Stories and Storytelling: How Humans Become People
The Fifth Follett Lecture, Graduate School of Library and Information Science,
Dominican University, 3 March 2009
Steven L. Herb
Story is our most ancient history and storytelling our first means of communication, education, and entertainment. From the first cave paintings and musical rhythms to the spoken myths, legends, and folktales of all peoples; from the development of written tales, the creation of books, and the invention of the printing press to the twentieth century development of electronic story conveyances — film, radio, television, and the computer — story is the thread that ties and binds us to our history, our culture, and our family.
Back in January, when thoughts of the Follett Lecture started getting really serious, I was searching through old dusty boxes in one of my storage facilities back home. I was looking for a twenty–five–year–old video tape I haven’t seen in fifteen years and a thirty–year–old audio tape I haven’t touched since the day it was recorded. I vowed to go through every box I owned until I found them. The video remains aloof despite my close attention to boxes labeled, “Open This First — Very Important!” And, “Open this the minute you get to State College! Critical Materials Within!”
I should point out that I moved to State College in 1992 and only opened those two boxes six weeks ago. I did find some important and critical things — not so important and critical that I couldn’t live without them for seventeen years, but important pieces of the life–story that is me. Sometimes I think I am the only audience for that life story, but then I get a chance to teach storytelling and I find that there are hundreds of anecdotal stories I think are worth sharing.
I pray to God that I am not the only one who thinks that!
One of the things I found that cold January day is a scrap of paper where I wrote down:
|Lovaas’s grandmother on death bed|
Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas was an applied behavioral psychologist at UCLA who found out that some of the most serious self–injurious behaviors in children with severe autism were actually being maintained by the attention of the staff intent on stopping the behaviors. Lovaas was one of the many psychologists who bought the “refrigerator mom” theory of what caused autism, but he soon discovered that the alleged missing love, when provided, changed nothing. His shift to applied behavioral analysis and his work with young children on the serious end of the autism spectrum was quite remarkable and sometimes controversial. I heard him speak at a conference almost thirty years ago and for reasons I can no longer recall — he shared the two things his grandmother told the family gathered around her deathbed — her actual last words.
|“I always put out the lights before I made love.”|
|“Never go to Chicago.”|
I don’t recall what point Lovaas was making, anymore, but my point is, some stories take a long, long time to take shape. They sit in a dusty box waiting to be re–discovered.
And I’m so glad I ignored Grammy Lovaas’s advice on deathbed statement number 2 or I wouldn’t be here with you tonight (see Figure 1).
|Figure 1: Note “Lovaas’s grandmother on death bed”.|
|“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”|
It is never too early to start reading to, singing to, and talking to children. From the moment of birth, an infant begins rapidly absorbing information, piecing together the framework of his or her future self. But what happens during those nine months? Does learning begin in utero?
Dr. Rick Gilmore, associate professor of psychology, director of the Brain Development and Cognition Laboratory, and acting director of the Social & Life Sciences Imaging Center at Penn State, says:
|“There’s ample evidence that fetuses are picking up information from the outside world. They’re especially receptive to sounds from the mother’s body and the external environment” (Gilmore, 2009).|
The often cited studies conducted by Anthony DeCasper at the University of South Carolina demonstrate the existence of prenatal learning (DeCasper and Spence, 1986). Gilmore continues, “Mothers were instructed to read Dr. Seuss out loud while they were pregnant. When the babies were born, researchers tested to see if they recognized Dr. Seuss against other stories, and their mother’s voice against other readers. In both cases, the infants were able to pick up on the vocal patterns they’d become familiar with, in utero” (Gilmore, 2009).
Hearing is one of the first senses to develop. As early as sixteen weeks gestation, a developing fetus begins to perceive the world outside the womb through his or her fluid–filled ears. However, a sound–dampening barrier of embryonic fluid and abdominal tissue restricts audible input. “The sound a fetus hears in the womb is highly muffled, consisting mostly of low frequencies,” says Gilmore. “Inside the womb, people’s voices sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, sort of like a muted trumpet. However, there is a lot of information in that filtered and muted sound stream” (Gilmore, 2009).
