Literacy and the differential value of knowledge

In today’s world, “literacy” is strongly associated with competence: the ability to read and write is the pre-condition for the acquisition of all kinds of knowledge and skills. The basic rule of thumb is: “No literacy, no education.”

A comment on last week’s post “Literacy – the power code” questions this ubiquitous connection between literacy and competence, and asks about other ways of learning: what about the son of a shoe-maker who learns by observation and participation? Or the daughter of a carpenter who is similarly apprenticed into the trade? Even without literacy, are they not competent and educated?

They sure are! There can be no doubt that it is possible to achieve an education, to become competent and to gain wisdom by learning from your elders and without engaging in literacy-mediated learning.

However, in a world that has a literacy fetish, as ours does, this kind of education and knowledge becomes devalued. Where knowledge and competence associated with literacy are highly valued, knowledge and competence associated with traditional ways are simultaneously discounted.

In fact, the elevation of literacy-associated knowledge over other forms of knowledge has long been a part of colonial projects.

Consider the ways we think about our relationship to the land on which we live: you might live on a plot of land or in a house and take good care of it; you might make sure it is maintained well and is a good place to live; you might tend to the plants and animals who live there; and you might make sure it will be a good place to live that provides shelter and food not only for yourself but also for your children and generations to come.

To be able to do that surely makes you a competent person and a wise and good human being. But what if you do all that but don’t hold a title to the land? If you don’t have a piece of writing that says this plot of land and this house is yours? You might not be able to do any of these good things and, even if you do, your efforts will not be much valued by society.

Now let’s consider the opposite case: you hold a title to a plot of land – i.e. you have a piece of writing that says the land is yours – and you go about destroying the land: you despoil its natural resources, exterminate the plants and animals, poison the water and generally ruin it, also for your neighbors and for those who come after you. While this sounds despicable, it happens all the time and, by and large, as a society we approve of such practices because there is that piece of paper that confers ownership and all kinds of associated property rights.

Our contemporary belief in the power of a piece of writing – the title deed – devalues all other ways of relating to the land on which we live, as is well-illustrated by the idea of terra nullius: the idea that, prior to European settlement, Australia was “a land belonging to no one”.

Terra nullius became one of the legal and moral justifications for the British colonization of Australia: the assumption was that the continent had not belonged to anyone until Europeans “found” it. While Aboriginal people had obviously lived in Australia prior to 1788, they were not seen as having a right to the land between Governor Bourke’s 1835 proclamation of terra nullius and the first successful native title claim in the Mabo case of 1992.

One of the indicators why Aboriginal people supposedly did not have a right to their land lay in the fact that they did not have any written ownership records or title deeds. Instead of recording their ownership of the land in written title deeds, Aboriginal Australians had a spiritual relationship to the land which they communicated through stories and songs, as the Papunya School Book of Country and History explains:

When the Tjulkura [= white people] came to Australia, they did not recognise that, between them, different groups of Aboriginal people owned all the continent. Because there were no pieces of paper saying which people belonged to which country, white people decided that the land was terra nullius. […] The Tjulkura did not understand that Aboriginal people had been recording their ownership of their country in songs, stories, dances and paintings since the time when law began.

To Europeans, knowledge recorded in and transmitted via “songs, stories, dances and paintings” seemed primitive and barbaric: in short, worthless.

That only literacy-mediated knowledge has value is, in this case, obviously a self-serving fallacy. However, it is easy to overlook this fallacy in our literacy-obsessed world. Imagine if we routinely thought about the human relationship to the earth not as one of ownership but as one of custodianship. Maybe some of the ecological disasters of our time could have been avoided if we were not so fixated on the power of written documents to establish knowledge and competence? And if we were less keen to discard and ignore all other forms of knowledge?

Can you think of other examples where forms of knowledge and learning that are not mediated through literacy are being devalued in favor of knowledge and learning that are associated with literate practices?

