Debunking the Literacy Thesis

The literacy thesis, as it has come to be known, was first explicitly stated in 1963 by Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato and Jack Goody and Ian Watt in The Consequences of Literacy” (Halverson 301). Goody has continued to explore the subject, abetted by others such as Walter Ong, though he has also modified, qualify and expand his first-stated views in response to criticism. Despite these modifications and later criticisms, the literacy thesis at its core has remained mostly unchanged and still influences academic and social policy throughout the world. The literary thesis connects literacy to cognitive ability and social progress.

At its core, the literacy basically states that literacy allows a separation from the past which is not present in oral societies who may discard pieces of their oral tradition which are no longer necessary or useful. Literate societies may not do this, because history is stored outside of them, separate, and they are faced with written documentation of their pasts and of beliefs which cannot be discarded. Because of this, literate societies are capable of historical inquiry. This in turn encourages skepticism about the legendary past, which extends out to skepticism towards received ideas about the universe as a whole. Once skepticism is developed, societies must come up with other ideas about the past, the world, their beliefs and test them. This rationality and skepticism allowed for the logical, specialized cumulative tradition which emerged in Greece during the sixth century and upon which all of Western civilization is founded. Therefore, syllogism, objectivity, rationalism and logical procedure are dependent upon writing (Goody and Watt 344-5).

Beyond this, the literacy thesis strictly dichotomizes orality and literacy—oral cultures are ruled by common sense and intersubjective group dynamics. They “make us human by binding us into groups” with the assertion that this makes people more likely to self-regulate and adhere to authority, becoming conservative conformists. Literate societies, on the other hand, are ruled by systematic inquiry and truth-seeking, a detachment from context and written procedures for logic and argument. These societies allow for the investigation of alternate accounts of history, encouraging skepticism toward authority and increasing individualism (Collins and Blot 15-16).

On its face, the literacy thesis seems very rational and appealing. It seems very reasonable (Collins and Blot 17). However, at its core, the literacy thesis is founded on some very problematic assumptions and, further, the assertions it contains are not validated empirically or logically. Furthermore, the uses to which it has been put have rendered much of it untenable (Collins and Blot 33). Not only are the assertions contained within the literacy thesis incapable of being sustained upon close inquiry, they ultimately support a racist, Eurocentric view which has been used to oppress and denigrate other cultures in furtherance of a Western Imperialism which continues today.

Unsustainable Assertions

In Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power and Identity, James Collins and Richard Blot interrogate the literacy thesis through multiple lenses, highlighting ethnographic critiques of the literacy thesis which call its tenets into question. They call for recognition of the fact that the plausibility of any of the claims of the literacy thesis depend on how the orality/literacy dichotomy is presented. Through their examination of these ethnographic studies, they demonstrate how oral societies are generally less-investigated by ethnographers and vital, known facts about the functions in these societies are glossed over and generalized (19-20). By focusing on these specific studies, Collins and Blot arrive at the conclusion that the majority of the assertions of the literacy thesis are not supported (32).

Collins and Blot’s inquiry is helpful, but their comparative study-based approach is not quite as incisive as John Halverson’s “Goody and the Implosion of the Literacy Thesis.” Halverson does not review other studies in depth and use their findings to apply back to the literacy thesis—instead he takes the literacy thesis apart piece by piece, using findings from other research plus a testing of the evidence and the rationality of the thesis itself. In “The Eurocentric Discourse On Writing,” Ama Mazama takes a similar approach, refusing to defend oral culture “because they need no defense,” and instead questions the internal consistency of the literacy thesis (7). Put together, these two indictments eviscerate the majority of the literacy thesis.

The notion that syllogisms are dependent upon literacy is a point which Goody never demonstrates or provides evidence for. The fact that sometimes syllogisms are taught logographically (If A à B and BàC, then AàC) does not make the cognitive process involved in examining the inclusive and exclusive relations involved tied to writing (Halverson 303).  While Socrates lived in a time when literacy was on the rise, he delivered his philosophy in an oral manner and asserting that he would not have been able to do so but for writing—without any empirical fact to back it up—does not make it so. The temporal link between the two (the rise of literacy and Western thought) may be suggestive, but temporal links do not prove causation (Halverson 305). In fact, the etymology of the word “philosophy” is of Egyptian origin, not Greek, so it seems likely that, while perhaps not recorded in writing, there existed the concept of the discipline before the Greeks preserved it (Mazama 10).

