Discussion: TaST


Teaching as Story Telling

Date: Mon, 30 Jun 1997 19:31:54 +0200
From: peter christensen
To: kieran_egan@sfu.ca

Subject: The dilemma of objectivity and narrativity - some feed back on the story model-

Narrative and history teaching briefly.

The use of story in history teaching has not been common in the Danish tradition of history didactics. This is mainly due to the close relation between history as a scientific discipline and history as a school subject. The latter has mostly been regarded as "sunken science", and not as having its own identity. Narrative was abandon in the school subject because of its moralising and artistic aspects. To be considered real science, history had to discard it's stortelling elements.

For the vast part of the century, therefore, storytelling has been in the process of vanishing from the curriculum. It has been considered a method of nationalistic indoctrination, inappropriate for teaching in the school, because it contradicted the ideal of the scientific approach. Instead of storytelling, the student was either to memorize vast amounts of objective "facts" or imitate the scientific methodology. In the 1980's, however, the storytelling aspect of history teaching is in focus once again. Mainly because of it's quality with regard to motivation and identity. It brings tension and identification into those historical facts that were supposed to be the ideal, but never were regarded with the same interest by the children as by the scientists.

The fusion of storytelling and history teaching is however not as straightforward as it may seem.

The problem.

From the child's point of view, narratives hold a strong case. A number of disciplines in the fields of human science has accentuated it`s importance since the beginning of the 1980Ēs.

What is more and more often refered to as narrative psychology, covers various approaches to the concept of story and the human mind, and all seem to point in the same direction. Narrative has not just to do with literature and fiction, but is a basic cognitive instrument used by man to impose meaning, order and intention to a chaotic world. And as Hayden White has pointed out, even the scientific discourse form of academic history, may reveal itself as story telling, bearing more resemblance with the epic forms of literature than science.

What is also of interest is the fact that children show greater competence in narrative thinking than in paradigmatic thinking. As you point out, narratives can be viewed as an abstract concept, that even small children actually manage. And as Katherine Nelson's script-theory emphasizes, there is an astonishing resemblance between the child's first comprehension of the world in the form of scripts, and the basic characteristic of a narrative (Nelson 1985). The psychologist Jerome Bruner has even made the comparison between a 2 year old girl's narratives in her bedtalk and the Russian formalist Tudorov and his concept of fabula (Nelson 1989 p.90).

But are we then to discard any scientific knowledge that does not convert to a storytelling form? Or to paraphrase Jerome Bruner's concepts, how much are we to bend the paradigmatic truth, in order to fit the believability of the narrative mode, that seem to predict so much success as an organizing principle in curriculum planning? The discipline of scientific history searches for the objective truth of the past, and in spite of various attemps to discard this search as either social construction, relativism or even literature, there still is a core of objective knowledge that obligates us in our curriculum planning. But the story form often conflicts with this objective knowledge.

Take as for example the moralizing aspects that are conveyed in the story form. Are we allowed to moralize in modern history teaching? Leopold von Ranke and his famous dictum, to find out "wie es eigenlich gewesen ist" was originally formulated as a protest against the moralizing history writing of the enlightment. According to Rank the discipline of history was not to deliver judgement on the past, but to find out out what actually happend. (although he and his contemporaries also validated literary qualities in history writing)

The connection between moral and story is essential, because it can not be eliminated. The moralizing aspect comes within the very binary structure of the story form. The plot tells us about our "canonicality" (Bruner 1986), and as Hayden White tells us:"where in any account of reality, narrativity is present, we can be sure that morality or moralizing impulse is present too"( White 1986)

This moralizing impulse and contradiction with the objective knowledge of history is also present in your use of the story model. The story of the vikings' invasion of England, tend to take a rather moralizing turn in your narration of it. Barbarism lose to civilisation, because the vikings came to realize that "the joy of building outlasts the shallow pleasure of destruction" (Egan 1988)

The basic dichotomy between civilisation and the barbarism of the vikings, may be regarded as conflicting with the objective knowledge we have about the vikings, ( and this is not just because of my danish nationality). One can easily point out some aspects that do not fit this stereotype. In fact there has been a great effort during the last 20 years from schools and museums to alter the common picture of the swordswinging beserkers with horns on their helmets. The vikings were also peacefull merchants and settlers, (take for instance the presentation of vikings at the museum of York), and the female sex were blessed with more freedom and independence than elsewhere in christianized Europe. And the vikings' success as conquerors was not just due to brutality, but in great degree based on minimal coast defence due to inner conflicts in the countries they plundered.

