Orality and Literacy Theory Topics



The prediction by Karl Marx that communism would begin its world triumph in Germany (the most literate European country, the one with the highest number of union members) contrasted with the reality that communism began in Russia (the least literate European county) and spread only to countries whose rates of literacy was substantially lower than European countries and the United States: African countries, China, Cuba, etc. The O / L Theory would have predicted that Marx would have been wrong and would have predicted exactly what did happen with the (temporary) spread of communism into countries with low rates of literacy. [Temporary because the rise of literacy will bring about the decline of communism and it destroys the group bonds and substitutes the individual interests required of capitalism.] If, in fact, the O / L Theory explains the spread of communism, what can we predict about changes in the government of communist China?

            And what about the big one, Islamic Terrorism? What better conflict to look at with this theory, the battle between the highly literate cultures of the West and the cultures of the East relying on the coercive communal voice of the mullahs?



The O / L Theory explains the origins of Protestantism as a literate break from the oral Catholic Church, with the seminal event being the written posting of Martin Luther’s objections to the practices of the Church of selling indulgence from sin. Salvation is from reading the Bible not the oral teachings of the Church. How does the theory explain the historical spread of Catholicism and its current crisis in attendance in highly literate countries and the rapid spread of Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism in countries of low rates of literacy?



The O / L Theory explains the “concrete thinking” of non-literates. Since we were all non-literate when we where children, what does the theory explain about child psychology? What could pre-school and primary school teachers learn from the theory?



The O / L Theory shows that writing, especially print, is a technology. How is it related to other technologies, specifically the assembly line factory technology? Are the lines of print analogous to the assembly line? Karl Marx predicted that the assembly line experience of industrial workers would lead to the eventual overthrow of the “bosses” and the emergence of the working class as owners of the means of production. Using the O / L Theory, explain why Marx’s predictions were bound to fail.


Can you apply the O / L Theory to parts of highly literate societies that also contain societies resembling “third world” countries (countries with low rates of literacy)?  If so, what does the theory explain about how such domestic third world “countries” [Native American reservations, Appalachian communities, urban ghettos] are organized (religion, family structure, education, buying habits, etc.)? What about the literacy campaigns of Cuba and Nicaragua? The United States used the ex-Somoza guardsmen as “Contras” to fight against Nicaragua; would the literacy campaign itself have brought down the Sandinista government without the violence? I think about this topic because I remember over twenty years ago when I toured the museum in Managua devoted to martyrs of the literacy campaign. I walked around the room looking at the pictures of young men and women killed by the Contras ,killed because they had gone from the cities to the countryside to teach illiterate peasants how to read. As I left I glanced at the young woman who had taken our tickets. She was watching television, a cartoon imported from the United States. Would Sesame Street combat Communism? And the question hit me, were all of these deaths preventable? If the Reagan Administration really believed that the Sandinistas were leading Central America to Communism, why didn’t they wait? If the peasant, oral, culture were to be replaced by the literate culture, wouldn’t the result be the same as it was and was to be in the Soviet Union, Africa, Cuba? The eventual, inevitable, demise of Communism because of the destruction, by literacy, of the communal self-less oral culture and the creation, by literacy, of the culture of the self-serving individual?


The Theory explains our present condition as a Secondary Oral Culture. Does the explanation fit with your understanding your condition as living in a “global village”? Using the theory, give examples of how we function and often fail to function in this “village.” What problems might you predict we will encounter based on the insights from the theory?




Examine classroom structure (from different years in school) and relate them to methods of instruction based on insights from the O-L Theory. The rows of desks mimic the rows of print, giving the teacher the only privileged view of all of the students, isolating them from each other, the basic “divide and conquer” of the form of educational organization. Using the theory, how is it likely (even inevitable) that education practice (and classroom structure) will change?


Howard Gardner [Frames of Mind, the theory of multiple intelligences] has had a big influence on testing and on school teaching methodology. Investigate the connection, if any, between the O / L Theory and Gardner’s research.




Examine the movies Witness and The Reader through the insights of the Theory. What is the essential conflict in these movies rather than the apparent, obvious, and secondary conflicts?



Explain rap music as an extension of oral agonistic argument.

Examine the cultural bias that promotes classical music (music that is written) over jazz and the blues, oral innovative music.


Current Events


How does the Theory explain the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda? Use Marshall Mcluhan’s Understanding Media as the basis of your critique as well as Walter Ong’s distinctions between the oral dictator and writing as the source of introspective reflection.


Use Walter Ong’s insights into Secondary Orality to examine the rise and use of online video (like You Tube and My Space) and political blogs to hold public figures to account.




Explain visual and concrete poetry as a “natural” development of high literacy.


Explain the rise of the novel from Lawrence Sterne’s  Tristan Shandy to the current self-obsessed novel of high literacy and the oral-based novels of countries with low rates of literacy, novels such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.


Using the Theory, explain the phenomenon of Irish literature being more prominent than the literature of England.


Explain the “book art” of William Blake, his attempt to integrate the isolating reading experience into the tactil touch of the paper, the sound of the words, and the sight of the graphics. Compare his with the contemporary poetry of book artists or poets such as Kenneth Patchen.


Explain the rise of poetry “slams,” oral agonistic competitions, the need for some poets to have a real, physical, audience to compensate for the “ghosts” that make up the audience of a book.


Using the insights of the final chapter of Orality and Literacy, explain the phenomenon of literary sidekicks. The first one began with the first literature: the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, 1500 years before the Greek and India epics we the hero Gilgamesh (two thirds god and one third man), the civilizing force (writing)and Enkidu, the “wild man.”   Other examples include Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Melville’s Ishmael and Queequeg; Kerouac’s Dean Mority [Keroauc] and Sal Paradise [Cassidy]; Holmes and Watson; Lone Ranger and Tonto; Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk; Walter Moseley’s  Paris Minton and Fearless Jones; Chester Hine’s Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.