Oral tradition alive in the classroom

| Staff Columnist

For thousands of years, knowledge was handed down through oral tradition. Younger generations listened to and talked with their elders, who passed down whole books, elaborate rites, rituals and ways of life. It occurred to me that this tradition lives on today in the classroom.

Briefly consider how people have stored and passed along knowledge. First, there was oral tradition. Then the printed word hit the scene, creating a new way of storing and passing down knowledge. The books that used to be memorized were written down and stored, and so later generations could learn without having to interact with the author.

At first, only a few people could read and afford to buy books, but as time went on, people became more literate, and books became cheaper. This diminished the importance of oral tradition.

Similarly, when the Internet became popular, this new way of storing and disseminating knowledge further diminished the importance and use of oral tradition as well as books. Now, few people use a physical encyclopedia; instead we opt simply to look up the topic online. While information is readily available, we are even more disconnected from the source of the information. This separation leads us to be suspicious of the information’s veracity.

While these new forms of disseminating knowledge have become indispensable, oral tradition is far from dead and will never die. We live it every day in the classroom. In every class, the text is merely a supplement to the lecture. Oral tradition is a tried-and-true method of passing along information, and over so many years, our brains have probably become wired to easily process and store what we learn in this manner.

The other strength of learning by talking and listening is that we can ask questions to improve our understanding. You cannot question a book or a page on the Internet, but you can raise your hand in class and get an answer. We can easily tell if we can trust the information by judging who is telling it to us.

This is why correspondence courses and online universities do not work. Without a lecturer to tell you information in an organized and insightful manner, it is much harder to learn the material. Without being able to ask questions, a misprint or ambiguous statement becomes a major stumbling block that you have to look up elsewhere or ask your friends about.

While oral tradition thrives in the classroom, it is not as successful outside of it. While ways of life are still passed down directly from parents to children, the passing down happens less frequently. Very few people know skills that were considered indispensable only a generation or two ago. Every day, fewer and fewer people know how to cook, sew, garden or do laundry.

When they need this knowledge, they look it up online. So, what was once passed on by word of mouth is now written down in texts or online. What was once “common sense” is no longer, and to prevent the knowledge from being lost, it is written down in books and online.

With the introduction of the Kindle and the new wave of tablets coming soon, we will have new schema for information dissemination. But they will never be able to replace the direct transmission of knowledge that is the spoken word. So when we students go to class and ask questions, we learn as nature intended.