While infants can’t understand words, they are adept learners of vocal rhythms and patterns. Remarkably, this information allows them to differentiate between languages from birth. “There are studies that show a two–day–old infant’s preference for the mother’s native language, even when spoken by unfamiliar voices.” Because her vocal chords resonate easily through body tissue and fluid, a mother’s voice is the lead lecturer in prenatal lessons. “In fact, if the mother is bilingual, the information contained in those languages might shape the development of the brain and predispose children to learning those languages after birth” (Gilmore, 2009).
In 1989 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the nation’s governors established the education priorities designed to prepare America’s citizens for the twenty–first century. The president and the governors jointly adopted the six–goal initiative in 1990; two goals were subsequently added, and the National Education Goals were incorporated into law in March 1994 when the 103rd Congress passed Goals 2000: Educate America Act. One of the three objectives established to meet the School Readiness Goal was:
|Every parent in the United States will be a child’s first teacher and devote time each day to helping such parent’s preschool child learn, and parents will have access to the training and support parents need.|
Just because our nation fell short of meeting those national education goals makes them no less valid and no less important, and one of the best ways to jump start that learning in the preschool years is through playing with words. And one of the best ways to play with words?
Stories and Storytelling
The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends the following as examples of age–appropriate language and language play experiences:
- Infants: caregiver responding to baby’s cries and coos, talking and singing to baby, imitating baby’s sounds, taking turns vocalizing.
- Toddlers: naming objects and events for child, reading storybooks, and helping the child with words to express him/herself.
- Three–year–olds: answering child’s questions, singing songs and saying rhymes together, and using clear and easy–to–understand language with the child.
- Four–year–olds: helping the child carry on conversations and encouraging pretend play.
- And always, telling stories and reading storybooks (Bredekamp, 1992).
Nearly thirty years ago, storytellers Ellin Greene and Laura Simms taught storytelling to group of young kids from Chicago. When the kids were asked, “What would happen if there were no stories in the world?” they gave some perceptive and creative answers:
- “People would die of seriousness.”
- “When you went to bed at night it would be boring, because your head would be blank.”
- “There wouldn’t be a world, because stories made the world.”
The Meaning of Story
Susan Engel is one of the leading researchers in the meaning and importance of childhood stories. In her book, The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood (1995), she talks about stories helping children make sense of their worlds. One hears these stories from children all the way to adulthood — narratives about sequences and narratives about “typical” and “special” events. Listen in on any cell phone conversation — it isn’t hard to do! Each one contains a narrative sequence or a sequential narrative — “And then, you’ll never guess what he asked me?” ...
Stories help children make sense of the world. A student teacher I know told this true “show and tell” story — A first grade boy comes to school one morning and says, “Hey, guess what? There was a ghost at our house last night!” His friends say, “No! Really? How do you know?” The boy replied, “I heard him. He sounded like this, Ah, Ah, Ah! I called my mom to listen, but then he stopped!”
Stories help children make emotional sense of the world. These are the stories that help solve problems and right wrongs — words that help children handle adversity.
Stories help children become part of the culture. Listening to what is important to the people around them helps children become part of their family, school, and neighborhood cultures. They tell stories that will be of interest to the people they know best. They learn how to make them laugh and what level of detail is required to hold their interest.
Stories help children construct a self. Children tell a story to relive and confirm an experience or a feeling. Think about yourself, how would you finish this sentence? — “I am the person in my family who ...”
Stories help children to invent and adapt. Children sometimes edit their life stories so they can get to have things as they wish as opposed to how they actually are.
Life as Story & The Importance of One’s Own Narrative
In A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age, Barry Sanders makes a passionate call for our society to reinvest in our children’s literacy. He speaks of a growing number of violent and illiterate young people as “post–illiterates ... at home neither in orality nor in literacy” (Sanders, 1995, p.78). Sanders’ historical research leads him to conclude that children need to be immersed in an oral literacy environment — speaking and listening — that is intimately connected to their personal–social lives (within the family) before they will profit from experiences with text and writing.
