Interpreting Across the Abyss:
A Hermeneutic Exploration
of Initial Literacy Development
by High School English Language Learners
with Limited Formal Schooling
Presentation at 2009 LESLLA Conference:
Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition
Banff, Alberta, Canada
Sept. 28, 2009
Jill Watson
Department of Curriculum & Instruction,
Second Languages & Cultures Education
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA
On Interpreting
A. Antecedents of modern hermeneutics
The Abyss
A. Four Dimensions
B. Interpreting Orality
C. The New World of Literacy, Hyperliteracy &
D. Political & Epistemological Considerations: The
gift of orality
An existential portrait of oral L2 learners making the
leap to literacy & digitacy in US high schools
I. Interpreting: A Brief History of
– Derives its name from Hermes, a god of the Greek
pantheon, who was charged with delivering
messages from the gods of Mt. Olympus for human
beings. Associated with eternal youthfulness,
volubility, creativity, trickery, duality, diplomacy, fertility,
prophetic power.
– Aristotle’s Peri hermenia: a treatise on what we do
when we are interpreting
– Ancient Alexandria had a school of hermeneutics, 1st
century BCE
A. Antecedents of modern hermeneutics
Schleiermacher, early 1800’s:
– Interpretation is a form of divination: a “feminine art”.
– The point is not to document and record, but to engage
the text (a book, an experience) in profoundly creative
ways that allow new meanings to emerge and permit
new understanding of the relationships between things
and between people.
– Knowledge is never fixed, but is emergent and evolving; it takes
a diviner, not a scientist, to be able to “read” it.
Dilthey, late 1800’s:
First to make the distinction between:
Geisteswissenschaften (Human Sciences) and
Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences), and to propose
that study of each must be distinctly appropriate to each.
Dilthey’s argument: because human lives are constructed historically,
with unique and evolving human consciousness, we cannot understand
the meaning of human experience using scientific methods.
“Nature we can explain, but humans we must
– Understand: verstehen. Contains the notion of standing for, standing
in proximity, intimacy of experience as prerequisite for understanding
human experience.
Husserl, early 1900’s
– Refuted the new positivist movements in human science
– His doctrine of “intentionality” describes the way in which the
world is always already present in our thinking, and we are
always present in the world, so, given this intersubjectivity, we
can’t be objective about world—there is no world as utterly
separate from us.
Heidegger, mid 1900’s
– Since Aristotle, Being has been the focus of philosophy, but what
is Being? Heidegger: people can only talk about being in time,
in the world as historical beings (Dasein). As such, knowledge
about humans, like human being itself, is always finite and
contingent, subject to disclosure and concealment.
Gadamer, pre-eminent scholar of hermeneutics
of the 20th century
– Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein
“effective historical consciousness”: the
essential openness of history and
– On method: It is impossible to decide on a
method of inquiry in advance, since what is
being investigated always holds part of the
answer to how it needs to be investigated.
Gadamer, continued
• Prejudice: acknowledging our forestructures of understanding
• Fusion of horizons: an essential openness
to understanding the other with his/her
own forestructures, and to seeing how my
identity is in fact a function of relationships
in history and culture that always pre-exist
As a hermeneutic project, this study aims to:
1. unpack some of the epistemological and
teleological orientations inherent in an
encounter between primarily oral students
and the world of hyperliteracy, already
itself in transition to a world of digitacy.
2. Speak divinitively, intersubjectively, from a
position of long and embedded proximal
intimacy. As a teacher in a high school for
language learners without literacy or prior
schooling, I am a participant hermeneut.
3. Inspire new ways of seeing and
understanding the experience of older
students with limited formal schooling,
learning language and literacy at the same
time, in a US high school context.
4. Acknowledge the fore-structures of my
understanding in attempting to interpret across
the abyss…
“A highly educated, extremely literate person engaging
in scholarly work, reading madly and referencing the
work of other scholars, presenting the fruits of my
scholarly work to other extremely literate,
academically proficient people, in a conference
context whose purpose and structure is completely
foreign to oral culture, in order to understand and
articulate what it is like to live orally, without print,
without words that outlast their utterance, and to
make the transition from orality, to academic literacy,
to digitacy, all in one lifetime.”
