Blanca de Lizaur, PhD, MA, BA, Content specialist.

O, YEE PROUD PRINTED LETTER…!, or How we have come to forget the worth and value of orality and “normality” in the last 100 years.


An incredible but true story…

– I –

            I once was told that many years ago, the Mexican Ministry of Education undertook an important mission: That of measuring the I.Q. (Intellectual Quotient) of our indigenous peoples, in order to adequate our school system’s curricula and conditions to their real needs.  A large number of teachers, psychologists and pedagogues armed themselves with batteries of written tests, and set themselves to the task.
The results, however, couldn’t have been more disheartening: Most communities sampled –according to the experts, scored so low, that we should consider our “Mexican Indians” to be intellectually disabled…!
The project and its results were quickly silenced and buried. No-one dared to publish its “discoveries”, yet no-one could tell what had gone wrong, either.
The Mexican Revolutionary government had justified many of its most unpopular measures, claiming to work for the betterment and empowerment of these ethnic groups that “officially” constituted the quint-essence of the Mexican identity  –a task the Revolution had undertaken to justify itself before its enemies.  In this context, any information that might discredit our indigenous groups, could have been used as a weapon against the Revolutionary party, and be interpreted as a national shame…

            We now know that the results were wrong; and that our army of “experts” had made a list of very basic mistakes:
First: The tests were in Spanish –a language most of our Indians couldn’t understand at that time.
Second: Written tests are not adequate for use with persons who were mostly illiterate…
And third: Most examinees couldn’t reply to the tests, …because they didn’t know how to write at all, either…

Not only this: Even if the tests had been applied orally and in every examinee’s mother-language, they could only uncover and measure intellectual abilities that are the result of a literate school system –like the one that has been prevalent in the Western World since the end of the Medieval Ages, and which frequently does not reflect those valued and developed in an oral community.
The results –therefore, wouldn’t have differed a lot, to the ones obtained, and would have proven equally flawed:  There are many other useful types of intelligence that we, humans, can develop, and which our current school system doesn’t take into account.
A few anecdotes will help us understand what this means.

– II –

Different scientific studies have discovered that illiterate people process information in a different way, when compared to those of us  who have spent years in a schoolroom, re-shaping our minds according to a set of given goals.  As a result of this, “oral” (not literate) people never talk about “information” (an abstract and cold concept); they prefer to talk about knowledge, and admire wisdom, not plain intelligence.
The last truly illiterate peasants in Russia (those who didn’t even know printed letters existed), had no idea about what a “definition” was; and neither could they understand what it was good for.
When asked about what a tree is, for example, they would take the examiner to one, so that he/she would see the tree with their own eyes.  And –guess what!, they actually thought the examiner had asked …because he/she didn’t know what a tree was!  It was plain clear for the illiterate person, that the other one was quite ignorant.

When a geometrical shape was shown to these last truly-and-entirely-illiterate peasants (let us say: a circle), and they were questioned in regards to what it was, they never answered “a circle” –abstract shape concepts were not useful for their everyday life.  Their preferred answers might be:  “a pot”, “a full moon”, or “my mother’s face when she is happy”, because their culture taught them to prefer objects or beings that were relevant for their survival.  In other words: These answers seemed more intelligent replies to them, than the “round thing or object” we would have used.

The oral community sees the knowledge it has gathered, as its greatest wealth; and considers it a key-tool to its survival as a group at the precise location they inhabit.  When you lack printed letters to store it outside of you, however, you need to find alternative means to retain it. The danger of losing it for ever, is real and present.
Because of this, the oral community produces proverbs, sentences and sayings that encapsulate it in a way that is easy to remember; and applauds those who learn them by heart.
Not every piece of knowledge they have gathered can be encapsulated this same way, however. Because of this, the oral community also creates tales and stories (schematic/formulaic narratives) that tie that information about life to a given context, so that through associating ideas, we’ll be able to remember it whenever it may come useful.
This means that hard-to-remember ambiguous characters in a story, don’t serve them for much; they prefer clearly sketched and easy to recall characters, so that the knowledge about life that has been encoded into them –that they embody,  will be easily retrieved when needed.  This way, what the community has learnt after many generations of trials and errors, will be joyfully learnt –and not forgotten, by most of its members.
In an oral community context, repetition is key to their culture’s survival, because otherwise they would soon forget all these sayings and tales.  This accounts to their appreciation of formulaic structures and strategies for story-telling, like the use of archetypes, stereotypes and topics  that they value above non-formulaic ones.


It is self-evident for persons in an oral culture, that we cannot see every existing being and thing. The word –talking, is the foundation of their culture, and yet they cannot see it.  Unlike written words, spoken words are essentially mysterious, and to a certain extent, magical: They “change hearts” and “make things happen”.  For a person in an oral culture, talking is an important event, something truly special, and not an object –not a quantifiable and manipulative piece of information.  Generally speaking, that is why their minds are more open to what is not material, than ours.
This also accounts for the importance of the “other person” to them: You talk to someone, not to the air; whereas what you write may never be read at all –a text may never “talk to anybody”, if no-one ever reads it.

