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Telling History

Scope and Purpose

© Copyright 1996-2003 by Diane Haugen. All rights reserved.

I propose to create supplementary curriculum materials from the vast collections of archived oral histories, tentatively titled Telling History, designed specifically for classroom or homeschooling teachers. These excerpts, taken principally from state archives, would be cast in a form teachers can readily incorporate into their curriculums. The topics for supplementation would be developed in collaboration with teachers and curriculum specialists. Story segments would be selected by topic from archived oral histories, edited, and keyed to standard curriculums in history, social studies, geography, and family life sciences.

Oral Histories: A Vast, Untapped Resource

The collection of oral histories begun in the early 60s and continuing over the past 30 years has produced a wealth of resources which contain compelling stories, stories which could bring a concreteness, a credibility to history for many students.

While archivists have done an excellent job of organizing the oral histories as a whole and transcribing many of them, the primary problem remains that much of the story material exists in a form that is not readily available for classroom use. The archived oral histories provide a vast, untapped source of materials for creating interesting supplementations to existing history texts.

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The importance of storytelling in human learning-and hence also the importance of oral histories-has been demonstrated in projects to program computers to create stories. The task, it turns out, is far more difficult than had originally been thought. Human beings store a large amount of information in story format, as what researchers call schemas. This information is not verbal, but situational. Roger Schank has been involved in story generation research for many years. In Tell Me A Story, Schank concluded that "human memory is story-based." This is a profoundly startling conclusion for a society that tends to think that the answer to every problem is more data.

Stories, then, according to the research in artificial intelligence are fundamental to how people learn and organize what they know. This relationship between stories and learning is largely unrecognized, but one, I believe, which makes the use of oral histories in our nations classrooms a critically important issue.

Understanding the Importance of Storytelling

Much of the concern of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Alan D. Bloom in Closing of the American Mind is for the rapidly disappearing knowledge of our history and culture, particularly among students. Neither author, I believe, fully understands the reason for the conditions they lament, but the popularity of their books indicate they have hit a responsive cord with their audiences.

Our society, it would seem, has lost its ability to pass its history along in stories. Research in artificial intelligence and attempts to program computers to generate stories demonstrate that stories seemingly irrelevant to our society today are not really so irrelevant. Our children need to become familiar with these stories, not just so they will have a liberal arts education, but because our ability to learn depends upon our mental capacity to compare other's experiences -- in the form of stories, if you will -- to what happens to ourselves.

The research seems to indicate that we organize knowledge by storytelling, but our society no longer values storytelling. If what researchers say about storytelling is true, the use of oral histories in the classroom becomes a very important tool in student growth. Indeed, the very lack of these stories in our school systems could be viewed as nothing less than deprivation.

Linking Oral Histories to Curriculums

Eliot Wigginton's innovative teaching method of having students collect oral histories in Rabun Gap, Georgia, and hence actively involving his class in documenting its local culture, is now well known. But the great success of Wigginton's The Foxfire Book had with these materials did not translate well into other classrooms. While it's true that students are now often encouraged to talk to their grandparents and write stories about what they hear, these activities are regarded primarily as writing assignments, and sadly, often of only local interest. In addition, few schools today belong to a community as well defined as the one Wigginton's students were working from. Moving the emphasis from collecting oral histories to reading or listening to carefully selected oral histories relevant to the curriculum overcomes these problems.

Throughout the ages, storytelling has held a central place in culture, but the nature of that storytelling has shifted radically. Before the development of writing, a culture's oral stories were the repository of its history. After a culture develops writing, the form of stories change, and much of the history formerly conveyed orally shifts to a written form, and because of the permanence of writing, the form of the stories change.

Cultures whose oral traditions have been all but lost because of printing have a tendency to consider storytelling an interesting relic from the past, quaint but not particularly useful.

Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word outlines the kinds of changes cultures undergo as they move from oral to literate (with writing) societies. He differentiates between languages that have a written form (hand written manuscripts) and those that have a printed form (books). He shows how the characteristics or orality remain in a language and its literature long after the introduction of writing and even printing. In oral cultures, expression concentrates on external happenings in terms of formulas which can easily be recalled. Events are listed one after another rather than placed in relation to one another or analyzed in great detail. Description tends to be flowery, and there is not much referring back to previously described scenes. Abstraction is limited, with description remaining close to living experience, an experience that usually involves some sort of struggle. (pp. 37-45) These shifts, he emphasizes, are profound: "More than any other invention, writing has transformed human consciousness (p. 78)."

