Nor, of course, are these variations in the degree of participation in the literate tradition, together with their effects on social structure, the only causes of tension. For, even within a literate culture, the oral tradition – the transmission of values and attitudes in face-to-face contact – nevertheless remains the primary mode of cultural orientation, and, to varying degrees, it is out of step with the various literate traditions. In some respects, perhaps,
100 “The Use and Abuse of History”, Thoughts out of Season, trans. Adrian Collins (Edinburgh, 1909), pp. 33, 9. 101 Chan Kom, a Maya Village (Washington, D.C., 1934); The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1941); A Village that Chose Progress: Chan Kom Revised (Chicago, 1950); and for a more general treatment, The Primitive World and its Transformations (Ithaca, New York, 1953), pp. 73, 108. See also Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (London, 1957). For the concept of anomie, see Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide (Paris, 1897), Book II, Ch. V.
JACK GOODY AND IAN WATT
this is fortunate. The tendency of the modern mass-communications indus- tries, for example, to promote ideals of conspicuous consumption which cannot be realized by more than a limited proportion of society, might well have much more radical consequences but for the fact that each individual exposed to such pressures is also a member of one or more primary groups whose oral converse is probably much more realistic and conservative in its ideolog- ical tendency; the mass media are not the only, and they are probably not even the main, social influences on the contemporary cultural tradition as a whole.
Primary group values are probably even further removed from those of the “high” literate culture, except in the case of the literate specialists. This introduces another kind of culture conflict, and one which is of cardinal significance for Western civilization. If, for example, we return to the reasons for the relative failure of universal compulsory education to bring about the intellectual, social and political results that James Mill expected, we may well lay a major part of the blame on the gap between the public literate tradition of the school, and the very different and indeed often directly contradictory private oral traditions of the pupil’s family and peer group. The high degree of differentiation in exposure to the literate tradition sets up a basic division which cannot exist in non-literate society: the division between the various shades of literacy and illiteracy. This conflict, of course, is most dramatically focussed in the school, the key institution of society. As Margaret Mead has pointed out:
Primitive education was a process by which continuity was maintained between parents and children … Modern education includes a heavy emphasis upon the function of education to create discontinuities – to turn the child … of the illiterate into the literate.102
A similar and probably even more acute stress develops in many cases be- tween the school and the peer group; and quite apart from the difficulties arising from the substantive differences between the two orientations, there seem to be factors in the very nature of literate methods which make them ill-suited to bridge the gap between the street-corner society and the black- board jungle.
First, because although the alphabet, printing, and universal free education have combined to make the literate culture freely available to all on a scale never previously approached, the literate mode of communication is such that it does not impose itself as forcefully or as uniformly as is the case with the oral transmission of the cultural tradition. In non-literate society every social situation cannot but bring the individual into contact with the group’s patterns of thought, feeling and action: the choice is between the cultural tra- dition – or solitude. In a literate society, however, and quite apart from the 102 “Our Educational Emphases in Primitive Perspective”, American Journal of Soci- ology, 48 (1943), p. 637.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF LITERACY
difficulties arising from the scale and complexity of the “high” literate tra- dition, the mere fact that reading and writing are normally solitary activities means that insofar as the dominant cultural tradition is a literate one, it is
very easy to avoid; as Bertha Phillpotts wrote in her study of Icelandic literature:
Printing so obviously makes knowledge accessible to all that we are inclined to forget that it also makes knowledge very easy to avoid… A shepherd in an Ice- landic homestead, on the other hand, could not avoid spending his evenings in listening to the kind of literature which interested the farmer. The result was a degree of really national culture such as no nation of today has been able to achieve.103
The literate culture, then, is much more easily avoided than the oral one; and even when it is not avoided its actual effects may be relatively shallow. Not
only because, as Plato argued, the effects of reading are intrinsically less deep and permanent than those of oral converse; but also because the abstractness of the syllogism and of the Aristotelian categorizations of knowledge do not
correspond very directly with common experience. The abstractness of the
syllogism, for example, of its very nature disregards the individual’s social
experience and immediate personal context; and the compartmentalization of
knowledge similarly restricts the kind of connections which the individual can establish and ratify with the natural and social world. The essential way of
thinking of the specialist in literate culture is fundamentally at odds with that of daily life and common experience; and the conflict is embodied in the
long tradition of jokes about absent-minded professors. It is, of course, true that contemporary education does not present pro-
blems exactly in the forms of Aristotelian logic and taxonomy; but all our literate modes of thought have been profoundly influenced by them. In this, perhaps, we can see a major difference, not only with the transmission of the cultural heritage of oral societies, but with those of proto-literate ones. Thus Marcel Granet relates the nature of the Chinese writing system to the “con- creteness” of Chinese thought, and his picture of its primary concentration on social action and traditional norms suggests that the cultural effect of the
writing system was in the direction of intensifying the sort of homeostatic conservation found in non-literate cultures; it was indeed conceptualised in the Confucian tao-‘tung, or “orthodox transmission of the way.” In this connection it may be noted that the Chinese attitude to formal logic, and to the categorization of knowledge in general, is an articulate expression of what happens in an oral culture.’04 Mencius, for example, speaks for the non-literate approach in general when he comments: “Why I dislike holding