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…
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.