And the absence of that environment leaves some young people well beyond adrift. He describes “a world peopled with young folk who have bypassed reading and writing and who thus have been forced to fabricate a life without the benefit of the innermost, intimate guide, the self.”
Sanders continues, “It does not take a powerful imagination to describe such a world. The details can be found in the morning newspaper. It is a world marked by pain and death, a world filled with despair and drop–outs, teen–age suicides, gang killings, broken homes, and homicides. It is a world in which young people seek revenge and retaliation rather than self–reflection. It is a world in which persons kill without remorse or regret” (Sanders, 1995, pp. xi-xii).
This view of the importance of orality from a personal–social perspective is also recognition of the importance of “story” in an individual’s life, especially the story of one’s own existence.
Oliver Sacks gets to the heart of the matter in his story entitled, “A Matter of Identity,” in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Listen to this exchange between patient William Thompson and his doctor, Oliver Sacks.
‘What’ll it be today?’ he says, rubbing his hands. ‘Half a pound of Virginia, a nice piece of Nova?’
(Evidently he saw me as a customer — he would often pick up the phone on the ward, and say ‘Thompson’s Delicatessen’.)
‘Oh Mr Thompson!’ I exclaim. ‘And who do you think I am?’
‘Good heavens, the light’s bad — I took you for a customer. As if it isn’t my old friend Tom Pitkins ... Me and Tom’ (he whispers in an aside to the nurse) ‘was always going to the races together.’
‘Mr Thompson, you are mistaken again.’
‘So I am,’ he rejoins, not put out for a moment. ‘Why would you be wearing a white coat if you were Tom? You’re Hymie, the kosher butcher next door. No bloodstains on your coat though. Business bad today? You’ll look like a slaughterhouse by the end of the week!’
Feeling a bit swept away myself in this whirlpool of identities, I finger the stethoscope dangling from my neck.
‘A stethoscope!’ He exploded. ‘And you pretending to be Hymie! You mechanics are all starting to fancy yourselves to be doctors, what with your white coasts and stethoscopes — as if you need a stethoscope to listen to a car! So, you’re my old friend Manners from the Mobil station up the block, come in to get your boloney–and–rye ...’
William Thompson rubbed his hands again, in his salesman–grocer’s gesture, and looked for the counter. Not finding it, he looked at me strangely again.
‘Where am I?’ he said, with a sudden scared look. ‘I thought I was in my shop, doctor. My mind must have wandered ... You’ll be wanting my shirt off, to sound me as usual?’
‘No, not the usual. I’m not your usual doctor.’
‘Indeed you’re not. I could see that straightaway. You’re not my usual chest–thumping doctor. And, by God, you’ve a beard! You look like Sigmund Freud — have I gone bonkers, round the bend?’
‘No, Mr Thompson. Not round the bend. Just a little trouble with your memory — difficulties remembering and recognizing people.’
‘My memory has been playing me some tricks,’ he admitted. ‘Sometimes I make mistakes — I take somebody for somebody else ... What’ll it be now — Nova or Virginia?’
So it would happen, with variations, every time — with improvisations, always prompt, often funny, sometimes brilliant, and ultimately tragic. Mr Thompson would identify me — misidentify, pseudo–identify me — as a dozen different people in the course of five minutes. He would whirl, fluently, from one guess, one hypothesis, one belief, to the next, without any appearance of uncertainty at any point — he never knew who I was, or what and where he was, an ex–grocer, with severe Korsakov’s in a neurological institution (Sacks, 1987, pp. 108–109).
Sacks writes of the importance of one’s own story, one’s own narrative or history as the very confirmation of one’s existence. “To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re–possess, our life–stories. We must ‘recollect’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self” (Sacks, 1987, pp. 111).
I’ll venture a guess that a woman needs that narrative, too!
Perhaps the notion of a life narrative goes a long way toward explaining the choices people make. We all are able to look back at that story that was our past, whether through a rosy glow or in jagged relief as something to surmount. And, we are living the story that is the present, but what about that future story? Might it include a degree, a job, a move to a new place, a relationship, a child, retirement, a grandchild? But, what if you can’t see the narrative continuing beyond sundown? What if your imagination is truly limited to today?