Something more: In an oral culture, a story usually reflects what the common consensus is about life, in regards to certain issues.  A text, however, usually tells what its author wanted to say, which may agree or not with what the community-to-which-its-author-belonged, believes –in general terms, though, as exceptions frequently abound.
Furthermore: Reading in our days, is something we usually do alone, in silence –it isolates uf from our community, and therefore promotes individualism.

Writing allows us to bring knowledge out of a person, and to objectify it (…it becomes “a text”).  Evidently, this also depersonalizes it, and greatly reduces its symbolical weight –usually related to the community’s relationship with both its divinity and nature.
It naturally follows that those narrative resources that oral communities have embedded and applauded in stories, in order to promote homoeostasis (a natural tendency to balance and survival in living beings and the live-systems they structure, like societies), become less relevant  the more literate  a society grows to be –at least in the Western World.

The main one of these narrative resources, is the “happy ending”, in which every character receives the prize or punishment he/she deserved, according to its society’s experience about life, and view of the world; and which many highly educated persons have become absurdly biased against.

Oral cultures privilege what has been learnt aurally (through listening to narratives, sayings, the elderly, what others say…), or through experience (working, interacting, etc.).
Those of us who have learnt to read and write, however, tend to privilege what we learn through our eyes –in the sense of: from information repositories that are accessed through our eyes,  as opposed to watching a tree and ruminating by ourselves what trees in general may be.
This explains why we tend to believe most of what we read in printed letters, as if uttered by a divine mouth; and to measure a country’s progress mainly through their literacy levels.

Walter Ong –the more cited expert in regards to the differences between orality and writing (and the frames of mind they both produce), showed how the popularization of literacy and printed works, and the generalization of school systems based upon them, has allowed modern science to develop –yes; but has also enabled the development of a rampant Individualism and a reductionist Materialism, than in their most extreme examples are destroying the Western world. The printed letter has reduced many learnt people’s appreciation for what is symbolic, immaterial and collective, for example…

What surprises me the most, is the habitual  over-valuation of what is rational over what is emotional (affective), that we frequently experience as a side-effect of literacy –and its inefficient reaction against: Romanticism (inefficient because it doesn’t recuperate other important traits frequently lost through contact with literacy in our days, like the impulse for truth, beauty and good, that protects us from the opposite excess: That of over-valuating affection, too).
In the old days, societies appreciated those who could “measure someone up accurately” on the spot –who “could tell someone’s heart” even if appearances played against him or her;  and turned to those people for advice and example.
Who ever asked a boy who wanted to work as a gardener, for papers, for example?  They would talk with him, observe him carefully, and make a frequently accurate decision regarding his elegibility for the job or not…
In the Medieval Ages, this ability was called “discretion”, and was considered a “potency” (a power, ability, or competency) of our heart –not of our mind, which was better fit for phylosophical and mathematical endevours.  This was the origin of expressions like: “use your discretion”, “left to your medical doctor’s discretion”, “at someone’s discretion”, “discretion is the better part of valour”, “discretionary actions” or “act upon discretion”.
Discretion is a heart-based intelligence, that makes use not only of “information”, but of “wisdom”: What we have learnt through experience, and also through our intuition.  Yet, who amongst us today, would dare to hire someone, or to trust someone, without first requesting a number of papers…?

– III –

            Why talk about this…?

Because we certainly owe much to the printed letter, which we must treasure and strive not to lose.
But neither must we allow it  to make us forget other equally important certainties –like those that refer to the worth of dialogue, of affection, of everything that helps us weigh and appreciate the “other person”, that helps us ponder at the collective dimension of our lives (family, community…), and which allows us to make positive sense of immaterial issues and beings, to name a few:  “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh…”.

Prejudices linked to the printed letter have made it very difficult for many of us to understand and appreciate artistic and literary works created by illiterate peoples, for example.  And has also prevented many learnt people from appreciating many worthy works transmitted by mass media in the last half century (popular works).            These prejudices have also condemned to isolation, defunctionalization and progressive hunger, many “elite” (“high brow”) writers, researchers and thinkers; …and many popular (and commercial) ones, too, through biasing their judgments and aesthetics, and stopping them from creating/studying/broadcasting the type of works our societies needed.

It is important to analyse these issues, also, so that we can take a learnt stance at the political agendas that are dealing with the rights and duties of indigenous peoples –of their traditions and customs, in our societies.

All of us –both literate and illiterate, majoritarian and minoritarian groups, must strive to understand one another, and to respect and appreciate  one another  the way we are –we need to invest time and effort into understanding what makes us different, what has made each of us process information and make decisions in different ways, and live differently, too,   in order to find true solutions to the difficulties inevitably brought by our co-existence in any given land.

Yet those who make decisions must be very careful not to impose to a “third party” –to society at large…, the political agendas and personal ambitions of each faction’s leaders.

Illiterate minorities certainly deserve respect –and must get it, but formulas must be found that do not trample upon majoritarian values, ideas and beliefs, either.  If respect is not reciprocal, it simply doesn’t exist…


Sources of this article:

Walter Ong, Oralidad y escritura: Tecnologías de la palabra (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987) [Spanish version of Orality and literacy, interfaces of the word], and [Petrus] Ramus, method and the decay of dialogue: From the art of discourse to the art of reason (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1958).


This picture illustrated a previous version of tis article, that was published by El Rotativo –Univ. de San Pablo-CEU’s academic newspaper, Spain.

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