Learning takes place within communities of discourse whose members even in dissent-are guided and constrained by notions of right, proper, and appropriate ways of saying, doing, and thinking. These normative notions constitute the commonsense basis of communication within the community, for they establish how and why what is taught by whom to whom when and where (cf. Stock 1983).
Whether oral or written, discourse is both the means and the object. It implicates and constructs a rational store of relevant information that is both the background and framework of teaching and the justification of its principles and methods. Oral and literate discourse do not differ in their moral and ethical grounding because all discourse is moral and ethical and could not otherwise be discourse (cf. Habermas 1979:1-68; Grice 1975).
Oral and literate discourse may differ, however, in their form and purposes of rationalization. In oral discourse unmediated by a textual tradition, rationality is usually instrumental and sympractical (Luria 1976; Ong 1982). It is the means of discourse that becomes the topic of discourse only if it doesn't work, or when discourse calls attention to itself, as in poetry and rhetoric. But even here oral discourse does not constitute itself as a decontextualized theoretical object to be universally rationalized; it is merely brought in for repairs or for the fun of it, and is then returned to a sympractical context where words and deeds are interdependent and speaking is inextricably reticulated with doing, even when speakers are doing little more than speaking itself.
Stephen A. Tyler is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Rice University.
Martha G. Tyler was Professor of Anthropology at Rice University