Education Systems -Literate vs Oral Cultures, and Everything in Between

by Rose Hill

Typically, when one thinks of education in Fantasy, one thinks of magic schools like Hogwarts, or belabored apprentices to old, bearded wizards.  Both of these rely on some level of literacy, typically assuming literate people as the default within the culture.


Historically, oral cultures have been around a lot longer than literate cultures.  There’s simply more time to work with if you want inspiration for an oral culture.  Even within cultures that had writing, it has historically been reserved for the educated elite–and/or tax collectors.  The chances of your average farm-boy hero having access to any sort of writing is awfully slim.


That said, there’s no reason for characters from oral cultures not to be every bit as intelligent as literate characters.  Literacy is not a mark of intelligence.  A character from an oral culture could very well have a more advanced knowledge of just about any subject not related to literature.


Be careful not to fall into the “Noble/Wise Savage” trope.  Just because a character is from an oral culture, doesn’t mean they have any special knowledge about nature.  Just because a character is from a highly literate culture doesn’t mean they’re clueless about nature.  Specialties in knowledge will appear in every cultural group, no matter how that knowledge is gained.


How widespread is literacy?


No one is born knowing how to read, even in the most literate cultures in the world.  Everyone has to be taught.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone is taught.  Even in highly literate cultures like ours, there are those who slip through the gaps or are otherwise excluded.


Who has access to the level of education and supplies necessary to read?  The cost of education and the supplies necessary to teach a person to read will depend on the materials they are reading.  Has the printing press been invented?  That will makes books much cheaper.  Is each book or scroll hand inscribed?  That will make it more expensive.  Do people write on paper?  Do they use papyrus, or slate, or clay?  Do they write with graphite, lead, ink, chalk?  Is all writing carved into stone tablets?


Is education offered to everyone, or is it only the purview of the rich?  Perhaps not even the rich bother to read, and it is just the domain of scholars.  Are there any social classes that are banned from learning to read?  Think about how women in certain cultures are discouraged from attending school, or encouraged to drop out early to take care of the home.


Is writing considered sacred?  If so, is reading limited to priests, or is universal literacy a part of their religious tenants?


Is writing inherently magical?  What effect would that have on learning to read and write?  Would teaching someone to read and write be the same as teaching them spells?  Or are the two separate, but magic is still dependent on writing in some way?  (See Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard for an example.)


If there is a hivemind at work, does everyone need to know how to read?  You could have a class of travelling scholars who go out and read as much as they can, so that all the knowledge is transferred back to the greater collective.


What do the people who can read think of those who can’t?  What do people who can’t read think of those who can?  Is literacy a mark of high social status, or are such people seen as a bit clueless/disconnected from life?  Related to this…


How important is literacy?


What is the social perception of literacy?  Is being able to read considered a part of the basic education that everyone needs?  If yes, then who is responsible for teaching such basic skills?  Who is blamed if a person grows up without those basic skills?


If magic is tied to writing and/or reading, then your societal perception of literacy will be directly tied to the social perception of magic.  If reading/writing is restricted to a particular class (scholars, priests, men, the wealthy, foreigners, etc), then perception of literacy will be directly tied to that particular class.


If literacy is seen as trivial, it will likely be restricted to those who can afford to invest their free time in a purely leisure pursuit.  It could still be viewed as shameful, or a mark of eccentricity.


Is mastering literacy a symbol of the higher classes who can afford the leisure time to study instead of work?  In such cases, literacy will be a required skill to successfully pass as a higher social class.  Similarly, pretending illiteracy will be required to pass as someone from the lowest classes.


Historically, basic literacy has been the most common among tax collectors and merchants.  People who have to track money and goods want a way to record what they have, and want a more accurate record than memory.


This has largely been a societal discussion, but certain organizations may rely on literacy more than the culture at large.  Think of all the paperwork that goes in to bureaucracy.  How many people need to read the same report?  Who has to collect disparate reports and combine them all together to report higher up?  If a religious organization has a sacred text, think of how far and how much they want to share that text.  Is everyone in the priesthood required to read the text? Are laymen encouraged to read it as well?  Is it only allowed to be read by the highest priests in the order?


How is knowledge passed down?


One thing to keep in mind is that oral cultures are likely to have a huge focus on memory, because there is no way to write something down to remind yourself later.  Knowledge is passed down orally, pretty much by definition, but there is still a fair bit of variety possible.

  • Lecture
  • Songs/chants/rhymes
  • Stories/myths
  • Socratic method/question and answer
  • Discussion groups
  • Telepathy/hive mind/magically implanted


Techniques are most likely to be taught by demonstration.  This may be in a group setting, or it may be one-on-one, but either way, knowledge goes directly from teacher to student. Describing techniques is also possible, but demonstrations are more likely.


Knowledge can still be passed down verbally in a literate culture, though if the people involved are both/all literate and access to writing materials is available, writing and reading is generally a part of the teaching material.

  • Reading books
  • Reading essays
  • Reading scrolls
  • Reading religious texts
  • Writing essays
  • Doing worksheets
  • Writing repeating sentences or words
  • Copying previous writing
  • Writing a letter/journal/story/paper


In a literate culture, how much access to further education does the average person have?


Once a person is trained in their profession, how stuck are they in that task?  What options are there for further learning?  What options are there to access different opinions, from minor disagreements to revolutionary texts?


Are there libraries?  If so, are they public or private?  Who has access to private libraries?  How are books sold, shared, and copied?  Who controls which books are published?


Do people have access to the Internet (or your worlds equivalent thereof), where they can look up further information?  Is anything on the Internet restricted?


Is higher education free?  If not, how cost-prohibitive is it?  Which social classes are excluded because they cannot afford higher education?


In an oral culture, how much access to education does the average person have?  


How specialized is knowledge?  How easy is it for people to switch careers?  How much choice do people have in their professions?  How can people continue learning once they have attained whatever their culture considers the minimum required knowledge?


What sort of knowledge is restricted?