In their article titled The Consequences of Literacy anthropologists Jack Goody and Ian Watt suggest that Western culture and its main aspects originated from the culture of Ancient Greece soon after the formation of its literate urban society which divided, for the first time in human history, the world into literate and illiterate societies. Literacy soon resulted in the growing cultural repertoire to the extent that an individual member of a literate society could know only a small proportion of it (Goody and Watt 48-49).
On the one hand, the rich cultural choice of past and present events and ideas, Goody and Watt argue, stimulates intellectual interest and pursuits, enhances knowledge, and develops reason, or, in other words, provides good grounds for the development of intellectual culture. It can be explained by the fact that written thoughts and ideas became available for much longer time than oral thoughts and, therefore, it made it possible to concentrate on their meaning which encouraged private thought and criticism (Goody and Watt 53).
On the other hand, the authors point out that since in a literate society there exist no mechanisms of omission and elimination, the huge size of the accumulated cultural repertoire became a major obstacle to full individual participation in the cultural tradition as it could be observed in an illiterate society (Goody and Watt 48-49). Although they accept that intellectual culture is highly stimulated in literate societies, Goody and Watt also argue that literate culture is far from being the best development for the unity of human society and brings some consequences with it.
They point out that despite all the achievements of literate societies, the idea of an educated and egalitarian democratic society that was cherished for centuries by many has never materialized. Finally, by drawing a parallel between literate and illiterate societies, the two anthropologists conclude that literacy brings certain social and cultural conflicts that are easily avoided in an illiterate society (Goody and Watt 48).
Due to a continual growth of the content of the cultural tradition, both individuals and society as a whole became exposed to the influence of various beliefs and attitudes which belong to different historical periods of a nation’s development. These past ideas and beliefs may be interpreted by every individual or groups of individuals in a different way. The effects of such a differing orientation within a society are that its members become alienated because they can select from a variety of the cultural repertoire and are very unlikely to experience a patterned cultural tradition.
The exposure of Western literate societies to cultural conflicts is, therefore, quite obvious (Goody and Watt 49-50). Another consequence that literacy has brought into societies is their social stratification. With the proliferation of printed information and knowledge, modern societies became more socially differentiated and divided into classes of more literate individuals and less literate individuals.
Besides, this differentiation has become typical even of the members of the same social class of literate professionals possessing less and less intellectual knowledge in common (Goody and Watt 50). The fundamental group values typical of illiterate societies are of no importance in literate societies which poses another cultural problem. The gap between the public educational tradition in institutions such as schools and the oral transmission of traditions in families and peer groups is one of the most spectacular examples of the problem.
In an illiterate society, individuals are brought into contact with the thought and action embraced by the whole group. The choice an individual has is between accepting the cultural traditions and being solitary. In a literate society, however, reading and writing are usually solitary activities and the transmission of the cultural traditions can be very easily avoided or their effects may be relatively insignificant (Goody and Watt 50-51). The social and cultural conflicts in a literate society are also complemented by an intellectual tension.
Myth as a unifying force that once existed in illiterate societies has been replaced by various modern equivalents in literate societies that failed to continue this unifying function. Many prominent thinkers and writers around the world have since those times expressed their nostalgia for the world of myths where people were unified by a homogenous oral culture that proposed a simple and cohesive view of the world and life and where the fact that history and legend, experience and imagination contradicted each other posed no serious problem.
Such attitudes and philosophies in oral cultures reduced individualization of personal experience and ensured strong and profound ties between people in illiterate societies (Goody and Watt 52). Furthermore, being aware of their individual experiences and thoughts, individuals in literate societies could write them down and publish to transmit them to other individuals who could compare the existing differences in the histories of many individuals whose life experiences were not assimilated by oral transmission.
In this way, the description of inner and outer life and experiences of people ousted the collective representations of myth and emphasized more individual or differing aspects of life by rejecting the collective and unifying ones. Literate societies leave more freedom to their members promoting diversity and plurality and sacrificing a single and ready-made philosophy that used to unite and guide people in life (Goody and Watt 53). In this way, coherence and unity in literate societies often depend on the personal choice and elimination by individuals of things from an increasingly differentiated cultural repertoire.
In the selection process, it is true, individuals are influenced or pressured by various social factors, but there is such a large number of those factors that the final choice depends on individuals. In literate societies, by contrast, social pressures are rather homogenous and propose or impose a concrete and homogeneous cultural repertoire to select from which makes the task of the orientation of individuals easier. As a result, such societies can be characterized by more social and cultural homogeneity and unity (Goody and Watt 53).
Goody and Watt conclude, therefore, that, although it brought many irrefutable advantages to social and intellectual development, literacy also became a serious obstacle to social reconstruction on a more disciplined model and unification of the nation’s members. One of the most significant consequences that literacy caused, the two anthropologists emphasize, is individualism and social and cultural disunity.
Works Cited Goody, Jack and Ian Watt. “The Consequences of Literacy. ” Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. New York: Longman, 1991. 48-56