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Review of  The Making of Literate Societies

Reviewer: Terrence M. Potter
Book Title: The Making of Literate Societies
Book Author: David R. Olson Nancy Torrance
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 14.842

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Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2003 22:59:26 -0800 (PST)
From: Terrence Potter
Subject: The Making of Literate Societies

Olson, David R., and Nancy Torrance, ed. (2001) The Making of Literate
Societies, Blackwell Publishers.

Terrence M. Potter, US Military Academy

This edited volume brings together sixteen papers about the theme of
literacy and how we should understand the phenomenon in its historical
context and in its contemporary reality. The editors attempt to
synthesize much of what we have learned about literacy, especially the
provision of literacy, and then present selected literacy projects as
they are conceived and currently practiced. It is asserted that the
literacy projects of the 1950s and 1960s largely failed, because what
was attributed to literacy in terms of ability to empower was
essentially imaginary. Consequently a new view of literacy should
emerge that emphasizes the situated practice of literacy in a society,
what it can do and how it can work there (Olson 1994). This is in
contrast with a view of literacy as an ideology according to which the
individual acquisition of an indispensable and universally recognized
life skill will somehow address any and all of society's problems. The
first of two sections provides the setting for this discussion. Its
papers establish literacy, especially writing, as a typical endeavor in
the developed world, a dominant cultural and social practice. Chapters
in the second section present reports on aspects or projects on
literacy in the developing world, especially where extending literacy
has been a goal. This volume serves to highlight a prevailing view of
literacy development as social development.

In Chapter 1, "Conceptualizing Literacy as a Personal Skill and as a
Social Practice", the editors Olson and Torrance review a set of issues
that when properly understood contribute to a more accurate view of and
produce more appropriate expectations of literacy in society. Such a
view is pragmatic and reiterates a new direction that focuses more on
what people can do with literacy, 'less as cause and more as
instrument' (5). This practical focus characterizes the general thrust
of the papers that follow in the volume. If this view is taken by
current generations, it may help to determine how writing and reading
skills can be used by communities for their own purposes in their own
cultural contexts. At the same time other needs in society must be
addressed rather than rely upon the cliché that suggests illiteracy
alone is responsible for all of society's ills or that literacy
(education) will cure all of society's ills. The authors suggest that
if the need to meaningfully apply the skills of reading and writing for
personal and professional advancement in specific societies is
recognized, then perhaps some of the gap between imagined and real
social development that is possible through literacy may be realized.

In Chapter 2, "The Roles of Literacy Practices in the Activities and
Institutions of Developed and Developing Countries", Armin Triebel
places literacy among an array of human communal activities, social
functions and cultural processes. He seeks to demonstrate that literacy
development has been hampered by the belief that literacy itself
generates social change and the belief that script changes mind (21).
His review of the literature identifies important parameters that must
be understood and accounted for if the role of literacy should be
changed. These include how the literacy-related policies have been
orchestrated, how they have been rationalized philosophically, and what
the legacy of writing practices has mandated for literate societies
today. While he clearly believes in a future for literacy, he is less
sanguine about the prospects for self-sustaining literacy. Through
institutional (government, political system, empowerment, etc.)
arrangements and support efforts the advantages and interests that
members of society derive will likely be the bases for the development
of wider literacy.

In Chapter 3, "Societal Literacy: Writing Culture and Development",
George Elwert asserts that the development of a culture of writing is
the necessary pre-condition that determines written tools will become
the norm in a given society. Societal literacy differs from functional
or basic literacy in important ways. In distinguishing between oral and
written culture, Elwert outlines the strengths of oral culture,
suggesting that an oral culture perspective must be taken seriously if
a written one should come to supplant or replace it. The institutions
in a literate society are necessarily concerned about writing and value
it for its usefulness rather than simply promote its wider use.
Necessary societal conditions for the development of literacy include
standardization in language, trustworthiness as in contractual
agreements, technological development, and respect for textual
communities that are sheltered from power structures. Elwert ties self-
reproducing literacy to social and economic development. Societal
structures that are working demand literacy. These structures include
the rule of law, a market economy, and an independent system for
advancing knowledge. As literacy alone has never triggered development
by itself, it is "the concomitant development of a new type of
language, and a new set of institutions for using literacy in the
fields of knowledge, economics, law, and politics" that accounts for
real social development (65).

