Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Education in the Age of Secondary Orality

The first humans lived under conditions of primary orality. Individual memory was the only way to transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next. Learning was based on oral modes with parables, puns, poesy and music central tools of the "educational" system. For example, in oral cultures a person’s word was his bond. Without written records to provide proof, people had to depend on the spoken word to bind agreements.

During the manuscript and print eras, written documents replaced memory as the primary means of transmitting information over time and space. Copying texts became a means of acquiring knowledge, with remnants of memorization persisting. We learned our ABC's by song and memorized math tables and poetry while at the same time our teachers required written examinations of memorized material.

In the early years of electronic media, only a few had access to external memory devices to record and preserve our culture. An electronic broadcast would be sent to many, but then disappear into the "aether." Educators used video for distance learning and to perpetuate the lecture model of education of the manuscript age. Students experienced increasing alienation in the classroom as the culture's true pedagogy was conducted via mass media-based advertising organizations.

With video cell phones, cheap editing technology, internet access and so on, what once was available to few is now available to many. What was private has now become public. The World Wide Web has added a readily accessible "Memory Well" to enable total cultural recall and dissemination. Items dropped down the Memory Well no longer vanish forever. We now can retrieve video, audio, text and photos at will – without resorting to memorization or physical texts.

This ability easily to retrieve many if not all of our artifacts will bring about a shift in our culture's notion of what is important to know and how to educate our young. It has already generated a crisis in the copyright arena as students unwittingly cut and paste together their assignments from material available online.

Our political leaders and media personalities must now cope with the new power the Memory Well has given to data retrieval. This has profound implications for politics, education, social policy and the mass media themselves, including broadcast news organizations and the traditional press.

Our educators must anticipate the characteristics of this cultural shift and design an education system that prepares our students to live in the era of "secondary" orality. We must learn how to mentor the Millennial Generation.

1 comment:

Artie said...

Educating millennials is a daunting challenge, no doubt. They grew up with the internet; we boomers witnessed the internet's emergence into popular culture as 20 somethings.

There are some troubling aspects of your "memory well" that we all should consider. The "well" is actually 10s of millions of servers; hard drives constantly spinning in air-conditioned server farms. And the contents of the 'well' are growing exponentially. And as the contents of the well grow, the costs - in terms of energy, capital and natural resources - grows along with it. Google servers alone consume more power than a typical modern city, and the internet delivery takes up 8 to 13 percent of all electricity generated in the US.

And once the memories go into the well, there is no guarantee that they won't disappear, or be altered, corrupted or infected.

I think it's important to teach millennials not to put too much faith or important memories in the 'well' - they might not get them back.