Chapter 1

A History of Literacy


1.  Understanding literature and literary genres has been a cornerstone of the traditional liberal arts curriculum.  But rarely is this important subject discussed within its broader evolutionary context.  It is not only essential for 21st century students to understand the origins of human communication, but you must also understand how the act of communication changes in relation to various social technologies.  Social media is not a new phenomenon.  It refers to any technology, or tool, that facilitates communication and social interaction.  Many different types of social technologies have been developed over the last 10,000 years of human history.  It is important to understand how our ability to communicate is shaped by technology.  Humans have used many different communication tools over the centuries, such as oral discussion, the book, the newspaper, or the internet.  Each tool enables and constrains our ability to create and debate knowledge.  Let us explore the earliest social media.

2.  Many people do not realize that reading and writing are relatively new human skills in our evolutionary history.  Humans reached their present state of biological evolution around 40,000 years ago (Diamond, 1992, p. 47).  The earliest forms of human communication were oral languages (Ong, 2002, pp. 28-29) and artistic expression (Diamond, 1992, p. 170).  As scientists recently discovered in the 20th century, the form of communication we use affects our ability to think about the world and to create knowledge (Goody, 1977, pp. 10, 37).  Thus, understanding how oral communication works is doubly important.  We should understand the structure of oral communication because it is still a vital medium of social exchange.  And we need to understand how modern forms of communication, like print literacy or computer literacy, work differently.


1.1Orality & Literacy: Origins of Human Communication

3. Oral cultures use language and art to create meaningful stories called myths, which people used to understand their world and pass on important traditions.  However, oral cultures are highly limited by their mode of communication.  All the knowledge of a particular culture has to be memorized by a trained specialist (Boyer & Wertsch, 2009), a professional story-teller (Havelock, 1963; Rubin, 1995).  Knowledge consists of memorizing important stories that had been passed down as a tradition: stories about gods, heroes, important battles, how the seasons change, and more mundane skills, like how to hunt or make a spear.  Knowledge is also a performance, a social act.  The community would often participate with the story teller in retelling or singing the story together in a ritualized way (Havelock, 1963, pp. 44-47).  In ancient Greece, oral performance consisted of acting out events through the production of public theatre, which involved singing, dancing, drunkenness, and prizes for competing story tellers (Demand, 1996, pp. 213-14).

4.  Writing and reading were developed only about 5,000 years ago, although it is still unclear which cultures actually invented writing independently and which cultures merely borrowed the technology.  Most scholars agree that writing was developed independently in at least three places: the Middle East, China, and, later, in Central America.  Once writing was developed in a society, it opened up new possibilities for communication and critical thinking.  Writing created a way to permanently store information as an object, which opened new opportunities for thinking about accuracy and meaning.

5.  It also allowed information to travel beyond the single performance of a local group.  The written text could be independently read by many people over longer periods of time and over greater distances.  A text may have been written down, or authored, by a specific person, but not always.  Regardless, written texts were still social, albeit not shared by the whole society.  They became the intellectual property of a small group, often students and teachers, rather than the shared property of the whole society. 

6.  A text also became an object, which was independent of its author or group.  Thus, people could either read a text to understand its author's intended meaning, or readers could bring new meanings into the text that the author did not intend.  A text allowed a reader the time and mental space to think about the idea being communicated.  It also allowed the reader to agree or disagree with that idea or how it was communicated (Goody, 1977, pp. 37, 78, 149; Goody, 1986, pp. 12, 78), which is a process we now call reader-response theory (Fish, 1982). 

7. Writing opened many new possibilities for critical thinking that were not previously available.  In oral cultures, a person was only able to memorize or listen to stories, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to think about a story while in the act of memorizing it, listening to it, singing it, or dramatically acting it out.  When people read a text, they have more options.  They can re-read passages, investigate the meaning of words, or they can stop reading at any time to think about what they have read and ask questions, like whether or not the information is true or false, good or bad (Goody, 1986, pp. 38, 78; Ong, 2004/1958, pp. 110-111).  The development of writing opened the door to a new intellectual practice called philosophy, the art of critical thinking.


