There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon and received with
wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day
...Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

[Walt Whitman]

Children living at the end of this momentous millenium are brought up in an environment that promotes an illiterate culture, ’ says Barry Sanders, Professor of English and the History of Ideas at Pitzer College in California. According to him, they are losing the oral experience of language that is crucial to attaining true emotional as well as intellectual growth. He traces the beginnings of literacy as it emerged from a long tradition of what he calls ‘orality’. (Interestingly, prior to the experience of orality, ‘as children, we are not only in experience, we are experience’, says the author quoting in support the Walt Whitman poem mentioned at the beginning.) ‘This book is a plea to re-establish the connection between literacy and orality—and a warning that a failure to do so will have disastrous consequences. A rich experience of orality is an indispensable prelude to literacy. Orality provides a proving ground, a safe place, where a child’s imagination can unfold without fear of judgement or censure. Authority and (interestingly) originality hold no sway there; tests and measurements have no place. Stories bring everyone together in a commonality of closely shared knowledge.’

The Uses of Orality

The glory of the oral tradition was that one person, usually the chief of the tribe, would recite poetry and tell stories to the entire population. Not only myths, religious texts and precepts for daily living thus got built up and handed down, but folklore and songs as well. (The Mayans of Central America call their wisest storyteller the ‘echoman’, as he is a person of acute hearing.) Thus when writing was invented all the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years was put on permanent record, as it were. Writing is always in the active present as it goes hand-in-hand with reading. As you read a book, it is as though you were writing it. It is this simultaneous, active and continuous communication that is being destroyed by television and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the computer. This is so because these are passive media that send out discrete and often atomic bits of information.

Listening is an art the child cultivates from early on, as spoken words evaporate quickly. In order to fully absorb the delights of literacy, the child should have ‘fed off’ orality as it provides the wherewithal for good writing, namely, the rhythms, the intonations and pitches, the very feelings that find expression in writing. (All great religious traditions, of course, have a strong oral content, the Vedas being a magnificent example familiar to us.) Children need to hear language in order to learn language. ‘Without practice in speaking and telling stories, without the joy of playing with language, youngsters quite literally self-destruct... without the formative power of language, the inner life never fills out and takes shape. That leaves nothing, no substance, for literacy to embrace. Literacy – that mysterious, elusive force that carries human beings into a particularly powerful kind of consciousness, ’ is thus destroyed. Sanders goes on to say that, ‘The idea of a critical, self-directed human being we take for granted as the working foundation of our humanness develops only in the crucible of reading and writing. Human beings as we know them are products of literacy. The self that came into history as a result of literacy is on the verge of passing out of history... this agent called the self that came to life as a social and intellectual construct tied to the culture of the book is in the process of deconstructing and falling away entirely from the human repertoire.’

The Neurophysiology of Television

Television, being a visual and an oral medium must be surely doing a great job in introducing children to orality? But no. ‘No one listening to electronic media participates in orality. The electronic medium violates the cardinal rule of conversation: the listener must be able to interrupt. TV kills the human voice. People cannot argue with anything on the screen.’ Flickering images on the screen do not provide the raw material for learning. TV images pass by too fast for young minds to consider or analyze them. A new image flashes across the screen every 3.5 seconds, which is too fast for ‘intelligent comprehension’ of the information that passes in front of the eyes. So what do children do? They give up any attempt at understanding, resort to the use of the remote control and change channels. The author points to two disastrous side effects of the remote control culture. First, children transfer the remote control mode of behaviour to real-life situations when they think that turning away from a living human being requires no more effort and carries no more significance than using the remote. Children are increasingly losing contact with elders, including their parents. It is as though they are saying, ‘When you do not agree with me, I turn off. I do not even want to argue.’ Second, the remote syndrome is causing havoc in America (perhaps spreading to other places) where street (and even school) children carry firearms and use them without the slightest qualm. Some are positively proud of using the gun. Shooting people is equivalent to changing channels with a remote control apparatus to get rid of a boring programme.