Further reading

If you want to read more about the colonization of Australia as a project that has partly been about imposing British ways of seeing and discarding Aboriginal ways of seeing, you might want to check out Chapter 3 of the newly released second edition of Intercultural Communication. A flier with a discount code is available here.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Deepak BHANDARI

    when I think about literacy I remember about the film named “God must be crazy”. In this film the lifestyle and the knowledge of the tribal people who live in the dense forest of Africa is shown. Their encounter with the modern world and invention is shown in a very funny way. They are surprised and shocked to see the discoveries made by the modern man. But, there is another side of the story, too. The modern man who is proud to be literate and knows to read and write do not have the knowledge which is lying in the nature. The tribal group who do not know how to read and write have unlimited knowledge about the nature and are aware about the mysteries related to it through observation. They have passed their knowledge from one generation to another generation through observation without any script, class and book. Therefore literacy cannot be defined as knowing how to read and write only but it can be explained as the knowledge which we can get through observation and experience.


    Hi Tiya,
    Thanks for your comment. I like the points you’ve made as for the suggestion for keeping the e-documents in case lost, but with the devices humans don’t need to have when they’re reading a book, I’m just thinking that a book is also a technology that’s pretty much the same as a device in terms of the functions for this matter. That might have something to do with prestige, but e-books nowadays are also very much possible to be sold online to acknowledge the right of authorship, in my opinion.


    I do agree that there is a strong connection between literacy and competence. In modern societies, literacy-associated knowledge is evaluated by written documents acknowledged by separate authorities. The power lay behind simply “claims” one`s competence, which is understandable in this efficiency-oriented society. It is especially obvious to notice when one has to show all the certificates, qualifications and other documents as he manages to find a job or apply for certain positions. The actual ability and other forms of knowledge which take time to demonstrate are discounted at the first sight. This is the reason why the debate between exam-oriented education and all round development education is so heated.

  • Min Wu KIM

    This article reminds me of my experience as a homeroom teacher in a public secondary school in South Korea last year. There was a girl I was in charge who had psychological issues, originated from the experience of being bullied at a primary school and exposed to the violence from her parents. Her mental state was very unstable and that made it hard to form a close relationship with her classmates who even tried to get close to her first. As the girl kept saying about ‘death’ and ‘suicide’ in everyday conversation, I, as a homeroom teacher, and a consultant of student’s behaviour took super care of her, letting her to come and say whatever she wanted to say. I tried to be on her side to support her mentally. However, though I spent countless hours on caring her, I found that I had no written version of our conversation, which got me in trouble when she disappeared during the school hours and a vice-president of the school asked me what I had done for her to keep this from happening. Everybody around me, including co-teachers and students, knew the endeavour I made but that didn’t mean a proof that I tried to keep her on a right track. This experience helped me notice that we value writing more than other modes of literacies in our social practices. Fortunately, she returned without any harm and became a university student majoring in social wellbeing, though.

  • Yeji LEE

    I totally agree with the idea that the ability to read and write is the most important prerequisite for the acquisition of different kinds of knowledge and skills. In our real life, there are hundreds thousands of so-called ‘certificates’ that prove a person’s ability and it always requires the act of reading, listening, writing, and sometimes even speaking. It is not limited to the linguistic competence. Even driving license, for example, can be acquired by those who should be able to read and write, because there is also a written test as well as pratical driving test. We are living in the world with power of literacy. However, as shown in the example of Aboriginal people in the article, it should be assured that other kinds of competence can be exist aside from the literacy.

  • Kyungmin Lee

    I cannot agree more with the strong relationship between written language and power. As one of participants of diverse kinds of communities, I always have to prove myself as a qualified one by providing relevant document. Most people who need to be hired and want secure jobs are required to write a resume and a cover letter, in organised and fairly typical ways. If the individual applicants fail to construct those forms, they are not likely to get any opportunity to have job interviews. That is why many proofreaders for academic writing can easily earn money in some countries, for which I would like to cite Ingrid’s word, ‘literacy obsessed world’. The ongling trend of heavy zeal for obtaining power of literacy proficiency do not seem to be stoppable as long as human being seeks for betterment in life.