II. The Abyss: How great is it?
“Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty
imagine what a primary oral culture is like. Try
to imagine a culture where no one has ever
‘looked up’ anything—this is an empty phrase,
with no conceivable meaning. Without writing,
words as such have no visual presence. They
are sound. You might ‘call them back’, recall
them. But there is nowhere to look for them.
They are occurrences, events.”
-Walter Ong (1982). Orality and Literacy:
The technologizing of the word, p. 31.
B. Interpreting orality
Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the
word. London & New York: Routledge.
Three stages of orality
Primary: the orality of cultures untouched by literacy
Residual: traces and practices of orality that remain even as
literacy becomes more meaningful and important
Secondary: the kind of orality that arises in highly literate,
technologized cultures, for instance: telephone, radio, television,
recorded music. Orality that depends on writing and technology.
A long distance to “travel”
While most areas of the earth have by now had some
exposure to writing, still we must face the reality that in
industrialized societies many of our older L2 students
come to us directly from cultures characterized by a
very high degree of residual orality.
Minneapolis, MN, USA: Somali, Oromo, Hmong,
Karen, Liberian, Indigenous people of the Americas
Ong’s Characteristics of Oral Mind
It’s all about memory: “The residual
orality of a chirographic culture can be
calculated to a degree from the
mnemonic load it leaves on the mind,
that is, from the amount of memorization
the culture’s educational procedures
Contrastive interpretation with
• A look at Ong’s 8 psychodynamic
characteristics of oral mind
• Contrasting tasks required of successful
high school student in US.
1. Additive rather than
The oral mind strongly favors additive
constructions (and…and, rather than: thus,
while-- subordinating structures). Oral
structures look to pragmatics (in the
context of speaking), while written
structures turn to syntactics, elaborate and
fixed grammars which rely heavily on
subordination. (p. 39)
US high school context
• Standards of good writing required for
academic success specifically reward
subordinative writing and punish additive,
run-on constructions.
2. Aggregative rather than Analytic
• Clumps of fixed expressions, “not so much
simple integers as clusters of integers.” The
sturdy oak, the brave soldier, the beautiful
princess, the glorious revolution of October.
• Need to be kept in tact, it has taken a long time
to establish them, and there is nowhere outside
the mind to store them. Without a writing
system, breaking up thought—that is, analysis—
is a high-risk procedure. (p. 38)
US High School contrast
• Repeating expressions others have used
may be plagiarism, at the very least it is
not good, inventive writing
• Coining phrases denotes a good writer.
• Analytic thought is the hallmark of the
successfully educated person.
3. Redundant or ‘copious’
• Repetitiveness aids in comprehension, allows
audience to remember, allows speaker to collect
next thought.
• Rhetoricians called this ‘copia’: fluency,
fulsomeness, volubility. Sparsely linear thought
as occasioned by writing is an artificial
construction. Redundancy is much more natural
to human thought. (p. 39)
US High School context
• Repetitiveness is to be avoided in tight
academic writing.
• Focus of key academic standards: being
able to condense large amounts of
information to the basic “main idea”
• Emphasis on summaries, economy of
• Bullet-point mentality
4. Conservative, Traditionalist
In the absence of writing, knowledge must be repeated or it will be lost.
Great energy is expended in oral cultures in saying over and over again
what has been arduously learned over the centuries.
Hence, the figure of the wise elder has great importance—imparter of
sayings which constitute the core knowledge of the culture.
Eg. It is often said that every time an elder dies in Oromo society, a “library
is lost”
This mindset discourages intellectual experimentation. In typographic
cultures, storing knowledge outside the mind downgrades the importance of
the wise elder; repeater of the past, in favor of a younger discoverers of
something new.
Oromsis, iRep Oromia, Being Oromo in the States. Downloaded Sept. 20, 2009
US High School contrast
• New discoveries: scholarship, inquiry
• New technologies: elders are behind the
• The individual reader is said to be
“constructing meaning from the text”
• Thematic experimentation is encouraged
and rewarded
• Anecdote: “My best day as a teacher is
when the students take over the class.”