So from a objective point of view the basic binary can be blurred, and the moral even reversed. The shallow, static and suppressing system of feudalism based on the exploitation of peasants, tamed the progessive expansion of the vikings, that even managed to build free independent communities of peasants as far away as Iceland and Greenland. Communities that were later given up as Scandinavia became more integrated in the christian culture of medieval Europe. Another independent tribe had been tamed and colonizied by a eurocentristic and cultural imperialism, as so many since. A story echoed in the last two centuries of colonial history and its conquences for the original cultures of the third world.

The truth is of course somewhere in between. The barbarians were not quite so barbarian as we would like them to seem in order to fit our narrative, and the civilized world not at all the pure incarnation of humanity.

But are we then allowed to impose such a chessboard conception on reality, when we know that the objective truth is much more complicated and of a colour in between.

One may of course bring forth the argument, that the moralizing and objectivity rejecting "sins" of the story form serves a good cause. It meets the child with a concept of narrativity which provides human meaning in time, causality, and intention, makes history much more comprehensible. But on the other hand, are we not obliged to tell the truth, and immunize against the abuse of history? A lot of malevolence in the history of the 20th centry like nationalism, the third Reich and the Cold War have all been legitimized and wrapped in well-formed stories.

How are we to bend objectivity against narrativity?

In hope of recieving some "synthesizing" reflection on the dilemma,

Peter Hallgard Christensen

E-mail: haii@post4.tele.dk

Bruner J.S. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard Univ.Press

White H. (1987) The cotent of the Form. John Hopkins Univ.Press

Nelson, K. (1985) Making sense. Academic Press

Nelson, K. Narratives from the Crib. Harvard Univ.Press

Dear Mr. Christenesen,

Thank you for your long and thoughtful comments on the tension between adhering to a narrative and using its engaging power and also adhering to some conception of objectivity. I don't think, in the end, that the conflict is quite so stark or problematic as you suggest.

At one point you ask: "But are we then to discard any scientific knowledge that does not convert to a storytelling form?" I'm not sure what knowledge cannot be converted to narrative form, especially for young children. I mean, the demands of narrative are not uniform or monolithic or simple. One may represent all kinds of knowledge in narratives without needing to falsify. Narrative provides a shaping of the knowledge, it isn't a competing kind of knowledge. Also, I should emphasize that I am interested in narrative particularly for the earlier years of schooling. As I argue more extensively in my recent book, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, I see education as involving an increasing emergence and use of scientific kinds of thinking, among other cognitive modes, but that one cannot start there very well. One begins, as we have historically begun in cultures throughout the world, with mythic forms of thought out of which more "paradigmatic" forms emerge. What we see happen historically is what I argue we should deliberately encourage educationally.

I agree that my Viking narrative is a bit oversimplified. (The Norwegian and Swedish translations of Teaching as Story Telling have a rather better example. My Swedish translator, Barbro Solbe, made clear that the goings on in an English marsh were hardly what mattered to a Scandinavian learning about the history of their Vikings.) The more balanced view of the Vikings that you present could also be presented in a narrative, of course. What you criticize, properly, in my example is not so much something made necessary by the use of a narrative, but the falsification that I engaged in--and might equally have engaged in had I represented it "objectively." It is not, also, that the "more complicated" picture is always truer and less engaging. The task for us as teachers is always to find the more exciting narrative form that best represents the fullest picture of the past appropriate for our students at any time.

Your observation about the Nazi use of a powerful narrative is a good point. But, again, it is not the narrative that is crucial there, it is the falseness, the lies. Narrative doesn't, by itself, provide any guarentees of any kind--it provides us only with a tool, and, like any tool, it can be misused. The trick is to use the tool for the approrpiate purpose in the appropriate circumstances.

The more basic question of how we move from story to theory, as I have put it in The Educated Mind, and elsewhere, is precisely the topic of that book. I think we best do it by moving from what I have called a mythic kind of understanding of the world, to a romantic one, to a philosophic one. It is in that philosophic understanding that theories reach their most energetic use. But I want to protect against the abuse of theory by further developing an Ironic understanding.

I have put your comments on the Teaching as Story Telling Web Page. I hope you do not mind that I made a few editorial changes as I did so--some small spelling items, and other little language items. Please let me know if this bothers you. Thanks again. I hope my comments help. If not, do point out where you remain skeptical.

With best wishes,
Kieran Egan

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