  • zhao valencia

    I can totally relate this topic to what I have read before, a book about the cultural invasion and assimilation in Tibet, China. As a matter of fact, far more Chinese variations are now on the edge of extinction, due to the nature that they are only handed down in the form of saga or legend stories, without a well-developed semantic or written system, let alone some dialects scattered in diverse rural areas. It is true that the promotion of standardised mandarine plays a positive role in improving civilian education as well as the enhancing the connection of the whole race, lingua-diversity cannot be overlooked, for every segments of language represents a piece of history and an element of culture.

  • Hayu Austina

    Thank you for bringing this topic. It reminds me to some people that I know who studied IT and pursue careers in IT sector. To get a better job, they can not only depend on their university diploma. It will be privilege for them to finish a specific IT certification program and hold the certificate. Even though learning through experience is valued by the companies who will recruit them, they need to prove their skills and attach that proof in their resume. Therefore, a certification program and the final certificate is like getting a ticket to enter a community of practice and the individuals need to nurture their knowledge within that community for their professional development.

  • swati sharma

    Need and instincts prompts human and animals alike to evolve ways and means for survival. In this quest homosapiens have entered an era of computorisation, artificial intelligence , algorithms etc. The beggining of the journey searched for the shelter food and protection from the dangers. Stone age thinkers invented tools, no body taught them any engineering, college workshops how to give a desired shape to the pottery , weapons etc. No schools advised them how to sow and reap. These great ancestors paved the way of todays literati or literacy.

    In a way the literacy of the past is the father of todays literacy. Society is obsessed for literacy, doesnt know actual meaning education , competence. Literacy can not be defined or confined to any particular belief or methodology. Its spectrum and scope is far beyond the reach of universities , college and modern research institutes.

  • Xi Yang

    I am totally agree with the idea that language is related to power, particularly written languages. It is a common phenomenon in our society that you have to possess the required documents in order to to be employed. Sometimes, you feel like the employers are valued more on your certificates and documents rather than the employee’s actual working experience and working skills. One of the example is my personal experience, several years ago I applied for a job to teach speaking for a language center which mainly offer PTE exam preparation course. The interviewers said that I demonstrate good speaking skills and my score of speaking is good, however my writing skills is not good as the other skills (reading, listening and speaking), therefore they asked me to take the test again to obtain a higher score for writing and also the CELTA certificate, and then they’ll consider employ me.

  • Such an interesting point! In German there is only one translation equivalent for “fiddle” and “violin” (“Geige”) and I remember trying to figure out the difference between what I thought were two different instruments when I read “Little house on the prairie” (where dad often plays the fiddle) … up until now I thought they were somehow different instruments expect that the difference somehow escaped me … your explanation makes much more sense. Thanks! Ingrid

    • Luc Belliveau

      When I asked him, my grandfather told me the difference is “You don’t spill beer on a violin.” I don’t think the differentiation exists in French either, and the similarity between the words (“violon” and “violin”) is probably where I got confused when talking about it in English! I wonder if there are other distinctions like this for musical instruments in other languages. In this case it seems to fall along the same lines as the pig/pork distinction in English, so it seems to be a result of the influence of the French language on English courtly life.

  • MB24

    Further on the emergence of a specific literacy, Xanthaki (2013) writes on the recent emergence of legislative drafting as a sub discipline of law. Are we then to equate the emergence of such a sub discipline as simultaneously an emergence of a specific literacy. Perhaps the better question is, what exactly is the criteria for a specific literacy? Taking the certificate of title as an example, we may allege that a person literate in legislative practices would read the certificate differently to a person illiterate in such practices. The difference lies in the assumed knowledge brought to the certificate’s reading.