Interactive TV is a contradiction in terms because, even though the TV can ask questions, it cannot respond to a child’s answers. ‘A child can develop language only if there is language in her environment and if she can employ that language to communicate with other people in her immediate environment.’ Language, like charity, must begin at home. But if parents return home and turn themselves into couch potatoes, language in effect has been stripped from the home. What is worse, the youngster uses the set as an electronic mother, but one who can deliver only depersonalized and standardized solutions. Television does not stimulate the brain; ‘it feeds both stimulus and response into the infant-child brain as a single-paired effect.’ Even the video game does not have ‘active’ let alone ‘interactive’ participants, for the simple reason that ‘the rules of the game dominate as thoroughly as any totalitarian regime.’

The author is most scathing when he talks about how TV tries to address boredom. TV creates the most vicious of cycles: it makes a person more susceptible to manufactured images by diminishing that person’s ability to generate his own, a condition akin to the suppression of the immune system, a kind of electronic AIDS. The moments of ‘downtime’ when the child feels bored are those times when she is most vulnerable and therefore most ready to receive. If she can be helped to persist in that downtime instead of being abandoned to the idiot box, ‘boredom can turn into a moment of self-reflective insight.’

On the other hand, ‘when a teacher asks a child to sit in front of a computer in grade school, he has invoked the authority of a battery of screens—TV, movie and video. Unwittingly, he has plugged the child solidly into the anti-literate world of media.’ The author considers the self as the mediator, the voice, for the articulation between the inner life and the outer swirl of events. It is this sense of the self that is lost when literacy is eaten at its vitals. The children of today cannot go back to a rich, primal experience of orality, never having been exposed to it. They are in some kind of limbo. They are neither pre-literates nor, except in a strictly technical sense, literates. The author calls them the ‘post-literates’, a generation dispossessed of either oral or written language. To return to orality is impossible, and the computer has come to stay. Can we make use of what science can give us and yet explore ways of teaching nd learning first hand, not through the bewitching ways of the so called ‘interactive media’? What we want is actual, not virtual learning.

There is a long section on violence in which the author deals extensively on youth violence in the (American) cities whose genesis lies in the young being completely out of touch with reality. Illiteracy and television, broken marriages, drunken and violent fathers (and even mothers) are the causes. He pleads for a return to family life in which the mother in particular helps stabilise the family. He asks: ‘How could a teacher and a bottle possibly replace the mother and the breast?’ a familiar question in India in recent years. The solutions the author offers are well known and may sound trite—a return to family values, education to begin at home in the security of the mother’s lap, in short ‘back to basics’. This is to do him an injustice. The book is robustly empirical, concrete in its observations and refreshingly free of jargon, as one would expect of a teacher of English. I have never read a book that uses anecdotes with such telling effect—to show what is possible. What Professor Sanders tells us is that we cannot even begin to look for a solution if we leave society as it is—if we say that illiteracy and violence, the home and the world will be what they are and that we look for answers elsewhere. The home cannot be wished away, if we want any radical change to take place.

Besides being easy to read, this book is an etymology buff’s delight. The author regales us with the origins of many words that we learn with surprise and pleasure. I give only a few examples: ‘matter’ and ‘pattern’, so much part of our lives, are respectively derived from the Latin mater and pater, namely mother and father. ‘Vernacular’ has an Indo-Germanic root that means ‘rootedness’ or ‘abode’. ‘Ecstasy’ comes from ‘ex-stasis’ meaning to move out of place or to be beside oneself. ‘Consciousness’ derives from the Latin consciere that means ‘to have knowledge together with someone else.’ A word about the title. The letter A is often sounded ‘ah’ and a child, when asked to spell the word ‘ox’, for instance, more often than not spells it ‘ax’. As Professor Sanders wryly remarks, ‘In orality there are no spelling mistakes.’