1.2  Philosophy: The Origins of Critical Thinking

8.  In ancient Greece, India, and China the invention of writing gave birth to a new activity called critical thinking, or "philosophy."  The word philosophy is derived from two ancient Greek words: philo (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”).  In India, the ancient Sanskrit word for philosophy is darsana, which means using rational thought to "see clearly" (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 45).  Around the 6th century B.C.E, philosophia and darsana were new intellectual practices that brought many benefits.  The philosopher sought to investigate a text and compare it to reality to see if it was true or false.  Furthermore, philosophers created theories about the world to test in order to explain how and why things were the way they were (Gottlieb, 2000).  Philosophers were also concerned with virtue and ethics.  They wanted to know if certain ideas or activities were good or bad.  Knowledge of the true and the good enabled wisdom, which can be roughly defined as using knowledge practically to live life better and to enable a more prosperous and harmonious society (Nozick, 1989, pp. 267, 270). 

9. In ancient Greece, philosophy was practiced by sophoi (“wise men”).  In ancient India, they were called parivrajaka, or "wanderers" who sought truth and spiritual enlightenment.  These men created truth, lived their truth, and they used rhetoric to debate values and to arrive at some collective notion of the good life.  They also were teachers who tried to educate the young about the truth and wisdom through discussing important social problems and demonstrating the best way to live (Gottlieb, 2000; Skilton, 1997, pp. 14-17).  It is important to remember that most sophists did not consider truth to be singular, nor did they agree about what the good life entailed.  Even within the fairly homogeneous culture of ancient Greece, there were always competing truths, values, and ways of life.  Likewise, in ancient India, the parivrajaka had many different ideas about spiritual enlightenment and the best way to live, and different sects competed for followers and financial support (Skilton, 1997, pp. 17-18).  Sophists and parivrajaka constantly debated over different visions of the good; thus, they had to master rhetoric as well as critical thinking in order to persuade others why one version of the "truth" was right and another version wrong. 

10. Socrates is perhaps the paradigmatic ancient Greek sophist, or teacher of wisdom, given what we know about him through the stories of Plato.  A sophist was a professional teacher, who may or may not have accepted money for teaching.  Socrates taught for free.  While Socrates created and lived his own truth, he also debated with fellow citizens and sophists, never taking his own ideas too seriously and always examining all ideas of goodness and truth.  He investigated the oral myths of his society and found many to be false and immoral (Havelock, 1963).

11. Many people did not appreciate his critical investigation of the traditional truths that everyone in his society took for granted.  But Socrates took his vocation as sophist very seriously, and he continued to ask difficult and unsettling questions.  In fact, he took his vocation as philosopher so seriously that he died for his pursuit of truth and his way of life when his teaching became unacceptable to his society.  Offered the chance to be exiled or to die, Socrates chose death (Plato, 1997).  His followers later used his example as a martyr for truth to attack other teachers who merely used philosophy as a vocation to make money.  Socrates’ student Plato changed the word sophist into loaded label to attack these working philosophers, some of whom corrupted truth in search of profit.  It was Plato who popularized the new term of philosophy as a disinterested practice of truth for the sake of truth.


1.3Training Elites: The Origins of Schools

12. For thousands of years, literacy and critical thinking were reserved for a relatively small group of social and political elites.  These tools enabled merchants to record their business inventories and financial transactions and think of new ways to build profits.  Writing and thinking enabled political rulers to record laws, preserve the official history, and stay in power.  And they enabled religious leaders to write down sacred stories and codes of conduct to preserve the moral order.  Official histories and sacred stories were primarily transmitted to the common people using the older oral practices.  The majority of people were not literate because they still found their older oral traditions important and meaningful, and because there were not many schools to teach common people how to read, write, or think.  Also, reading and writing were not really necessities for most people who spent their short lives doing manual labor in the service of a monarch or aristocratic lord. 

13. For much of the world up until the 19th century, schooling was reserved for a small population of male elites in each society.  This privileged group learned to read and write for two primary purposes: to be a bureaucrat in the service of the king, or to be a priest in the service of the church.  Over time, a few more occupations opened up:  law, medicine, and education.  In Europe, by the 13th century, privileged boys were chosen around the age of seven to begin instruction at newly created schools called "universities," where they studied the liberal arts of Latin grammar, Latin rhetoric, and philosophy.  Successful students became a “master of arts” by around sixteen or seventeen, and then continued to study medicine, law, or theology for four more years (Ong, 2004/1958, pp. 136-37).  Students could use their medical or law degree in service of the king, or their theology degree in the priesthood.  The priesthood also enabled a career as a professor in the university, which was an official organization of the church (p. 152).

