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Literacy Thesis

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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As exemplified by Greek Enlightenment during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the literacy thesis posits that literacy gave rise to the skepticism that became an unstoppable motive force for development. The literacy thesis -- originally pitched by Havelock’s' 1963 Preface to Plato and Goody and Watt's 1963 "The consequences of literacy" -- proposes that literacy not only drives but is the essential spark for intellectual development (Halverson 1992, 301). Oral transmission allows stories to evolve, losing and gaining segments to remain relevant; conversely, written transmission cannot be transmuted, thus setting apart the past from the present. Separating the past from the present allows historical enquiry, allowing fruitful curiosity to arise about the non-fiction universe as a whole and not just legend and lore (Halverson 1992, 302). However, Halverson uses closer (albeit blind and nearly hallucinogenic) examination quickly unravels the literacy thesis.

Several notable figures and works detract from the plausibility of the literacy thesis (Halverson 1992, 303). For example, the earliest known historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, largely disregarded the Homeric poems (which were set down between 750 and 650 BC). The obvious skepticism and thirst for knowledge of such important scholars must have thus arisen in a manner not described by the literacy thesis. Even more disappointing for supporters of the literacy thesis, Thucydides gathered most of his historical knowledge by directly interviewing people. Also, skeptics responding to the few written works were likely surrounded by enough unwritten mysticism to fuel their doubt.

Additionally, it is not immediately clear that a written word has more immediacy and identity (thus making it vulnerable to dissection) than a spoken word (Halverson 1992, 304). In a conversation, events are immediate to the listener as the speaker chronologically unravels the event. Such situations are particularly prone to distrust, as it involves a single individual's direct recount to another person of a single event. However, there is much less urgency or distrust of an elder recounting his personal beliefs to a juvenile. Thus, Halverson argues that neither the written nor the spoken word has inherent vulnerabilities: the openness of a tangible or auditory utterance is dependent on the context, tone, speaker and listener (as opposed to its mode of transmission).

Trying to pass it off as a careful and nuanced argument, Halverson continues his jumbled rant. Halverson mercifully -- and undoubtedly with great internal struggle -- manages to cease after only fourteen more pages. With lewd remarks like "why in the world" and confusing open-ended question-and-semi-answer conversations with himself, Halverson fails to disprove the literacy thesis in my mind (Halverson 1992, 304-305).

Halverson spends his initial paragraphs strengthening the literacy thesis by cobbling together decades of work by other researchers (however, true to his nature, Halverson manages to interject a jab at Havelock on page 301 that implies he does "qualify") (Halverson 1992, 301). However, the excruciating pages that follow only cast the literacy thesis in a new light rather than destroy it. Furthermore, it is reflective of Halverson's argument that only three paragraphs have cemented a thought in my mind more than the seventeen laborious pages that follow.
After mentioning that taxonomical and categorical classification (exemplary of literacy) is fundamental to scientific and logical thought, Halverson dismisses any lists found so far as too unordered (Halverson 1992, 308). Halverson continues describing various lists, such as the Code of Hammurabi, Laws of Eshnunna and even lexical lists. However, he argues that these lists do not represent any new thought and thus have no role in the development of skepticism and intellectual growth. This argument completely ignores the literacy thesis, which states that recording history and lore opens the door for great thinkers to question the factuality of assumptions – the literacy thesis does not mention lists at all.

Unlike Halverson, the literacy thesis does not burden itself with whether writing itself required any great mental prowess. Furthermore, only a few meandering pages prior Halverson had disparaged the literacy thesis by completely tearing apart any comparison between the genealogy of the illiterate African Tiv tribe and Homeric poems, thus disallowing researchers from trying to show that literacy is essential for development of rational thought (Halverson 1992, 302). Halverson then backtracks, using the simplicity of lexical lists (which are similar in purpose to genealogies) as evidence against the literacy thesis. According to Halverson, pagan genealogies cannot be compared and contrasted with Homeric poems because Homeric poems are too complex (completely disregarding comparatively similar rudimentary instructional lists). However, suddenly Halverson reverses his disregard: he forgets about complex Homeric poems, parading around the previously forgotten rudimentary lists as unordered, unsophisticated and evidence that applied intelligence was not prevalent.

Throughout the ensuing pages, Halverson performs a further dissection (or, more accurately, botched operation) on Goody, Havelock and Watt's literacy thesis. Halverson remarks that -- contrary to Goody -- complex arguments are in fact capable of being orally constructed and are not allowed only by literacy (Halverson 1992, 310). Halverson incredulously then uses proverbs as supported evidence for his attack. This completely disregards the deep, pages-long arguments of Plato that would be impossible to fully solidify -- let alone build on, one sentence, paragraph and chapter at a time -- if transient vocalizations were the only tool available.

Later, Halverson mentions a study that compared literate groups with and without formal schooling (Halverson 1992, 312). Excited by the findings that formally schooled students performed drastically better on logic problems than their unschooled counterparts, Halverson sinks his canines into the literacy thesis by saying "the results were devastating for any 'strong' form of the literacy thesis." Fortunately for Goody, Watt, Havelock and intelligent scholars, it is flaringly obvious that the study omits completely illiterate persons. After all, the literacy thesis concerns itself with illiterate versus literate societies, not with differences in exam performance between home-schooled and traditional students.

The following few pages of Halverson's essay include a conclusion. Rather than extrapolating any riveting argument, they merely expand his personal jab against Havelock into a thorough professional assault against Goody. With that in mind, I will reduce myself to Halverson’s level and state only three words in response to the entire bolus that he regurgitated and tried to pass off as a reasoned argument: no, thank you.


Halverson, John. 1992. Goody and the Implosion of the Literacy Thesis. Man 27(2): 301-317.