Likewise, there is no evidence that the written word is any more abstract than the spoken word. “Dog” whether spoken or written still is a representation of something else, and the sound is no less abstract than the visual (Halverson 304). Goody eventually clarified the literacy thesis to state that writing something down opens it to greater scrutiny of discourse and favors the increase of critical activity which leads to rationality, skepticism and logic. He claimed this was because when something is written, the readers and writers can stand back from it and examine it in an abstract, generalized and rational way (Halverson 305). However, this examination and skepticism is not a literate function only. If we hear something spoken to which we disagree—or agree—we have the same reaction, cognitively and emotionally, as if we were to read the same statement. Furthermore, detecting a contradiction in either writing or speech does not depend on the medium the ideas are conveyed in—it depends on alertness and memory (Halverson 306). For instance, if you read on page 5 of a novel that the heroine’s eyes are blue, and then on page 150 they suddenly are brown—it is not the fact that these facts were written down that makes you recognize the contradiction. It is your own memory of what was written 145 pages previously. Similarly, if a fact is given early in a speech, then contradicted—it is your memory that finds the contradiction (“Hey, wait a minute, ten minutes ago you said you were going to Italy this weekend, now you say you’re going to California?”). Having the statements written down, or recorded, may make the contradictions easier to verify, but the medium does not make the contradiction (Halverson 306).

Goody also posits that analytical development allowed by textual analysis is also created by writing, but this completely dismisses known oral traditions. Talmudic scholarship was oral for centuries. It required the memory of innumerable rabbinic statements which could be called to mind and compared against others—side by side, as it were. That is the very nature of traditional Talmudic scholars and the analysis they provide is very similar to what a literary scholar might do to two different texts. The medium is different, but the cognitive process is identical (Halverson 307).

Proponents of the literacy thesis tend to elevate the idea of rational, objective knowledge. They claim oral cultures are ahistorical because they do not have any written record of their history. Written records allow for study, skepticism and the ultimate objective decision about the “truth” of history. But objectivity is ultimately a myth which contradicts the “profoundly subjective and multi-dimensional nature of human experience” (Mazama 9). History, even written down, is not “factual” as opposed to oral “myth.” Written history is based upon a value system—which accounts are included, which are left out. The saying that history is written by the winners is true. History is always relative, always based on the facts which are deemed important by the values of those selecting them. Even minority histiographies have this element—they just make heard the voices of those mainstream history has left out. But, inevitably, these historians are likewise making value judgments about written records and oral accounts and can be no more objective than any other (Mazama 9). Even the notion of writing allowing for the stabilization of meaning, something that can be conserved, is made ridiculous by our own Western scholarship. The main tenet in most postmodern theories is that meaning is always subjective, always elusive, subject to multiple interpretations. Ultimately, writing is no more “factual” or value free than orality (Mazama 9).

Western Imperialism through “Modernization”

            The assertions of the literacy thesis, and the problems with them, are important for more than just academic debate. The literacy thesis allows for claims to be made about “great divides” in humankind, allowing for the racialization and politicization of literacy not just through the colonial era but in social and cultural policies today (Collins and Blot 9; Sterne 219-20; Mazama 4). Western thinkers and Western societies have propagated the idea that they are somehow more rational than the rest of the world, and thus are pioneers of progress who should be followed. The literacy thesis—that somehow this rational ability is because of writing—is often posited as the reason for this (Mazama 3). This construction of reality reifies Western Enlightenment and assumes that nonliterate cultures are those living within the past, not just another place. It denies these nonliterate cultures a coevalness with literate cultures, which ultimately is a political gesture that perpetuates the acceptance of Western (and White) experiences as the norm, often leading to culturally devastating effects (Sterne 220).

Writing is generally tied to civilization itself. The highest level of world order is theorized to be the world of theories, intellectual discoveries and critical thinking, without which a full consciousness of self cannot be achieved (Mazama 4). Walter Ong writes, “[Writing] is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potential” (Ong 81). Basic Enlightenment thought underlies these assumptions, but that must be recognized as Western bias—the belief that only through reason can we know anything, or should we want to know anything (Mazama 4). While Ong seems to search for a sort of transcendence and mystery in oral cultures, their lack of literacy is still used to declare them prehistorical, prescientific, in need of salvation by Western objectivity and rationality (Sterne 213; Mazama 8).