What difference does that make in your choices if someone disrespects you? I’m afraid it might make a huge difference. One’s life narrative must be continuous — from past to present and imagined into the future — for life itself to continue.
Isaac Bashevis Singer said it very well: “The present is only a moment and the past is one long story. Those who don’t tell stories and don’t hear stories live only for the moment, and that isn’t enough” (Maguire, 1998, p. 66).
Neal Postman, the late professor and media ecologist, talked about narrative, too, in his Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. He said:
“I mean by ‘narrative,’ a story. But not any kind of story. I refer to big stories — stories that are sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and the future of a people; stories that construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and in doing all this, provide a sense of continuity and purpose. Joseph Campbell and Rollo May, among others, called such stories ‘myths.’ Marx had such stories in mind in referring to ‘ideologies.’ And Freud called them ‘illusions.’ No matter. What is important about narratives is that human beings cannot live without them.
We are burdened with a kind of consciousness that insists on our having a purpose. Purposefulness requires a moral context, and moral context is what I mean by a narrative. The construction of narrative is, therefore, a major business of our species; certainly, no group of humans has ever been found that did not have a story that defined for them how they ought to behave and why.
That is the reason why there is nothing more disconcerting, to put mildly, than to have one’s story mocked, contradicted, refuted, held in contempt, or made to appear trivial. To do so is to rob a people of their reason for being. And that is why no one loves a story–buster, at least not until a new story can be found. Much of our ancient history concerns the punishments inflicted on those who challenged existing narratives — Socrates was given hemlock, John the Baptist lost his head, Jesus was crucified, Muhammad had to seek shelter in a cave.
In our era, the great story–busters — Darwin, Marx, Freud — were anything but lovable to the mass of people whose traditional narrative they attacked” (Postman, 1999, pp. 101–102).
Psychologist Howard Gardner addresses the same issue in his book, Leading Minds: Anatomy of Leadership where he studies eleven world leaders whose commonality was “the fact that they arrived at a story that worked for them and, ultimately, for others as well. They told stories — in so many words — about themselves and their groups, about where they were coming from and where they were headed, about what was to be feared, struggled against, and dreamed about.”
He deliberately used the terms story and narrative rather than message or theme. He adds, “In speaking of stories, I want to call attention to the fact that leaders present a dynamic perspective to their followers: not just a headline or snapshot, but a drama that unfolds over time, in which they — leader and followers — are the principal characters or heroes. Together they have embarked on a journey in pursuit of certain goals, and along the way and into the future, they can expect to encounter certain obstacles or resistances that must be overcome. Leaders and audiences traffic in many stories, but the most basic story has to do with issues of identity” (Gardner, 1995, p. 14).
Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny
I’ve always been intrigued by that concept that the individual develops along the lines of the species — we swim, we creep, we crawl, we walk. We vocalize, we chant, we sing, we tell. Ruth Sawyer, who as the head of storytelling at New York Public Library probably did more for the preservation of storytelling in the United States and its important connection to public libraries, than any other person in history, writes:
“It is enough if we remember that long before there was adequate language to express actions, emotions, and ideas, there had been intelligent purpose. People had been doing certain things for certain reasons for thousands of years and there existed an accumulation of experience that took a higher form than mere instinct. Experience began to be remembered. After thousands of years of action there began to be reaction, involving emotions, ideas, and the faculty to reason. ... [I]t is out of this play of action and reaction that storytelling began.
The first primitive efforts at conscious storytelling consisted of a simple chant, set to the rhythm of some daily tribal occupation such as grinding corn, paddling canoe or kayak, sharpening weapons for hunting or war, or ceremonial dancing. They were in the first person, impromptu, giving expression to pride or exultation over some act of bravery or accomplishment that set the individual for the moment apart from the tribe” (Sawyer, 1942, pp. 45–46).