In Chapter 4, "Literacy in Ancient Greece: Functional Literacy, Oral
Education, and the Development of a Literate Environment", Rosalind
Thomas summarizes key aspects of the emergence of the so-called
"document mentality" and an "archive mentality" in ancient Greece, and
later the more generalized development of a literate environment. She
cautions against equating the well-known uses for writing in specific
circles, societies and cities with the notion of generalized literacy
that we imagine today. The reasons for its rise are linked more to the
network of needs connected to social development than to the linear
development of a public literacy per se. She presents orality as a
highly valued social form of communication, and describes early writing
as subservient to the needs of persons who orate or dramatize in
person. Based upon the archeological record she describes purposes for
writing in ancient Greek society, and notes that the absence of any
sacred or venerated text suggests religion had little or no major role
in literacy development. The written texts, however, that formed a
tradition in Greek education and represent products of literacy
probably "did most to foster a "textual community" and a literate
environment" (78). But Thomas quickly returns to her original theme
that both oral and written cultures were vital in classical Greece. She
echoes a general theme of this volume when she reiterates the need to
examine the cultural and political values assigned to orality in any
present day culture where the products of literacy may not be valued or
even needed.

Chapter 5, "Literacy in Germany" by Utz Maas, traces the success that
Germany has had in achieving universal literacy. Germany's rate of
illiteracy by OECD standards is pegged at 14.5 percent, better than
Canada, the USA and Switzerland. A rating of 1 to 10 per cent is more
commonly offered. The author reports and analyzes the social and
historical facts that show that literacy became a cultural
reproduction, according to which people often engaged in writing for
its own sake. As the needs of German literacy adapted Latin for its own
purposes, so ironically, did those who would make German language
universal continue to exhort Latin the language of prestige. Even today
the quest for reform in orthography does not enjoy universal support,
e.g. the persistence of the grapheme <ß>, named ess tsett. The author
introduces the preliminary results of an ongoing study that promises to
reveal how written language is successfully acquired in Germany, and
how spoken and written language are distinct, despite the typical
pedagogical presentation that asserts spoken language primacy. A chart
summarizes the historical development and the important distinctions
(keys) noticed between spoken and written language that are said to
have contributed to the high rate of literacy in Germany.

Chapter 6, "Literacy in Japan: Kanji, Kana, Romaji, and Bits" by
Florian Coulmas. The author provides in rapid succession a description
of each of the written forms that have been introduced and retained for
use in Japanese. In this way he is also able to offer an outline of
literacy development. Thirteen figures illustrate the different
graphemes that have become fully integrated into literate culture over
time. Historically other writing system features (e.g. alphabetic or
Romaji) are added whenever needed, rather than discarding or changing
the existing system. The author concludes that writing systems evolve
due to a combination of conventional needs, social control and
conceptual organization of graphemes. The high rate of literacy that
prevails in Japan depends upon knowing the intricate combination of
systems, which is in turn possible because Japan is an intensively
schooled society.

Chapter 7, "Language, Literacy, the Production and Reproduction of
Knowledge, and the Challenge of African Development" by Kwesi K. Prah,
begins Part II of the volume, "On Becoming a Literate Society: Literacy
in Developing Societies." In this chapter Prah pursues his basic belief
that "literacy for development in Africa must be based on African
languages" (126; also Prah, 1995; 1993). He sees the use of colonial
languages as a hallmark of an elite making a desperate attempt to
integrate into western culture (127). Prah stresses the role of people,
culture and language in constructing his nativist argument for the need
to have an African based development of ideas. These ideas - presumably
those that will address issues of literacy - will be able to show the
influence of the society where they originate. Prah echoes his
longstanding view that continued use of neocolonialist, European
languages to relate and create knowledge disserves Africans. Thus the
use of African indigenous languages in the intellectual enterprise and
for purposes of development is essential if real contributions will be
made to "a truly universal fund of culture" (140).

