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American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

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Cultural transmission is possible because we have an advantage. Early in life (at about age of nine months), infants begin to see that other people are like themselves, that they are like other people, that all of us have intentions and mental lives, and that all of us are members of social networks of others like us. Babies demonstrate this when they begin trying to get other people to share attention. (Current theory of mind research examines this phenomenon. Indeed, the fluent conventional use of language depends on the knowledge that people share intentions and mental lives [Moeller 2002; De Villiers 2000]). Tomasello’s (1999) hypothesis is that the ability to see the world through the perspective of others is what bolsters and makes possible the pooling of resources and the transmission of innovations.

In order to delineate the time course of cultural evolution and its transmission, three kinds of time come into play. First, during the long evolutionary time span of humans (6 million to 250,000 years ago), we developed the ability to exploit cultural transmission. During the historical time spans of social groups, we rapidly accumulated symbolic and material cultural artifacts (250,000 years ago to present time, into the future). Developmental time in individual children (or ontogenesis) allows for the development of agency and knowledge of others in a cultural world and is an ongoing achievement in each new generation. Tomasello summarizes the three kinds of time by noting, “Human beings have the cognitive skills that result from biological inheritance working in phylogenetic time; they use these skills to exploit cultural resources that have evolved over historic time; and they do this during ontogenetic time” (1999, 48).


These are the simple evolutionary, historical, and developmental processes that have contributed to and continue to contribute to our special ability to think and learn as human beings. This is the way educators must view culture in order to avoid resorting to stereotypes and trait lists. In all cultures, adults actively and regularly instruct the young. To participate in learning, all human children learn to detect the adult’s goal, the strategies being used to approach the goal, and how to make these goals and strategies their own. All of us depend on our “dual inheritance” (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Durham 1991) that makes us both biological and cultural creatures. Biologically, we are not that different from our primate relatives. Our big advantage is that during development, we notice and exploit the reality that others are intentional beings, just like we are. This realization allows for continuing processes of collaboration among people to create culture in the form of material objects, ideas, and practices with accumulated histories (Tomasello 1999). Additionally, because learning is embedded in culture (in both historical and ontogenetic time), developing children learn how to use the artifacts that forebears, past and present, have created. In individual developing children, cultural resources—our historical accumulation—engage with developing intellects to create a unique human being with a miraculous set of linguistic and cognitive abilities. If we are looking for a definition of culture in this foundational sense, we cannot do much better than Tomasello’s metaphor—we are “fish in the water of culture.”


In the early 1980s, I was a graduate student at Gallaudet University. By that time, I had grown out of my 60s cultural romanticism; but like a lot of people, I had only gotten as far as “exotic traits.” I remember with great affection a group of classmates, Deaf and hearing, who stuck around after anthropology class because we had discussed ourselves into a corner. We were very confused about the troublesome idea of Deaf culture and kept talking in circles. We knew enough to acknowledge that ASL offered a helpful hint that there was culture in there somewhere; but beyond that, we made little

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