5. Close to human lifeworld
• All knowledge is conceptualized and verbalized
in reference to the lifeworld, even the objective,
alien world is reinterpreted according to the
known lifeworld.
• Oral mind includes no statistics or abstract lists.
Note: genealogies (the begats) are lists but
entirely concerned with lived history. No such
thing as trade manuals or how-to books: skills
are transmitted by apprenticeship (even in
textual cultures, this is common), relying on
observation and practice and very little
verbalization. (p. 42)
US high school contrast
Anecdote: In a classifying exercise in science class, students are
asked to sort pictures of sporting goods with a capital letter attached
to each one according to whether it is done indoors, outdoors, or
The science teacher goes through the exercise, giving the “correct”
• Ice skating is classified as outdoors, despite the account of a
newcomer student that he has ice skated indoors.
• Tennis is classified as outdoors, despite an adult describing the work
of her husband tennis pro indoors all winter.
The point: Arbitrariness, unreality of definition. Teacher: “I know you
can do that one outdoors, but we’ll just call it indoors.” Also note:
the teacher has and claims the authority to override the truth of
experience, and newcomer LFS ELL students accept it.
6. Agonistically toned
• Oral or residually oral cultures strike literates as highly agonistic in
their verbal performance and their lifestyles.
• Writing allows abstractions that disengage knowledge from the
arena of human struggle, separating knower from known. In
orality, knowledge is embedded in the lifeworld, keeping it
within the context of struggle. Thus it is common to engage
others in verbal debate, also bragging, parading one’s exploits,
flyting (reciprocal name calling), the dozens, joining, sounding
(insulting another’s mother), celebrating physical behavior,
descriptions of violence.
• On the other side of the same coin: fulsome praise, celebrating
glory of a hero or community. What strikes the literate as
“insincere, flatulent, and comically pretentious” is the natural product
of “highly polarized, agonistic, oral world of good and evil, virtue and
vice, villains and heroes.”
US high school contrast
• Classrooms and hallways in newcomer high school
settings often drive teachers crazy because of the verbal
noise, volume, volubility, many people speaking at once,
even when the teacher is speaking
• Even the level of volubility in the British parliament is
considered inappropriate in US political and school
• Increasing medication of students, especially boys,
whose behavior needs to be modulated in order for them
to fit into school culture
• Goal is to maintain an atmosphere of quiet work and
purpose, without passion or disruption
7. Empathetic & participatory rather
than objectively distanced
• Learning or knowing means achieving close,
communal identification with the known.
• Writing sets up the condition for objectivity in the
sense of personal disengagement or distancing.
Communal ‘soul’ in oral culture as opposed to
‘individual soul’ in literate culture. (p. 45)
• Einstein: What does a fish know about the water in which he
spends his life? (literate scientist perspective.) Who knows more
about water than a fish? (oral perspective)
US High School contrast
• Rugged Individualism vs. communal soul:
In literature classes, strong emphasis on
individual reflection, making your own
• Scientific Stance vs. participatory
understanding: Objectivity is required in
science and math
8. Homeostatic
• Oral societies live in a present whose equilibrium is maintained by
sloughing off memories no longer relevant to the
present conditions.
• Eg.: Oral historians and W. African griots leave out parts of
genealogies and histories that don’t support the communal order of
today (as opposed to written records which show the situation of the
past). British vs. oral records in Ghana, of land ownership.
• Oral cultures uninterested in definitions such as provided by
dictionaries, elucidating layers of old meanings. What matters is
the functionality of expressions and meanings today—do they
enhance the social order we are living in now, which is preferred to a
factual account which might damage or stir things up.
• This principle strongly favors the winner, oral culture encourages
US high school contrast
• Fantastically heavy emphasis on defining words
and concepts, the act of definition
Examples and non-examples, True and False
Distilling essential characteristics
Copying vocabulary and definitions of terms
Dictionary entries—multiple and confusing
• History: claims of legitimate grievance model
• The coin story: why save money? To learn
9. Situational rather than abstract
• Ong on Luria: Oral noesis does not think in
purely artificial abstractions:
– Syllogisms (self-referential logic)
– Purely abstract categories, such as grouping
according to type rather than function (eg. hammer,
saw, log, hatchet—all are alike say oral folk).