In the 19th century, the theory of diffusionism swept Europe and America. By positing that most human societies are not that inventive and those that are naturally serve as the permanent center of cultural change and progress, diffusionism allowed for colonialism to be justified and both scientific and inevitable for the social progress of the world (Mazama 11). When colonialism went out of favor, the name of the concept was changed to “modernization,” but the rhetoric stayed the same—Western, Eurocentric modernism (consisting of Western science and Western education) is the key to salvation for the rest of the world. To be modern, societies must become literate, and, in doing so, will become more rational (thanks to the literacy thesis), and the discarding of traditional, irrational attitudes is what will make them free and happy (Mazama 11). In 1991, Indian philosopher Claude Alvares summarized this 20th century Western Imperialism thusly:

We would be forced to be free, since we did not know the extent of our “bondage” to our past and our traditions. We would be forced to be free from an undue concern for human values or the shared identity of the community. Leading Western intellectuals told us what was wrong with our culture, and which old elements impeded economic development and needed to be discarded (qtd in Mazama 11).

The ultimate problem is not with teaching people to read and write as a skill. It is the fact that reading and writing are never just technical skills—they carry within them social practice. Acts of reading and writing always take place within a social context, and it is this context that determines the form, function and significance of what and how we read and write (Collins and Blot 35; Mazama 12). Often, the purpose of teaching literacy has not been to free people, but to enslave or domesticate them (Collins and Blot 121; Mazama 12). While this colonization technique—teaching the colonized the oppressor’s language in order to instill the values that are inherent in that language to further the subjugation of the colonized—is widely recognized today, the fact that it is ongoing is far less often discussed (Collins and Blot 123).

Perhaps it is because of our own linguistic manipulation—we are no longer oppressing people, we are freeing them, instilling business and democracy in them so that they may embrace their destiny as free nations and members of the global marketplace. The inherent ideological indoctrination—that those educating communities are doing so from a white, Christian, democratic, capitalist view point–is generally overlooked (Mazama 14). We are Westernizing the world, but with the rhetoric of bringing freedom and democracy to them, so how could our overlooking their traditions, their culture be a bad thing?

The point modern rhetoric tries to hide under the table is that the colonizing forces of Europe claimed they were saving the “savages,” too.


While numerous theorists have criticized the literacy thesis from almost the moment it was posited, it still has a strong grasp on Western social and political thought today. Movements to improve literacy, to teach literacy, to modernize “developing” nations abound. Most of them contain capitalist and Western enlightenment ideals. We may not blatantly call developing nations “uncivilized” (at least openly), but we portray their practices as substandard, we speak of their lack of education, lack of modern conveniences, lack of societal infrastructure and judge them to be less than us somehow—less “developed” in the politically correct vernacular, but, ultimately, less civilized. People who are illiterate are judged to be cognitively impaired, as well, in many ways. Their minds are not open to the multitude of knowledge and worlds available. They are confined, shackled, not just less educated, but less intelligent. Our political rhetoric in America abounds with this colonial, Imperialist, Western-superiority, Enlightenment language—we must bring American values to the world, we must free the world, we are the safeguard of liberty. But we never question what values we are replacing and whether that is really what we should be doing.

The literacy thesis may sound rational, may sound reasonable, but ultimately its assertions and its repercussions show a much darker image of Western society. Literacy may be a great thing for social progress—it makes storing knowledge easier; does help with the accumulation of knowledge beyond the capacity of human language; allows for the rapid advancement of knowledge because of this accumulation; allows for ease of communication over space and time–but it is not the mark of cognitive or cultural superiority. Until we, as a society not just critical theorists, realize this, both our actions and our motivation risk remaining untenable.


Works Cited

Collins, James and Richard K. Blot. Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Goody, Jack and Ian Watt. “The Consequences of Literacy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5.3 (1963): 304-345. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Halverson, John. “Goody and the Implosion of the Literacy Thesis.” Man 27.2 (1992): 301-317. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Mazama, Ama. “The Eurocentric Discourse on Writing.” Journal of Black Studies 29.1 (1998): 3-15. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2007. Kindle.

Sterne, Jonathan. “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality.” Canadian Journal of Communication 36.2 (2011): 207-225. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.