We make sense of our experience through stories and storytelling. We impose a linear structure on confusing events. From the lofty spires of cathedrals to sleeping bags around a fire, storytelling is an integral part of the human experience and a fundamental means of human education.
By Regina Cassidy
Confusion reigns when acquaintances learn that my children are learning outside of school. They wonder about the lack of structure; they are concerned about “socialization.” They want to know just what kind of education unschooled children receive. First, I must disabuse them of the notion that humans can “receive” education. Education is not something given to anyone. Second, I must explain that each self-directed person’s education will be, by definition, unique. When we’ve cleared these hurdles, we get down to the nitty-gritty: How in the world are my children learning without being forced to? Recently, I realized that most of their knowledge comes from observing, questioning, helping and, significantly, from listening to stories and storytelling.
My partner and I are voracious readers. This being the case, there is no need for us to interest the children in books by pretending that reading is “fun.” Reading is not fun; the drive to read is much more serious than that; it is a longing to know and to connect with other minds in a profound way across space and time. We have read perhaps more than a thousand books to our eager children, some several times. We have spent long winter days reading the Little House series, the Harry Potter books, Lemony Snicket, and tales of Greek mythology. They have discovered books on tape for when Mom and Dad’s voices or attention gives out. (And it took very little time for them to learn to use the tape player!)
Has all this being read to dampened their desire to read on their own? Perhaps. Currently, my five- and eight-year-olds only dabble in reading…some street signs here and there, a few words in a book, a letter from Grandma. However, they do not always have access to the audiobooks they want or to Mom and Dad’s reading talents. We encourage them to read themselves, but do not insist. We are betting that their frustration at not being able to read what they want when they want will motivate them to master the art of reading. Right now, they are utterly hooked on storytelling and will seek out ways to satisfy their hunger for stories.
Hearing and Telling Stories
My children beg to be told stories of when I was a child or when they were babies. They savor phrases, words and names, repeating them, singing them, and working them into their own conversations. They make analogies of situations to stories they have heard or read. Any offhand remark I make can end up in a storytelling session. Where do things come from? How do I know this or that? Why do I have a particular scar? If I were to scold them with a “When I was your age…” statement, they would undoubtedly ask for the full story.
I have found that skilled storytellers can make a previously uninteresting topic fascinating. History and science told as series of stories are riveting. Natural phenomena and human tradition are unforgettably laid out in story form. Far from the dry textbooks that I experienced in my childhood, which simply list and date human and natural events, stories bring important knowledge within the audience’s grasp. I resent the stories being cut out of my education. Was this intentional? Were my keepers trying to get me to “know” without feeling? To accept “facts” without the complexity of human perspective? Or was it that there simply wasn’t time in school to argue the implications and point of view of any “fact?” There wasn’t time for real learning or thought.
Having experienced the uncertainty – the humanity – of stories, my children are used to thinking for themselves. Now when they ask me why something happened, they can accept the possibility that the answer is not easy or even known. They can continue to think about something that is not cut and dried, dead on the page. And they compare different versions of stories they have heard.
For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have been transmitting knowledge through storytelling. Around the mid-winter hearth, shelling the peas on the front porch, while waiting for that fish or that deer to show up, humans fill their time with stories. Maritime navigation and optimum planting schedules are read by the complex map of the stars. This map is transmitted through stories of bears and queens and swans in the sky. Fairy tales are cautionary tales to help children avoid dangerous situations – don’t let strangers into your house; don’t stray from the task your parents assigned you to do.
Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B has an illustration of humans reading some tracks in the dirt. By doing so, they tell the past and the future in the present. This is the ability to create and read stories: How did things get the way they are? What would things be like if something else had happened? How can you recreate the past from what you experience now? What will things be like in the future if some condition persists? Hunters read tracks. Pacific Islanders read the stars. City dwellers read their fellow travelers on the bus. Fortune-tellers read their clients. Parents read their children’s moods (and vice versa). We make stories out of our interactions and observations.
“Run bus car broken.” This amazing story was the first string of words articulated by my then 21-month-old daughter. Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad when he came home. It made a great story: run bus car broken.
We make sense of our experience through stories. We impose a linear structure on confusing events. Human legal systems involve recreating events that are unknown to us through pieces of evidence. A legal trial is the creation of a story. If the story is undisputed, the case is “open and shut “(notice the book terminology). Only when we believe we have the story correct can we reach a verdict and impose a sentence. If the story does not satisfy, the proceedings are deadlocked.
Some people claim that humans are unique in their ability to tell stories. However, I don’t think it really matters whether squirrels tell squirrel stores or robins tell robin stories. Storytelling is indeed a wondrous ability whether or not we share it with other creatures.
Plays as Storytelling
A friend recently gave my eight-year-old daughter a Shakespeare “treasure chest,” complete with key. It contains a few plays, some historical notes, and a recreated cardboard Globe theater. I find this to be a metaphor for the tragedy of great literature. It is intellectually locked up – reserved for the upper class. Some public school teachers and even some parents say their students don’t find relevance in Shakespeare’s plays. I find this to be a failure of imagination on the part of the teachers, parents, and students. Stories resonate with humans. Despite the difficult language of Shakespeare, it belongs to all English-speakers as our inheritance. The situations can be compared to those we find ourselves in today. Do you love someone your parents or peers disapprove of? Have you ever had the chance to profit at the expense of someone else? Have you been treated differently because someone thought you were someone else? These themes ripple throughout the entire folio.
Shakespeare himself freely borrowed from the stories of others, embellishing, combining, and refining them. They tell truths about our humanity. They are the free treasures of our shared existence. I am an enthusiastic proponent of Shakespeare in the Park and have endeavored to bring it to my city: free, minimalist, open-air theater. Park users can drop in for a scene or stay for the whole play. They are under no pressure to behave like an experienced Shakespearean audience. A play is a story that is not finished until it is performed: the playwright, producer, director, actors, audience, scenery, and music all contribute to the telling of the story. It is a living art form – to borrow a Biblical term, it is the word made flesh – storytelling.
Religions, too, rely on the repeated re-enactment and telling of important stories: the Seder and the Passion are vital components of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Animist religions transmit values through stories of turtles and bears and rivers. All of these stories are passed down through the generations in ceremonial fashion. More than mere artifacts, they are the lifeblood of learning, culture, and religion. The young have been learning from their elders and continuing tradition through storytelling for hundreds of thousands of years.
From the lofty spires of cathedrals to sleeping bags around a fire, storytelling is an integral part of the human experience and a fundamental means of human education. My children, as life learners, are just like other humans in this way, but perhaps a little more so.
Gina Cassidy is the mother of four and a community college composition and writing instructor. She has master degrees in English and Applied Linguistics and is a volunteer for Illinois Radio Reader for the blind and an art docent with the local park district. This article was first published in Life Learning Magazine. You may also be interested in this blog post about storytelling and learning.