With the development of television and computers, there have been those who predict that the printed word will soon disappear. There are even those who believe books as we know them will soon disappear. Many are familiar with the call for "paperless" office. In these predictions, there is a subtle blurring of the lines between stories and data. Bill McKibben in The Age of Missing Information describes this difference:

We believe that we live in the "age of information," that there has been an information "explosion," an information "revolution." While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information. (p. 9)

The oral tradition may be long gone in our culture, but the remnants of it that remain play important role in preserving our culture. The great body of archived oral histories are exceedingly valuable for this reason, and consequently, need to be integrated into our school curriculums. Ong calls tape recorded interviewing such as the collection of oral histories, secondary orality:

...with telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of `secondary orality'. This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas..../ where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing. (pp. 136-137)

Ong makes an important observation about all cultures, including our own: we are all born into an oral culture:

The interaction between the orality that all human beings are born into and the technology of writing, which no one is born into, touches the depths of the psyche. Ontogenetically and phylogenetically, it is the oral / word that first illuminates consciousness with articulate language, that first divides subject and predicate and then relates them to one another, and that ties human beings to one another in society. Writing introduces division and alienation, but a higher unity as well, It intensifies the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons. Writing is consciousness-raising." (pp. 178-179)

Ong's work demonstrates that the oral tradition and the storytelling that is so important to that tradition remains important to our culture, even though it would appear that modern society has abandoned that tradition.

Artificial Intelligence and Storytelling

In 1963 Allen Newell and Herbert Simon demonstrated that computers could be programmed to use symbols to stand for features of the real world, with computer programs linking these real-world symbols by rules. This discovery launched the field of artificial intelligence and created the powerful analogy of the mind as an information-processing machine (Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas, p. 653).

Simon, in developing his information-processing model of intelligence, began studying how people solve problems and discovered that rules play an important part in this process. This led to the hope that scientists could create "expert systems" by creating massive lists of interrelated rules. Researchers developing these systems thought that all they had to do was interview experts and find out what rules they used to solve their problems.

The task, they discovered, was much more difficult than simply stuffing a computer with more and more rules. While some types of human intelligence is rule based, some is not. Humans are able to form and process images in a way that cannot be captured by operations on symbolic descriptions. The difference between how novices and experts solve problems is not simply a matter of the experts having learned more rules.

Experts use what they know-and this is not always rules-in a different manner than novices. Novices generally use rules very consciously. Experts, on the other hand, often use rules without even being aware that they are doing so. More importantly, experts make decisions by comparing past experiences, and these experiences are not reducible to rules. In fact, expert behavior is characterized by the ability to sort through and use a vast number of unique experiences which bear no names and defy complete verbal description.

The capacity of experts to store in memory tens of thousands of typical situations and rapidly and effortlessly to see the present situation as similar to one of these, apparently, without resorting to time-consuming feature detection and matching, suggests that the brain does not work like a heuristically programmed digital computer applying rules to bits of information. Rather, it suggests, as some neurophysiologists already believe, that the brain, at times at least, works holographically, superimposing the records of whole situations and measuring their similarity. (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, p. 327)

Hofstadter believes that Simon and those who hope to produce a model of the human mind based upon an information-processing analogy, that is, simply build a bigger and bigger machine to process ever increasing amounts of data, are doomed to failure. (Hofstadter, p. 647-648) This approach, he argues, would merely imitate logic and deduction at the expense of the kinds of thinking processes that people exhibit, but are unaware of performing. Ong emphasizes that deductive thinking processes are one of the results of text-based thinking:

...an oral culture simply does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought. (p.55)

But Ong warns that just because oral thinking is different, we should not simplistically consider it in any way prelogical or illogical: "...oral cultures can produce amazingly complex and intelligent and beautiful organizations of thought and experience." (p. 57). Ong says:

To assume that oral peoples are essentially unintelligent, that their mental processes are `crude', is the kind of thinking that for centuries brought scholars to assume falsely that because the Homeric poems are so skillful, they must be basically written compositions. (p. 57).