14. In ancient East Asia, schools taught young boys how to read and write in the imperial language of the Chinese empire.  Literacy included the memorization of classical Chinese texts and ritualized socialization in the various arts of war and formal etiquette (Mote, 1971).  While Confucian and neo-Confucian educational principles did stress individual development as “self cultivation,” the emphasis of formal schooling, especially in later neo-Confucian institutions, focused more on situating the individual within the hierarchical “structure” of society than on actually developing the potential of individuals (Kalton, 1977, pp. 6-9, 82).  Thus, much of a student’s instruction was geared toward a socialization process, whereby one learned appropriate social discourse, deference to superiors, and traditional rituals.  Instruction culminated in a final “examination” that served as the gateway to a social title and a position in the state bureaucracy.

15. This East Asian educational system produced a small population of literate and cultured elites, trained in a traditional and largely unchanging body of ethical and technical knowledge.  In South Korea these literate elites, known as yangban, served as ministers in a "rigidly hierarchical bureaucracy" and ran the day to day operations of the state (Palais, 1984; Seth, 2002, pp. 9-12).  The yangban class became a hereditary aristocracy during the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), and thus, access to quality education and the civil service examination became restricted by birth.  The Korean system of schooling, much like the Chinese system, was based on socializing a small political elite, teaching them how to attain and keep "power, privilege, and status" (Seth, 2002, p. 12; Lett, 1998, pp. 19-21).


1.4The Printing Press & Mass Literacy

16. It wasn't until the invention of the printing press in China and Europe, and later the European Protestant reformation, that literacy began to spread to the common people.  Early printing presses were invented independently in China in the 11th century and in Korea in the 13th century (Febvre & Martin, 2010/1958, pp. 75-76).  The modern movable type printing press was first invented in Europe around 1450 by the German printer Johannes Gutenberg.  As paper became cheaper, the printing press enabled the spread of books, newspapers, and literacy (Wright, 2007, p. 110).  By 1500, around 8 million books had been printed, but this number grew astronomically over the next 200 years to almost 200 million (Febvre & Martin, 2010/1958, p. 115).  But even up until the 18th century, most people still could not read or write, and "the book was still the preserve of a small and favored elite" (Febvre & Martin, 2010/1958, p. 104). 

17. The primary book that European printing presses sold was the Bible.  The diffusion of this book to greater amounts of people created a need for literacy.  People who owned a copy of the Bible wanted to commune with the words of God directly, instead of listening to a priest, so they learned how to read.  Increased access to books created a new demand for teaching literacy, both for adults and children.  Increased literacy and ownership of books, in turn, led to new generations of readers that "valued book-learning" and the need for more complex systems of schooling, including the creation of higher education (MacCulloch, 2003, pp. 73, 75). 

18. The development of widespread literacy and the mass-production of books eventually led to two important cultural developments in Europe.  These developments not only furthered the creation of new knowledge, but they also lead to new political debates over how society should be governed.  First, humanist scholars began to develop new methods for analyzing the authenticity, accuracy, and meaning of books, which created a new style of academic learning that would lead to a Socratic type of philosophical criticism of Christianity and monarchism.  The second cultural development was the Protestant Reformation, which sought to "overthrow the old ecclesiastical system" of the Roman Catholic Church in order to create new forms of religious devotion based on direct readings of the Bible and personal communication with God (MacCulloch, 2003, p. 83).

19. The Protestant Reformation led to a profoundly new emphasis on literacy and the education of common people.  It produced a new cultural focus on reading the Bible, which meant the development of public and private schools for literacy instruction (MacCulloch, 2003, pp. 583-590; Howe, 2007, p. 449).  These fundamental cultural developments in Europe lead to a revolution in learning, which in turn lead to revolution in politics with the birth of modern democracy.  In the 21st century, we must never forget the important connection between literacy, critical thinking, and political freedom.     



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© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016