Chapter 8, "Literacy and Literature in Indigenous Languages in Benin
and Burkina-Faso" by Joseph Akoha. The author asserts the role of
language policy is crucial to sustained literacy development. The
sustained policy of making indigenous languages the languages of
literacy will aid "in nation-building, democracy development and the
struggle against poverty" (147). Charging a kind of neo-colonialist
conspiracy holds back the indigenous from making true sense of literacy
and making it part of their communities and individual lives, the
author proposes that political will is needed to support adult
education in indigenous languages. This in turn will promote the needed
autonomy and empowerment that is crucial to true development.

Chapter 9, "Constructive Interdependence: The Response of a Senegalese
Community to the Question of Why Become Literate" by Sonja Fagerberg-
Diallo. The language Pulaar (a Fulah language), an indigenous language
used by about 3 million, has successfully become a language of
literacy. Fagerberg-Diallo traces a continuum that goes from simple
writing to publishing making use of Pulaar. This indigenous language
successfully competes with French and with Wolof, the other principal
indigenous language, as a language of education and cultural identity.
Books in Pulaar have been available since 1971 and are popular,
especially "novels, histories and those about indigenous knowledge
systems" (163). The real and varied uses of Pulaar integrate autonomous
and idealogical models for literacy support. This integration has meant
a successful transformation of literacy into a powerful tool to
discover and transmit the cultural core of the using communities.

Chapter 10, "Literacy for Gonja and Birifor Children in Northern Ghana"
by Esther Goody and JoAnne Bennett. The authors are concerned with the
relationship between L1 and L2 literacies in Northern Ghana and how
resources can be used to address them in that country. Despite numerous
subcultures connected to literacy, L2 literacy is the only way to gain
access to them and to key resources. Goody and Bennett paint a bleak
picture of English teaching and learning, and describe teachers as
discouraged and unable to see their efforts as helpful towards
improvement. However, the positive effects of teaching L1 literacy on
later acquisition of reading comprehension in L2 English are reiterated
and several factors are described to explain why official policy has
not followed and changed to promote L1 literacy. Officially programs
emphasize that L1 literacy will be of assistance to all Ghanaians,
having the potential to bring all of them into the modern world.
Despite achievements by altruistic local literate teachers, the
sustainability of L1 literacy is problematic. The authors propose that
a level of "metaliteracy", that which is shared by those who teach L1
literacy and those who teach L2 English literacy, could serve as a
bridge between local communities of literacy and the national
subculture of L2 (English) literacy (198).

Chapter 11, "Literacy and Intercultural Bilingual Education in the
Andes" by Luis Enrique López. The author raises the related issues of
the role of indigenous languages and of bilingualism in oral societies
with a hegemonic language, in this case Spanish. As background he
provides information about principal indigenous languages, numbers of
speakers, and official "shifts" on the part of Latin American
governments in the interest of indigenous languages and cultures.
Recent developments include the "officialization" of indigenous
languages and cultures and increasing local control in government and
education. Lopez reviews the historical record of literacy. Pre-
Columbian writing included the bundled textiles, inscribed ceramics,
the kipu record-keeping system, as well as widespread use of glyphs.
When compared with the worldview of Europeans and their conception of
the written word especially the idea of book, the indigenous
populations did not understand it as concept. Distinctions in
worldviews were embedded in the different concepts of writing. The
author explains in some detail the necessary ideological contradiction
that results when there is a change from Spanish to indigenous language
as the first language of literacy. It is clear today that education
cannot be seen as emancipatory when the literacy process is carried out
entirely in the unknown, hegemonic language. With the increased rates
of bilingualism due to in part formal bilingual education, the amount
of writing and availability of printed books have increased. Books in
Quecha, Aymara and Guarani reach primary schools in rural areas. In
particular, the Guaranization process transfers indigenous knowledge
and competencies through the reading and writing of the ancestral
language. In this case bilingualism has preserved and promotes the
continuation of an oral culture. The resulting literate environment in
Latin America is becoming one based upon not one but two languages. The
advantages connected with the ability to create in two languages and to
recover indigenous knowledge make biliteracy the right choice for
indigenous peoples who must live and survive in two communities any