– If asked to identify shapes such as a circle or square,
oral people say the name of an objects, eg. plate,
those with some schooling say circle. Categorical
thinking is “uninteresting, trivializing.” (p. 49)
US High School Contrast
• Largely consists in categorizing
information, in preparation for:
• Standardized education / assessments
• Move to standardize all knowledge:
“National Core Standards”
• Ability to learn and produce evidence of
learning without reference to experience is
Summary: Interpreting Oral Noesis
The mind (heart, spirit) develops
distinctly in an oral environment versus a
high literate, or digital environment. (Wolf,
McCluhan, Ong, Luria)
What it means to be intelligent in orality
is different than what it means to be
intelligent in literacy, which is different than
intelligence in digitacy.
C. The New World of Literacy,
Hyperliteracy, Digitacy
More is going on with literacy than
just acquiring a skill…
You have to die (lose orality) to
attain new life (literacy).
“There is hardly an oral culture or predominantly
oral culture left in the world today that is not
somehow aware of the vast complex of powers
that is forever inaccessible without literacy. This
awareness is agony for persons rooted in
primary orality, who want literacy passionately
but who also know very well that moving into the
exciting world of literacy means leaving behind
much that is exciting and deeply loved in the
earlier oral world. We have to die to continue
living” (Ong, p. 15).
Concerns over the costs of literacy
are not unknown in western
In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the inferiority of
writing as opposed to speaking, as writing is
helpless, cannot defend itself, always gives the
same answer when asked a question.
A truly intelligent person possesses the nimble wit
required for excellent oral discourse.
• Plato’s concerns that a new technology
will make people less intelligent are
echoed in our time..
The Atlantic,
The Atlantic,
Nov. 2008
From Orality to Literacy and
The journey our students must
make from…
School in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya
To the palaces of literacy we are
accustomed to in the Western academic
The George Peabody
Library, Baltimore, MD
Gibert Jeune bookstore, Paris
Barnes & Noble bookstore, US
• So even as, in the U.S., hardly a day goes
by without renewed calls to address
literacy problems now understood to reach
to secondary school levels…
Sept. 25,
Still, in a high school with at least 25% of
students unable to read at a “second
grade level”, we find a graveyard in the
High School
Sept. 2009
• Yet our enormous faith in literacy provides
us with the comforting assertion that even
if we destroy our environment and none of
our digital technology works anymore, we
will still have books, and happy reading
time, in a post-apocalyptic world…
The Myth of Literacy
• Social: Literacy is able to solve all manner of
societal problems
• Actualization: Literacy (leading to literature)
represents a unique actualization of full human
• Critical Empowerment: Literacy allows us to
name the world and become empowered
• Medical: Illiteracy is a disease that must be
What all of this points to:
The “crisis of literacy” in our hyperliterate world is
not really a crisis of literacy but a crisis of
Between humans and nature
Between nations
Between worldviews
Between people
Smith, D.G. (1999). Modernism, hyperliteracy and the colonization of the word. In Pedagon: Human
sciences, pedagogy and culture. Pp. 61-72. New York: Peter Lang.
D. Political & Epistemological
1. Epistemological crises
2. Logic of Empire
1. Epistemological Crises in the West
Postmodern, Feminist, & Systems Studies:
Tracing the legacies of Literacy & Scientism
(Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Kristeva, Bourdieu, Polkinghorne)
• Phonetic alphabet pre-requisite to scientific method
• Reading, writing, & isolation (you talk together, you read
and write alone)
• S/O split: literacy and scientism as prerequisite for
ontological schism of enlightenment age
• Facts are determinable if you use the correct method to
ascertain them
• Facts = truth
The Spirit of the Enlightenment
Flower in a crannied wall
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower–but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
-Alfred Lord Tennyson
Psychic Profile of Western Cultures
Although surrounded by libraries, bookstores, cell phones,
Blackberries, & I-Pods, we are plagued by:
• Exhaustion & bitterness
• Growing sense of futility (depression, suicide, civic
• Loss of meaning and sense of purpose
• Anomie, alienation from others, traditional bonds
An awareness of our own psychoses must temper our
eagerness to export this “developed” way of life,
underwritten, literally, by a magical belief in the power of
literacy, science, free markets, and academic degrees
attained by achievement on standardized tests.
