Academic journal article Social Education

"Telling Tales": The Teaching of American History through Storytelling

Academic journal article Social Education

"Telling Tales": The Teaching of American History through Storytelling

Article excerpt

The late novelist Walker Percy once argued that literature, especially fictional stories, has portrayed a clearer and far more cohesive picture of the human condition than any of the social sciences, including history. (1) His ideas hint at the possibility of conceptualizing the American experience as the story that it is and as a way of organizing historical information in a more holistic manner in the teacher's mind. Viewing history as a story and teaching the subject as storytelling are metaphors that he believes offer stronger possibilities for bringing overall coherence and interest to history instruction. A number of educational scholars have also advocated the use of storytelling as a means of teaching. D. Common noted the organizing power of using the metaphor of storytelling in teaching:

   Stories are narrative units. Because
   they are units, they speak forcefully
   to those who plan for teaching.
   Stories have particular, clear
   beginnings and particular, clear
   ends. It is their unity of wholeness
   and circumscription that distinguishes
   stories from other types
   of narratives. (2)

Egan adds that:

   The story does not deal with anything
   except the problem set up
   in the beginning once it is under
   way. Everything in the story is
   focused on that central task....
   Stories, then, have clear means
   of determining what should be
   included and excluded. We recognize
   as bad stories those that
   include things that do not take the
   story forward. (3)

Interestingly, voices on the right and left in social education have called for the presentation of history as story-telling. Conservatives including Diane Ravitch, William Bennett, and Chester Finn have argued for a shift to what they term the traditional social studies, which involves primarily the "simple" telling of our nation's story. (4) Similarly, the radical Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci also argued for the same shift, having said that history taught through storytelling:

   ... provides a basis for the subsequent
   development of an historical,
   dialectical conception of the
   world, which understands movement
   and change, which appreciates
   the sum of effort and sacrifice
   which the present has cost the past
   and which the future is costing
   the present, and which conceives
   the contemporary world as a synthesis
   of the past, of all the past
   generations, which projects itself
   into the future. (5)

It would seem strange at first glance that a socialist reformer and the more order-seeking conservatives in social studies both see the teaching of history as the key to achieving their opposite agendas. However, the strangeness dissipates when one considers that the stories and dramas of history can clearly convey the paradoxical need that cultures have for creating both order and change, as well as show how this might be accomplished. A conventional lecture that simply renders straight historical facts could never carry these paradoxes in the same way.

In my judgment, historically everyone has a story worth being told. (6) That story portrays an individual's (or group's) character in relation to a situation that has active consequences. Sometimes, these consequences are important not only for the individual who experiences them, but for the entire nation.

A story is essentially driven by characters and their actions. Conflict within characters or between characters shapes and generates the story's plot. Consequently, the basic theme of a story is usually about (1) conflict and resolution to one degree or another; and (2) psychological/personal changes that may occur with the characters by the time of resolution. Note further that such resolution need not necessarily be an unqualified victory. The changes that may occur in a character's personal life because of decisions the character makes regarding the conflict often carry relevant personal/psychological truths for the listener/reader. …

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