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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.

 

His accomplishments during the past year alone would be enough to fatten the tenure portfolio of two or three assistant professors: published book number 18; gave the inaugural Corps of Discovery Lecture at MU; launched a ground-breaking Web site; served as an advisor to a prominent United Nations cultural project; planned the 20th anniversary celebration for the academic center and journal he founded; launched a second academic center, this one to foster better Internet research.

And that's just the big stuff.

Awe-struck graduate students explain the prodigious productivity of John Miles Foley, the oral historian who holds both a Curators' professorship and the William H. Byler Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities at MU, like this: The man simply doesn't sleep.

His colleagues around the nation have a slightly different, though no less admiring, way of describing Foley's contribution to the study of oral communications. "He really invented and crystallized the field in its modern form," says Joseph Harris, a professor of English and folklore at Harvard University.

"He's an icon," adds Richard Martin, a professor of classics at Stanford University. "He is the major person in the world who brings together the meticulous study of oral literature with field work and the study of oral literature from the cognitive science perspective. He's on top of all those things. Most people only do one or two of those things well. He has also had the administrative genius to help people in our field communicate with one another through his Center for Studies in Oral Tradition."

But even an icon can feel unappreciated. Because our hyper-literate, computer-crazed society esteems writing above all other forms of communication, Foley regularly finds himself on the defensive with students -- and even other scholars -- who question the relevance of the unwritten word. It's enough to get a rise out the usually unflappable Foley.

"When a culture doesn't have an alphabet, it's not the lack of something, it's the presence of something else, which is far older and more durable than any inscriptional system that's ever been invented," he says.

Think of it this way, he continues. If human history were condensed into a single calendar year, the printing press wouldn't have come along until Dec. 27, mass-market paperbacks wouldn't have showed up until the afternoon of New Year's Eve, and the Internet wouldn't have appeared until the final countdown to midnight.

Moreover, Foley says, though cell phones, Blackberries, and notebook PCs may be ubiquitous in the United States, Europe and parts of Asia, most of the world's cultures are decidedly unplugged, their people still functioning within the same oral modes that have served them for millennia. Think of these folks as humankind's pre-digital hard drive: Here are stored our collected values, customs, stories, histories, laws, philosophies, genealogies, recipes, medicines and much more.

       
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Published by the Office of Research. Copyright 2005, Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.