2. The Logic of Empire
• Post-colonial & post-modern studies
provide an account of the effect of
epistemological and political empire on
subjugated peoples
• Said, Bhabha, Nandy, Mazrui, Spivak,
Literacy, Hyperliteracy, Neocolonialism,
& Globalization:
“The Best of All Possible Worlds”
• Kant’s logic of Emancipative Reason: Those who do
not choose freedom are living in “perpetual immaturity”
• Hegel: European civilization has transcended culture,
has created a Universal Culture of Freedom through
Reason. Others have quaint, charming, or violent
cultures, but they are primitive, not yet developed, as the
West is.
• Fukayama proclaims the End of History: U.S.
democracy buttressed by free-market economy
represents the culmination of History, a transcending of
the vicissitudes of developmental history.
The persistent violence of
Theweleit (Male Fantasies): The holocaust is not an aberration but rather the
logical result of the Enlightenment
Dussel: The Myth of sacrifice—the flipside of the Myth of Emancipative Reason.
Those who do not accept Western rationalism remain in a primitive state and may be
(must be) sacrificed in service of global progress.
Deloria: Although American society in a way accepts the relativity of things as a
leveling device between comparative values, white society has, on the whole, acted
as if all things should be related to its values only (p. 25).
Habermas (1984), a child of Frankfurt School critical theory, persists in contrasting
the unreflective mode of mythical thought, as exemplified by his essentialized portrait
of the Azande people of Africa, with “occidental rationalism” that is a prerequisite to
his theory of communicative action. The putative message: every one can play, if
they play our game by our rules.
Smith (2006): Since the advent of “The 1492 World System” (Amin, 2001), the
sacrificing of people, by way of the murder and embalming of their essential values
as expressed in forms of community and communication, takes place as a largely
unquestioned matter of course in Western education (“The specific challenges of
globalization for teaching and vice-versa.” )
Summary: Legacies of Empire
• Literacy + Scientism = Objectivity
• European Culture is Universal, transcends
• New Global Economic order requires
uniformly educated students to meet
requirements of global markets
The tacit message of neo-imperialism:
Those who do not or can not comply with
the noble gifts of enlightened academic
scientism employed in service of global
market concerns must be sacrificed, and
it’s ok to do so.
What’s missing in all of this:
a true conversation
“You cannot have a conversation if one partner
has no desire for it or if his/her worldview does
not value it necessarily…
What are the implications for a globalizing world of
traditions that are exclusive in their selfinterpretation, wherein being in conversation
with Others does not imply the possibility of
change within one’s own worldview?”
(Smith, 1999, p. 108, italics added)
The one-sided “conversation” that American
education is having with LFS oral L2 learners
is an expression of schools
as agents of neo-Hegelian empire
• Academic English is like medieval Learned Latin: the
mother tongue of no one, unrelated to anyone’s life
• Standardized Tests: embalmed knowledge
• Primary mode of instruction:
Determinate, sealed > like the fate of oral culture trying to
acquire these norms
III. Existential Portrait of students from
strongly oral cultures in their encounter with
academic hyperliteracy in US high schools
Survival studenting:
Filled with ug, the younghede Tenderis groped his way
along the downsteepy path toward the cosh wherein
dwelled the feared spirit-person. Squit-a-pipes that he
was, Tenderis found negotiating his way through the
eileber and venerated dway-berries very teenful in the
nyle. He tripped over zuches spiss with maily malshaves
that made him quetch at their touch.
(S.K. Sperling, Poplollies and Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words, pp.33, 35.)
• 1. What was Tenderis’ emotion as approached the cosh?
• 2. Why was it difficult to go through the eileber and
• Define these terms: younghede, teenful, maily
The Point: LFS preliterate L2 learners
develop incredible skills at figuring out
what might go in what place, without
actually understanding the content.