Chapter 12, "The Uses of Orality and Literacy in Rural Mexico: Tales
from Xaltipan" by Elsie Rockwell. The village of Xaltipan successfully
"appropriated" writing principally because it is embedded in social
activity or cultural practice. This ethnographic study of Cleofas'
storytelling demonstrates the use of written documents by a local
official for his purposes. Through his oral discourse mediation,
persuasion, negotiation, litigation and ordinary conversation he has
regularly resorted to the authority he is able to derive from written
documents. Since Cleofas carries out these processes in oral discourse,
we should see written documents then as "embedded within this oral
performance" (243). The author also draws attention to the parallel
uses of written texts in the oral performance of contemporary scholars.
She calls for a context specific analysis of cultural practices that
integrates the analysis of oral performance with the use of various
written texts.

Chapter 13, "Developing a Literate Tradition in Six Marginal
Communities in the Philippines: Interrelations of Literacy, Education,
and Social Development" by Maria Luisa Canieso Doronila. Following a
description of the context for literacy in the Philippines, and a quick
review of the results of her 1996 study that covers the effects of
literacy on thinking, Doronila seeks to portray each of several
communities in its own stage of building a literate tradition. Drawing
upon her original ethnographic study she briefly describes each
community in terms of literacy and social development. Areas include
traditional and literate knowledge and how they are encoded, official
functional literacy rate (without regard to non-literate or other
literate subcultures), and contradictions or issues presented by
ethnolinguistic and religious composition, and an assessment of
socioeconomic and social development. Two of the communities Doronila
has studied engage in activities that show the integration of literacy
into their daily communal lives. As communities that are seeking change
they have begun to incorporate literate practice in important ways to
achieve their own communal objectives. The author's 1996 study offers
lessons for other communities that wish to transform themselves in ways
that will address local issues. For Doronila literacy can best become
literate practice in communities capable of sustaining a social
development process and when the limits of change as prescribed by
policy-makers and powerful groups are suitably circumscribed.

Chapter 14, "Issues of Literacy Development in the Indian Context" by
Chander Daswani. Daswani describes in some detail the complex
linguistic situation of Indian society in which literacy programs are
employed to promote literacy development. He estimates that an Indian
who completes 10 years of schooling will have learned to read and write
in three languages. Those three languages will come from a mix of over
1652 mother tongues, 17 scheduled languages, Hindi the national
language, and English an international language. According to Daswani
multilingual India has not had broad success with mass literacy
programs due to complex linguistic and social factors. The promised
economic development has not necessarily resulted from literacy
programs, a national priority. However, long term positive individual,
family and society effects have been noted as a result of these
programs. These include providing enhancement for creativity, making
the rule of law feasible, and promoting notions of egalitarian
democracy. Daswani provides a brief but compelling assessment of the
effectiveness and status of literacy in India, especially in light of
its highly complex linguistic situation.

Chapter 15, "Women and Empowerment through Literacy" by Malini Ghose.
The author successfully demonstrates the interplay of power and the
dynamics at play in a literacy program in India called Mahila Samakhya.
The need for literacy in India demands intervention and this program as
such has sought to introduce women to a different culture of power. The
author demonstrates the relevance and instrumentality of literacy to
women in their lives as she carefully recounts experiences recorded at
literacy camp. Ghose shows the contradictions inherent in introducing a
different power dynamic while needing to rely upon the existing norms
of power inherent in pedagogy and education as the participants
understand them. Student views and beliefs about power in language,
about traditional cultural beliefs, and about the nature of knowledge
and the ways to deliver it led the Nirantar Center members to confront
and evaluate their own views as they sought to empower women attending
these six-month literacy camps. Brief and compelling this account
succeeds in showing the challenges inherent in efforts to alter a
traditional culture of power, how literacy is instrumental in
developing individual understanding, and why such efforts will be
strongly influenced by the interplay of students' and organizers'
worldviews and beliefs.

