The Toronto School of Communication: David R. Olson (1935 – )


 Dr. David R. Olson

David R. Olson (born in 1935) is one of the most eminent proponents of Literacy Theory and was a member of the Toronto school of communication, and at one time a director of McLuhan Program in Culture and TechnologyInfluenced by Jack Goody’s work, he studied with Jerome Bruner, and has been particulary interested, in many books including A world on paper, by the consequences in thinking and cognition implied by the emerging of writing and reading. He combines cognitive psychology with educational theory, history of literacy and media anthropology. His research into writing and literacy began with the seminal article From utterance to text: the bias of language in speech and writing (1977), in which he analyzed text, the most advanced form of literacy, as a decontextualized and autonomous kind of discourse. His further explorations of the subject were summed up in his book The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (1994). The book, being the important supplement to Literacy Theory, develops the thesis that text as it is understood was the result of the long cultural evolution, which formed the cognitive bases for theoretical and scientific thought, and laid the foundations for subjectivity in modern understanding.

David Olson published also: Psychological Theory and Educational Reform: How School Remakes Mind and Society (2003), Jerome Bruner: Cognitive Revolution in Educational Theory (2007), and, as co-editor and co-author, Developing Theories of Mind (1990), Literacy and Orality (1991), Modes of Thought: Explorations in Culture and Cognition (1996), The Making of Literate Societies (2001), Literacy, Narrative and Culture (2002), The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009). (Edited source: )

Here is a quote by David Olson, from a 2009 interview. The full interview can be found by following the link after the quote:

“It is difficult to anticipate the cultural importance of a new technology.  Clearly digitalization has opened up new and rapid modes of communication, linking people in new ways within existing communities and creating new ones– chat groups and so on.  However, historically and culturally, the big transformations reflected the invention of writing systems, whatever their form, and the invention of print.  The former was important because it gave permanence to the word, allowing and inviting people to look more carefully at language itself.  So we got the invention of logic and more specialized forms of discourse including “scholarly” language.  The second, printing, was important in that it altered readership dramatically, allowing everyone, or almost everyone, to become a participant in the discourse.  As we say, it democratized literacy.  So, what does digitalization add?  Less to literacy, I suspect, than to economics, manufacturing, social planning (airline ticket bookings and the like).  Literacy, as a matter of extending the uses of language, so far as I can tell, has not changed much” (Interview, 2009 full interview at ).

Psychological Theory and Educational Reform

 The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading

“Conceptually, I am a child at at least a step-child of Jerome Bruner, Jack Goody, Marshall McLuhan and Eric Havelock.” – Preface to The World on Paper (1994)


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