Election Day 2012 is less than a year away now, and even if you are about as ready for election season as you were to see the Christmas decorations go up at Wal-Mart the week before Halloween there’s really no escaping the media blitz. With my background in communication and rhetoric, I have picked up especially on repeated references to the political narratives of particular candidates and parties. American voters have long tuned in to the compelling personal stories of individual candidates, but these broader political narratives contextualize the sea of data in which we would otherwise drown by framing them in overarching stories that resonate with our own experiences. As I learned from reading rhetorical theorist Walter Fisher back in graduate school, humans are storytelling animals. (See here for an interesting discussion of Fisher’s “narrative paradigm” as it applies to politics.)
Narrative is the telling of a sequence of events involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do. It’s not surprising that we make sense of life by telling stories since our lives are, in fact, stories. The fun part is that people may live through the same set of circumstances yet tell their stories of that experience in different ways. I don’t refer here simply to disagreeing on the facts. Where we begin or end a story, for example, has a great deal to do with what the story means. And, of course, point of view, detail, and who tells the story are critical elements, as well.
If I were to tell the “story” of my life (don’t worry, I’m just speaking hypothetically here), I might open with something like, “I was born in a small town in southern Illinois.” Or I might begin, “The first thing my parents noticed when I was born was that my right foot and ankle were twisted at an improbable, unnatural angle.” Although possibly suggesting two different ways of telling the complex story of my life, both lines begin the action on May 23, 1964. But is that where the story of my life began?
Should the story of my life begin with my parents and the choices they made about careers, where to live, and having a family? Should it start with my grandparents? Should it begin with the observation that I was born a white male in middle-America? How should I narrate the sequence of events that have brought me here?
Two classmates of mine once got into an argument when one of them insisted that he had worked for and earned everything that he had and the other countered that perhaps his family’s wealth and his educational opportunities also had had something to do with his situation. The first classmate was telling a story that began, “Once upon a time there was a hardworking young man who was very ambitious,” whereas the second was suggesting that this “once upon a time” was actually several chapters into the book.
At the core of a liberal education are self-knowledge, understanding of the world, and the pursuit of a meaningful life within that broader world. Stories and storytelling are natural and powerful ways of cultivating these habits of mind. Nearly all the humanities and social sciences have explored narrative approaches to their fields of study, from psychology and theology to political science and philosophy, not to mention all the disciplines that have stories at their center, such as literature, writing, theatre and film. Might we make greater use of these approaches and students’ natural proclivities for storytelling?
Imagine a capstone assignment titled, “The History of Me,” in which students must research and narrate their individual life stories in some broader context. For example:
- Genealogical or genetic history: Not simply what is my family tree or genome map, but how do I understand my life today in the context of this history?
- Social/cultural history: Whether I go back 40 generations or focus on the town where the last three generations of my family have lived, who am I in the context of the people, places and events that have come before me?
- Religious/moral history: Where have my personal beliefs come from? Not just, for example, how are Western and Eastern philosophy systems different, but how have historical events and the evolution of ideas culminated to provide the array of choices before me today?
You can imagine similar approaches with frameworks such as evolutionary, political, or economic history.
If we wanted to get really creative we might ask students to narrate their life stories through the lenses of others’ experiences. Imagine the story of your life told in the context of your mother’s autobiography, or as told by one of your children. Now imagine your story told from the perspective of an undocumented Mexican migrant worker. If that sounds strange, just remember all the essays you wrote in school about the role of slavery in the Civil War or the impact of FDR’s New Deal. What were they but attempts to tell others’ stories through the dual filters of historical evidence and your own experiences?
Expressing our knowledge and experiences through narrative comes naturally to all of us, but a focus on storytelling also reminds us that our stories are constructions, not immutable realities. The stories we tell are the stories we inhabit. A dear friend and colleague, W. Barnett Pearce, who was a master at facilitating dialogue and helping people to break through impasses to understanding, used to say that we need to learn to tell better stories. By “better” he didn’t mean more entertaining or having better plot structure; he meant that we must learn to narrate our experiences of the world in ways that open up possibilities for curiosity and understanding.
In The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel wrote, “God created man because He loves stories.” I think he may have been onto something.