The Metapoint: Teachers and systems must
not allow the appearance of proficiency to
outweigh real proficiency. It is our lack of
appropriate preparation and pedagogy that
allows, indeed requires this type of
Survival Studenting: Faking
In the absence of true meaning, students adapt by
appearing to understand and participate
in order to satisfy the teacher and get a grade
• Faking accomplishments:
Eg: Teacher: who got only one or two wrong? Student who
didn’t complete any at all raises his hand proudly.
• Faking understanding what is going on
Eg: Responding to intonation: raised voice with “right?” Or
“don’t you?” Students just say “yes” or “no” to comply.
• Copy whatever looks like the activity we are doing.
Eg: Copying is perhaps the most pervasive form of “instruction”
used by underprepared teachers in sheltered classes, both in
lessons, and by having students copy portions of answers in notes
to use in tests.
Pretending is the fate of the sacrificial student,
ghettoized to receive surface level, tokenistic standardsbased content instruction that looks good only in
curriculum guides and to outside evaluators of the
content area, but is not meaningfully taught to students
whose deficits in language proficiency (L1 and L2), and
in cognitive academic preparation present an incredible
abyss between their actual state and the subject matter
we pretend to teach them and they pretend to learn.
Basic telos underwriting all this: It is the authority
of western education underwritten by epistemological
supremacy assumptions and the weight of empire that
compels teachers and students to participate in the
Consequences of Literate
Academic Culture in US High
Schools for those of Primary Oral
• Mnemonic Plague: Only written knowledge counts (eg. citations)
leads to devaluing of elders, traditional knowledge
• Forced choice between “a better life” encrypted in academic literacy,
and a life embedded in authentic relationships
• Forced to copy or fail, pretend or admit ignorance
• Forced to abandon the relationship between language and meaning
• Forced to see others as means to my ends (Western globalization
Hyperliteracy, Academic Language:
Embalming the Living
Words and concepts, and the discourse and pedagogy that surround
them, are treated like Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall, like
specimens in formaldehyde.
American education in its current manifestation as a product of
eurocentric scientism requires that ideas and words be immobilized
in this way. Standardized tests are the penultimate expression of
preserved, embalmed knowledge; the text booklets are their
caskets, the vaults where they are locked for security are their
vaults, the results are the students’ and schools’ academic epitaphs,
published in papers for the public to decry and to mourn.
Hermeneutically understoond, people who journey from orality to
literacy have to undergo the process of embalming while they are
Academic Rigor (mortis):
where the right questions and answers are
predetermined by a state or national board
Academic Vigor:
where learning is embedded in lived life, and
life is always considered interpretable
The gift of orality
Considered against the psychoses of the occidental world,
the noesis of orality brings the possibility of a healing gift:
much of what we in the academic cultures lack is precisely
what oral cultures possess.
This thought leads to a recognition of the pragmatic and
ethical imperative of deep reciprocity:
The command to love your enemy (the other)
is not only about “doing the right thing” but
also, perhaps mostly, a statement of our own
need: the oral other has noetic knowledge
that the West is suffering from a lack of, and
requires to survive.
The hermeneutic path: the middle way
• Gadamer: reconciling tradition and the presence of the new
• There is no responsible choice other than to teach literacy
and academic knowledge to all who come to live in this
society. Literacy does make a big difference. Groups like
LESSLA are devoted to this goal.
• But: we must do it in a way that makes sense.
• We learn more about what makes sense for the
newcomers by reflecting on the existential nature of oral
cultural experience in its encounter with literacy. That is,
we learn about the weaknesses and fallacies of our
own instructional designs by noticing how they are
received by those who are previously untouched by a
cynical, distanciated relation with knowledge and
A Two-Way Conversation
We are not just teaching our older, limited
formal schooling, preliterate students-They are teaching us.
An intersubjective, valence-structured
educational orientation suggests itself:
• On the one hand, we have a responsibility to
teach in the most effective, humane way, so that
HS newcomers have a fair chance at practical
survival in a world of hyperliteracy.
• On the other hand, we have the opportunity to
cultivate our ability to be open and attuned, that
we may learn about spontaneous, embedded,
orally-toned ways of being, to give our
hyperliterate selves a fair chance at our own
ontic survival.