Chapter 16, "Literacy and Social Development: Policy and
Implementation" by Ingrid Jung and Adama Ouane. The authors present a
summary of the major points raised, discussed or inferred by the
preceding papers in the volume. The revisit key topics of orality,
knowledge and language. A surprising fact for some readers will be that
different societies in different times have become literate for
essentially the same reasons. Those factors that contribute to our ever
increasingly complex society are linked to the needs of developing
institutions and the associated subcultures that rely upon literate
practice. Societal and personal literacy no longer hold the same
promise for development because of the complex network of needs that
may not be addressed through variously administered education programs
that only promote acquisition of simple reading and writing skills. In
fact, societies have historically promoted literacy for their own
purposes and according to the prevailing social fabric of each society.
Literates in indigenous languages as well as administrators who focus
on the functional needs of community members should be afforded the
opportunity to address literacy through education in relationship to
other specific social, political, economic and religious factors. The
authors eschew a hands-off approach to problem of literacy and echo the
sentiments of the other chapter writers as they "plead for investment
in civil society, the creation of participation processes, and relevant
education systems" (335).

At a time in world affairs when there may be renewed interest in
discovering ways to address the unevenness among human societies, this
edited volume of 16 chapters offers the reader an assortment of
perspectives on literacy and a glimpse at the record of its development
in 12 different contexts. The reader should consider reading Chapters 1
and 16 to get a good idea about the volume's contents, and then begin
digesting each of the other chapters. This volume can serve as an up to
date primer for those who wish to join the discussion about worldwide
literacy. Each piece is generally short, informative of a key facet of
literacy and pertinent facts of its historical development. The salient
issues relating to literacy or illiteracy become apparent, as do the
broad perspectives and differences that divide those who promote
development and literacy. Indeed a number of the chapters in part two
raise the question of the absolute need for literacy, that is, of the
command of written language as commonly understood in western cultures.
Still other authors maintain that universal monolingual literacy is the
only way to address development issues and to stave off greater social
disintegration. No solutions are proposed to address social and
economic development without literacy; indeed despite claims that its
importance to a particular society may not be as compelling as in
another, there does not seem to be any real alternative to one to
several generalized forms of literacy. Even for those who support the
use of indigenous languages, there does not seem to be any argument
advanced that general literacy in non-indigenous languages is not

This text adds to our insights about the role and importance of
language policy. It gives any reader insights into our own use of
written language, the relationships between spoken and written language
and what mistaken assumptions are basic to our longstanding belief in
the power of literacy. Olson and Torrance have provided a rich and
multidisciplinary account that shows that human societies have made
language, especially written language, its acquisition and use a
central pillar of human civilization.

Doronila, M. L. (1996) Landscapes of Literacy: An ethnographic study of
functional literacy in Marginal Philippine Communities. Hamburg: UNESCO
Institute for Education.

Olson, D. R. (1994) The World on Paper: The conceptual and cognitive
implications of writing and reading. Cambridge: CUP. ASIN: 0521443113.

Prah, K. K. (1993) Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological
Development in Africa. Bonn: DSE (German Foundation for International

Prah, K. K. (1995) African Languages for the Mass Education of
Africans. Bonn: DSE/ZED (German Foundation for International
Development/Education and Documentation Center).

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Terry Potter is an associate professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at the US Military Academy. He has taught general linguistics, Arabic, French and German. His research interests include applied sociolinguistics, the teaching and learning of less commonly taught languages, and onomastics.

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