Karl Pribram, a neurosurgeon, says that the model of the hard-wired brain, in which connections between parts are fixed, does not allow for the kinds of perceptual flexibility humans have (Goleman, p. 72). He and other neurosurgeons have been searching for some organizational principle that would account for perceptual constancy, transfer of learning, and the elusiveness of memory. (Goleman, p. 72) The holographic model, he says, answers some of these mysteries:

The hologram yields a new way of looking at consciousness that is very different from the behaviorist and phenomenologist approaches. The behaviorist looks for cause and effect; the phenomenologist, for reasons and intentions. In holography, however, one looks for the transformations involved in moving from one domain to another....Decisions fall out as the holographic correlations are formed. One doesn't have to think things through one-two-three-four-a step at a time. One takes the whole constellation of a situation, correlates it, and out of that correlation emerges the correct response. And one can execute numerous correlations simultaneously. (p. 80)

Part of the attempt to build intelligent computers has involved programming them to create stories. The task, it turns out, is far more difficult than had originally been thought. Human beings store a large amount of information in story format, as what researchers call schemas. This information is not verbal, but situational. Researchers such as Schank found that computerized story generators had to be designed to deal with the kinds of knowledge people have about, for example, what one does in a restaurant, before they could program a computer to generate a story about a restaurant scene. Schank's conclusion that "human memory is story-based" is a profoundly startling one for a society that tends to think that the answer to every problem is more data.

Stories, then, according to the research in artificial intelligence are fundamental to how people learn and organize what they know. This relationship between stories and learning is not widely recognized, but one, I believe, which makes the use of oral histories in our nations classrooms a critically important issue.

Psychologists and Storytelling

At the same time that those in artificial intelligence were trying to create a computer which could generate stories, psychologists were discovering how important folk tales are to human development. Bruno Bettelheim notes in The Use of Enchantment that certain fairy tale themes exist in almost all cultures. These fairy tales serve a very important sociological purpose. The themes deal with the major fears of childhood such as the loss of a mother or father or separation anxiety and confront children squarely with these basic human predicaments.

In fairy tales, evil is as omnipresent as virtue, as in life, and the duality of this situation requires struggle to solve. Betelheim notes that all real fairy tales show good triumphing over evil. (pp. 6-9) The recounting of these stories to children, indeed, the love of children for these stories, indicates that these stories address fears of children that they cannot articulate, and therefore are very important to children's development. Fairy tales represent:

...in imaginative form what the process of healthy human development consists of, and how the tales make such development attractive for the child to engage in. This growth process begins with the resistance against the parents and fear of growing up, and ends when youth has truly found itself, achieved psychological independence and moral maturity, and no longer views the other sex as threatening or demonic, but is able to relate positively to it. (p. 12)

Bettelheim notes these types of stories are particularly important in our society today:

...children no longer grow up within the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, even more than at the times fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world and by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence. (p. 11)

Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves develops this same theme from the perspective of women, particularly women who are prodded by society to violate their inner selves and serve some other master:

Stories set the inner life in motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives as knowing wildish women. (p. 20)

Current psychological thinking gives us important reasons to look as the importance of storytelling in terms of oral histories:

Understanding the Importance of Storytelling

The human brain has many remarkable skills, but one of its most outstanding is its pattern recognition facility. Filed away in memory, stories provide patterns students can use for comparison with their own experience, even when they are not consciously aware of noting similarities. With the introduction of television, the visual element of stories became more important than the story itself. It was erroneously thought that what gripped peoples attention was not the story, but the novelty.

The concurrent rise of advertising, bent on convincing us all that we cannot live without whatever we are being prompted to buy, largely by visual means and exaggeration of language, greatly distorts the link between words and reality. The focus becomes portrayal of what is most noticeable or most shocking, not the substance of what is said. In the rush to provide a more shocking story, the media rarely deals with substance at all, only show.

The first generation to be raised on show rather than substance, the first generation to be raised without much exposure to the stories that carry the common themes that have shaped us as human beings is now in early adulthood, raising their own children. The results are scary. Students are unable to concentrate for any length of time. Some are disruptive in the classroom. Many are on ritalin. Some are outright violent. We as a society need to look at what has brought about these changes. And a small part of our understanding the changes society is undergoing today may well be traceable to our genuine lack of understanding of the part storytelling plays in the fabric of our culture.

The research seems to indicate that we organize knowledge by storytelling, but our society no longer values storytelling. Yet storytelling still holds a certain appeal to school children. If what researchers say about storytelling is true, the use of oral histories in the classroom becomes a very important tool in student growth. Indeed, the very lack of these stories in our school systems could be viewed as nothing less than deprivation.


The links below provide details of the project, plus sample materials.

small blue squareIntroduction

small blue squareSimilar and Related Work

small blue squareMethodology and Presentation

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