academic intellectual self-defence psychology

Orality and academia

Academia is a quintessentially literate culture. Studying is reading, the outputs of research are papers and books. Your are judged on your ability to express yourself in writing, and when you do this you must reference the written works of others. This is what defines scholarship. More than this, the habits of thought are patterned by literacy. Literate thought is analytic, dissective. The business of science is that of ordering into lists, breaking into parts, assigning subordinate and superordinate.

And yet there is also a non-literate part to being an academic, a part closely alighted with the praxis of the discipline. This is giving lectures, discussing in seminars, attending conferences. The paper outputs of academia can disguise this component, but it is essential.

In a high-education system dominated by production-line and consumption values, by a receptacle-model of education (students as containers, education as a substance) it is easy to denigrate the ‘live’ oral component of academia, but in doing so we deny students contact with an essential part of scholarly life. Additionally we deny ourselves a cognitive model which can augment literate thinnking.

Walter Ong (Orality and Literature, 1982/2002) has written convincingly about the psychological dynamics of oral vs literate culture. Literate culture encourages finished works, whereas the knowledge of oral cultures is always live, an act of telling rather than knowing. As such it is part of a commons, rather than copyrighted (and plagarised). Oral knowledge is situational, empathetic and participatory, rather than abstracted and objectively distanced, it is contested rather than autonomous and tends towards holism rather than the progressive analytic deconstruction of literate thought. Oral thought is thematic compared to literate thought’s ability to dictate strict chronologies and linear narratives / list structures (just think of the memory constraints on oral culture which lacks written aids to see why pure abstract lists are impossible).

It is clear that academia needs to take elements from both of sides of these distinctions. Oral cognition can be impressionistic rather than precise, conservative rather than innovative and amnesic rather the hypermnemonic. Nonetheless the lived aspects of oral thought are a vital part of disciplinary practice and exposure to them is essential if students are to get a true view of their subjects.

A similar thing is argued by Kevin McCarron, a English literature lecturer and part-time stand-up comedian who argues for the imporance of improvisation in teaching. He says that an overreliance on preparation (the script or text of the class) as getting in the way of the (living) interaction of student and teacher:

(article in the Times Higher Education)

“If we don’t put ourselves under pressure, nothing interesting or exciting is going to happen. How could it? In fact, what we’ve done is spent three hours the previous night making sure that it doesn’t happen.

“Then we have the gall to offer these hours of preparation as morally sound. Self-protection is being offered to the world as a moral value. That preparation has been done to protect the teacher from the students. Teachers spend hours and hours preparing because they are terrified of bring caught out.”

2 replies on “Orality and academia”

A fascinating companion to Ong is David Abram’s ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’, which draws together phenomenology, anthropological sources and Abram’s experience as a sleight-of-hand magician into an argument about the transformation of sensory experience under the influence of literacy. Crudely stated, his thesis is:

(i) that animism is a basic human tendency

(ii) that in literate (and particularly alphabetic) cultures, the animistic relationship is transferred from our physical surroundings, to characters on a page

(iii) that this loss of relationship with our surroundings breeds an extreme human exceptionalism and a peculiarly inattentive attitude to the destructive consequences of our (individual and collective) actions

There’s a disarming move in his final chapter, where he acknowledges that this argument is likely to sound more extreme because we are accustomed to a notion of truth peculiar to literate culture: ‘I am less concerned with the “literal” truth of the assertions that I have made in this work than I am concerned with the kind of relationships that they make possible.’

My very scholarly Anglo-Saxon tutor used to warn us against Ong in the direst of terms – I suspect because of the broadness of his brush. Certainly most of the interesting stuff I’ve read that builds on Ong, including Abram’s book, differentiates more subtly within and between forms of literacy and orality.

One example, relevant to your original post, is Ivan Illich’s ‘In the Vineyard of the Text’. This is written as a commentary on the 12th century Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor, a text which stands at the end of a tradition of monastic reading, in which texts were almost always read aloud, or at least mumbled, and in which learning was as yet unseperated from ascetic practices which concerned body and spirit. According to Illich, the shift from monastic to scholastic reading, facilitated by the sudden appearance of a set of new textual conventions (from punctuation and paragraphs, to the alphabetic index and the portable book), was more profound in its significance than the Gutenberg revolution at the close of the Middle Ages. The reading experience of the new generation of scholars, who first made the distinction between philosophy and theology, was (he argues) closer to that of the late twentieth century academic than to their immediate predecessors’.

The significance of this here is that Illich identifies the emergence of a new form of literacy as a condition of the coming into existence of the university. This is a theme he expands on in an address on the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the University of Bremen: “Among all traditional forms of advanced learning, the university is the only one that has succeeded in prying loose the acquisition of knowledge from advancement in sensual self-discipline.” And again, in an earlier text on ‘Ascesis’:

‘Learning presupposes both critical and ascetical habits; habits of the right and habits of the left. I consider the cultivation of learning as a dissymetrical but complementary growth of both these sets of habits. I see that since the foundation of the University in the late Middle Ages, the humanist tradition has preeminently fostered the formation of critical habits. Higher Education has come to be the refinement of the habits of the mind, while military service, schools, the conjugal family and later the media have taken over the sad remnants of the “heart’s” formation.’

Illich argues not only that the university was born out of the emergence of a certain kind of literacy, but that the current situation of the university is inseperable from the eclipse of that kind of literacy. As the book gives way to the screen, the relative autonomy of the scholar gives way to the university as a system for producing (economically useful) knowledge, in which the individual academic is simply a terminal or a processor. This sounds dire. For Illich, however, the university was problematic all the way back – it had established a precious autonomy from church authorities, but at the cost of over-emphasising literacy and disembodying learning. His hope lies not with a rear-guard action on behalf of academic tradition, but with the way in which the cooption of academia into the knowledge industry provokes a valuing of what is under threat amongst those who resist it – “those who treasure the university mainly as the milieu of freedom allowing us to create niches of intense face-to-face inquiry, controversy and conversation.”

As far as I can tell, this attitude was embodied in Illich’s own circle of friends and collaborators, who gathered around a meal table, on the fringes of the universities where he taught (but never held a permanent post). It is summed up in one of my favourite passages in his writing, from another address given at Bremen, ‘The Cultivation of Conspiracy’:

‘Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.’

(Apologies for the length of this comment – I have been trying to pull together the lines of Illich’s argument about the university, and your post catalysed the process!)

I recognise that we have a problem with ‘deadly cleverness’, and with universities risking turning into knowledge factories for the economy, but I am still hesitant about the implication that pre-secular education successfully united intellectual and spiritual improvement — but then that may just betray me as the post-enlightenment monster that I am. Universities are, incidentally, pretending to teach more than ideas — promoting the idea that they produce a graduate with particular (moral?) qualities. (see, eg, page 3 of about the qualities of “the Sheffield graduate”)

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