[journal entry] on Enos’ “Ancient Greek Writing Instruction” (Murphy 22-34)

Before now, I don’t think I ever quite understood the emphasis on orality in classical period in Greece.  But the more I read and think about it, the more I can see how oral ability would be the province of those who were educated, and therefore it would be considered a higher skill. Few others would have the time or opportunity to develop the art of speaking well in public situations. And most other writing tasks would be confined to servicing what took place orally: recording events, legislative decisions, notes for one’s speech.  Both orality and literacy had advantages and disadvantages, but one had evolved as more elevated and noble.

I wonder if we’ve created an opposite hierarchy in writing classrooms / tutoring. It occurs to me that I have long thought of orality in service to literacy, without much conscious reflection. We think one-on-one conversations (say, in the writing center) or group discussions (in the writing classroom) are great, but we see them as helps for the student’s ability to write. We use conversation/dialectic as a heuristic device for composition, not vice versa.

Of course, our goal in a “writing” class is writing, obviously, so all our tools would naturally be aimed in that direction.  But it’s still an interesting question. It has never even occurred to me to think of writing as a way to help a student speak better (though, in a way, that is what we are doing with these journal entries: writing in order to be better able to discuss them in class).

It is interesting how the ancient Greeks came to recognize writing’s for its ability to facilitate insight and expression. George Kennedy’s Letteraturizzazione reminds me of a documentary on the personal computer I saw a year or so ago. It reported that during the 1970s, some pundits prophesied that there was no future for the “personal” computer. These men couldn’t imagine what the average person would do with a computer. Obviously, they saw the computer (the ones that filled up rooms) as tools used by big companies to do computations, etc, and could not envision what software could be developed to aid the average person. But the personal computer ended up taking on and transforming features of the non-cyber world, just as writing did with orality: the keyboard resembles a typewriter, but the word processor does much more; accounting programs look like paper ledgers, but do much more; etc.

But, like those pundits, Plato couldn’t see past writing as a limited and merely-technical skill.  He knew well how well dialectic facilitated insight, but he couldn’t see how something so lifeless as writing could offer its own significant advantages.  It’d never occurred to me, in fact, how Aristotle’s massive project of classifying the natural world would have been probably impossible without the help of writing to help him organize and record his thoughts and observations.

Finally, I found myself once again wanting to cheer for Isocrates. His whole model feels excitingly contemporary. I love how he balances serious intellectual study with emphasis on practical issues and on citizenship. He struck a balance between the views of Plato and the Sophists, and as it often happens, a synthesis of opposing views often (usually?) makes for much better models.


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