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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Writing and Education

           We have thoroughly explored the idea that writing is necessary for the preservation of knowledge, particularly oral knowledge. Our group focus of language provided ample examples of knowledge dying out due to the lack of proper documentation or preservation thereof.
            Class discussions have enlightened us on various oral-learning techniques that have appeared throughout history. “Miss Karen” (Professor Burton's talented wife) showed us an effective teaching technique called choral responding, and Professor Burton taught us about the methods of Ancient Greek Education including the Socratic method.

            Especially interesting to me was the comparative list of traits separating orality and the literary. Here is an imperfect version of that list straight from my notes…
Orality                                                                                    Literary
1. Additive                                                                              1. Subordinative
2. Aggregative                                                                         2. Analytic
3. Redundant, “copious”                                                        3. Linear, sparse
4. Conservative                                                                       4. Original, speculative
5. Close to human life world                                                   5. Detached
6. Agonistic (confrontational)                                                 6. Isolating
7. Empathetic, participatory                                                  7. Objective
8. Homeostatic (present)                                                        8. Archival
9. Situational                                                                           9. Abstract

            The traits of orality lend themselves to different types of knowledge and learning than the written or literary. We came to agree that writing was essential to the long-term preservation of knowledge. On a grand scale, this is readily apparent. When I asked Professor Stratford (click here for the full interview) what we’d know about the Sumerians without their cuneiform writing system, he responded, “Right, we would have archeological knowledge. We’ve excavated many of these cities. We have massive architecture. On some level, comparably, we don’t have extended texts until 2300 BC, and yet we still know a lot about Egypt. So we would know a lot less about Sumerians…there are on the order of 50,000 documents from the… Sumerian Renaissance in 2100 BC, so you can imagine that without 50,000 documents we’d know a lot less.”
            What’s interesting to me is how reliant we have become on written knowledge and literary forms of learning. I asked the following simple question to my roommates and a friend:
How long could you survive at college without the use of writing or typing for notes?
     Tyson: A couple of days. After a couple of days you start getting more and more information and I couldn’t handle it all.
     Kelly: Less than a week because I don’t have a very good memory.
     Matt: I could probably go a while, but I don’t know. I can typically just remember things, I don’t use notes at all.
     Jalen: Not very long. There’s no way I’d remember all that stuff.

Their responses were all very similar, except for Matt’s. This to me is more of a testament to Matt’s good memory than it is a statement on our learning system. Our current learning institution is set up in a way that requires writing and often times rote memorization. 
            A good summary of the Sumerian Education system can be taken from this website.
“Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed. Education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, which these families paid for. Most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was "practical." It was rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.”
            While we are not beaten with sticks or canes, this type of education sounds eerily similar to many of my schooling experiences. It’s a little sad to think that with all the progress we’ve made in technology and numerous other fields, our education system often remains almost primitive in nature. The techniques we discussed for oral learning are used rarely, if at all. I believe that written techniques for learning are important, even necessary. However, orality in learning and teaching needs to be utilized more frequently and effectively. 


  1. I loved the quote that "Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples." In the Church, we often refer to temples as places of learning. This may seem strange at first given that there are no classrooms like there are in a meetinghouse, but because of the things we do in the temple where we learn more about God's Plan of Happiness and more about ourselves, temples are indeed houses of learning. This could definitely be one of those pieces of truth that different civilizations have picked up incompletely through history that was in fact picked up by the Sumerians. When we think about other ancient temples, they weren't used for learning. There were no teachers or students in the Parthenon or Hatsheput's temple. Perhaps this was a truth that initially was held by the Sumerians but was lost by the time centuries later when the Egyptians began to construct temples to their pharaohs and instead of teachers had gardens or 50+ foot tall statues.

  2. I have had a significantly different experience than you have in my college career. Somehow I've managed to get several professors who sought to teach me how to identify and solve problems, using their knowledge to guide me toward what answers they already knew. Thus I've had a significantly open-ended education, in contrast to the 'rote learning' that you cited earlier. This may be because of my Computer Science major, being tied closely to rapidly growing technology where unsolved problems are still being discovered. Here is an interesting article on how different majors may tailor their teaching styles to allow for more or less freedom to their students.

  3. Ah you see the difference is that my college career has only just begun. I was referring to high school, middle school and even elementary school. So far so good in college.

  4. Jared, I really like your comment about how temples are places of learning, and how these places of learning are those without a classroom. I find this to be very true. In my major, we learn that some of the most impactful life experiences are those that are outside, in a challenging environment, where you are forced into action. This is opposite of a classroom where you just sit and do hardly anything. Most of the time, your teachers conform your thoughts instead of learning how to think for yourself. That is why so many Dental students fail their first year: because although they might have gotten a 4.0 in college, they did not learn the practical skills necessary for what the actual job entailed.

    In my major, we really emphasize this issue in terms of "generality" and "Co-development of skills." Generality is how your self-efficacy (confidence; belief of yourself) in an activity can transfer to a different activity. And co-development of skills is how the skills for one thing can be applied to another thing. They are very much the same, but one is your self-efficacy and the other is your skill level.

    If more students were allowed the privilege to participate in vocational training, internships, and study abroads as a part of their education, they would be able to learn the proper skills necessary, and then be able to apply them to other areas (because of generality and co-development of skills), thus facilitating a higher level of learning.

  5. I appreciate you connecting the class lecture to your blog post, as I missed that class period. I wonder how my learning experience would change personally if i didn't take notes, but instead tried to absorb what was the most important. We would need to come up with different learning strategies and techniques for this. I wonder if we are too tied down to the pen and paper and concerned about what "we need to know" from the objective stand point of a test. For example, in this class, we are not tested objectively on what we talk about in lecture. Instead, if we choose to, we can allow the lecture to catapult our ideas and build on it in a blog post or continue to ponder its significance and/or application to our lives and society.