Thinking across Cultures

By Donald M. Topping; Doris C. Crowell et al. | Go to book overview

8
Literate Thought1

David R. Olson Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and University of Toronto

Beliefs about the relationship between literacy and thought have a long, indeed a venerable history. Beginning in the 18th century, in the period known as the Enlightenment, the assumption was that an equation could be made between literacy, civilization, and rationality. Writers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson claimed that the ability to read and write was not only important to personal fulfillment but also critical to the existence of an informed citizenry and a responsible government. But the assumptions regarding the importance of literacy go much further, to make up the "myth" of literacy. I refer to it as a myth because it is not longer a belief subject to reflection and argument but an assumption held unreflectively. It is the assumption that directly links illiteracy with poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment as well as other social ills. In the past 2 decades that assumption has come under criticism, in part because of a new understanding of, not literacy, but orality, the study of the structure and social uses of oral as opposed to written language. This new understanding has let us recognize the myth of literacy as a myth; a belief not defensible on intellectual grounds. Hence, the relation between literacy and thought needs to be reexamined and reconstructed.

The beginnings of that reconstruction, as mentioned, are recent. Over the past 25 years the myth of literacy, the set of assumptions linking literacy, civilization, and rationality, has been replaced by the literacy hypothesis. The literacy hypothesis poses the question as to which, if any, features of modernity, including forms of social organization, technical and scientific discourse, and the forms of thought that are tied to them, are related to the development of modern forms of expression and communication.

1This paper is based on The world on paper (in preparation).

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