencés dans ces textes d'élèves (Egan, 1987), et que c'est précisément cette interaction qui peut potentiellement contribuer au processus de "fabrication de sens" personnel. Au-delà de ces premiers résultats, nécessitant des études supplémentaires, nous visons à questionner le récit comme prédisposition langagière et mode d'organisation d'objets de discours en sciences. ...
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