Kathryn Morton put it another way, “What got people out of the trees was something besides thumbs and gadgets. What did it, I am convinced, was a warp in the simian brain that made us insatiable for patterns — patterns of sequence, of behavior, of feeling — connections, reasons, causes: stories” (Maguire, 1998, p. 40).
Stories from Life and Other Equally Exciting Places
I am teaching storytelling at Dominican this semester and one of the major assignments is for the students to tell a story from life. Last weekend, using a traditional storytelling structure, they presented a remarkable range of moving and entertaining tales — many of which had never been told beyond a few family members before. Some were told for the first time. It is not an easy exercise, but they handled it wonderfully well. We opened by shedding tears over one family’s prayers for Emmett Till, and closed with tears of laughter over the unusual crime of public urination in a car wash.
Stories from life are at the heart of our conversations with friends, they are the core of shared relationships between parents and children, and children and parents. Stories are the hidden strength of marriages and other committed social partnerships.
They teach, they entertain, they define, and they last longer than the people who tell them.
1. At the time of this lecture, Dr. Lovaas was alive, but he did pass away on August 2, 2010. See his New York Times obituary here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/health/23lovaas.html.
2. The lecture also contained an audio clip of a twenty–one–month–old girl “pretend reading” from several pages of the book, Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, accompanied by the text and illustrations. (Watson, 1971)
3. The live lecture ended, “I will close tonight with a story from my childhood — a school story that might provide insight into who I was at five– and six–years–old. And, maybe not. I think of it as a tribute to teachers everywhere. And, this is the first time I’ve ever told this story wearing a suit!
When I was ...”
The story was an example of a personal story that has evolved into an oral tale (en route to a written one!) Copyright laws preclude its inclusion in this article. It is entitled “Keith Goes to First Grade.”
Bredekamp, Sue, ed. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1992.
DeCasper, Anthony J. and Melanie J. Spence. “Prenatal Maternal Speech Influences Newborns’ Perception of Speech Sounds.” Infant Behavior and Development, 9, no. 2 (1986): 133–150.
Engel, Susan. The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995.
Gardner, Howard, with the collaboration of Emma Laskin. Leading Minds: Anatomy of Leadership. New York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1995.
Gilmore, Rick. “Probing Question ‘Can babies learn in utero?’” ResearchPennState (February 2009), http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/inutero.html (accessed 23 February 2009).
Maguire, Jack. Kathryn Morton and Isaac Bashevis Singer quotes were cited in The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect with Others. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Sacks, Oliver Sacks. “A Matter of Identity,” in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Sanders, Barry. A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1995.
Sawyer, Ruth. The Way of the Storyteller. New York: Viking, 1942.
Watson, Clyde. Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes. Illustrated by Wendy Watson. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971.
On the night of my lecture, I thanked Christopher Traut for his introduction and for making the Follett Chair possible. I also recognized the support of President Donna Carroll, Provost Cheryl Johnson–Odim, and Dean Susan Roman and thanked them for the honor of the Follett Chair and the opportunity to teach at the excellent Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University.
I also acknowledged the support of my faculty colleagues and thanked them for welcoming me and making my time at Dominican unforgettable. I also addressed all my students — the best part of the Dominican experience for me — I told them they will make a difference in the world of libraries wherever they go. I also acknowledged one last group — the administrative, instructional, and support staff in GSLIS — how could we get anything done without their hard work and daily just–in–time deliveries of miracles? Thanks to Talonda Burnett, Teresa Espinoza, Sharon Parker, Alexis Sarkisian, Lenora Berendt, Marie–Louise Settem, and our valiant student workers.
About the author
Steven L. Herb is head of the Education and Behavioral Sciences Library, and affiliate professor of Language, Culture and Society in the College of Education at Penn State University. Dr. Herb is also the director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. From 2007 to 2010, he held the Follett Chair in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University, the third professor to hold the appointment. Herb has a special interest in storytelling and the power stories hold. He is the co–author of the history of Penn State’s school symbol — The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale (1997), with Penn State archivist, Jackie Esposito. His first–year seminar on storytelling resulted in Herb being named Penn State’s Most Innovative Faculty member of the year 2000.
E–mail: slh18 [at] psu [dot] edu