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What Makes Us Human:
Too many in the modern world view storytelling with a narrow mindset, arguing that tales simply serve as form of entertainment for children (DuPont). However, in a historical lens, the power of storytelling extends beyond mindless diversion, as a method by which societies spread important knowledge to the next generation, an important tool which shapes the society we live in today.
Throughout known history, our separate cultures have shared storytelling. In Things Fall Apart, a fictitious historical novel, fables play an important role in pre-colonial life. Parents teach children important lessons through stories they tell: “Manly stories,” or those describing the nature of war, death, and conquest (Achebe 52), and “womanly stories,” those teaching history and human nature through metaphors and allegories (66). Nevertheless, in the culture described in Things Fall Apart, stories remain relevant in adulthood, too: Ancient tales passed from one generation to another foster traditions and customs. One example story, the Fable of the Tortoise and Birds, offers a warning the elders tell before meals. The lesson reminds the society’s adults of the importance of maintaining balance in their lives, to demonstrate a better, hard-working lifestyle than the birds, without becoming greedy, like the tortoise (86). Achebe’s depiction of society in the novel truly understands that storytelling generates valuable wisdom.
To determine whether storytelling remains relevant today, I decided to conduct an interview with Michael Than. He spent a large portion of his career as a theatre director (Than, “Our Board”), forcing him to explore the intricacies of the human mind, so I decided that his opinion on the subject would prove particularly valuable. His viewpoint revolved around the belief that myths and fables serve primarily as educational tools, arguing that, “Storytelling has always been ingrained in our culture”, and that “Events and culture of prehistory are only known today because of storytelling, in various forms” (Than). He insists that, first and foremost, stories allow future generations to learn from mistakes of the past, without trial and error.
Scientific reports support Than’s convictions: In a 2000 study, fifth-graders told to act out nursery rhymes in class improved in memorization, word recognition, and understanding of literature, as well as important social skills and a “positive attitude towards learning” (DuPont). As early as 1988, researchers concluded that storytelling “leads to [a] higher cognitive level in student’s responses” (Aiex), and the National Council Teachers of English found that overall student comprehension improved greatly with a storytelling-centric English curriculum (NCTE).
Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal only reinforces the belief that people can use stories as a tool for achieving greater wisdom. Remen tends to focus on the emotional and personal side of life through her words (Remen 15), but professional opinion supports her position on the ability of storytelling as a teaching method. In fact, some researchers suspect storytelling benefits children’s literature comprehension more than reading (Woodward)! In her own words, “Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed” (Remen 72). Put more plainly, perhaps cold lessons cannot teach one to become astute as well as the events of metaphorical, fictional situations can.
Ultimately, storytelling does not simply entertain. Rather, the practice has taught important lessons to every generation throughout hundreds of cultures, and thousands of years. Simultaneously, storytelling remains a personal experience, one which educates youth, produces internal optimism, and helps humanity connect around the world. Human culture doesn’t produce storytelling. Storytelling makes us human.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Aiex. Storytelling: Its Wide-ranging Impact in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: Office of
Educational Research and Improvement. U.S. Dept. of Education., 1988. Print.
DuPont, Sherry Ann. The Effectiveness of Creative Drama as an Instructional Strategy to
Enhance the Reading Comprehension Skills of Fifth-grade Remedial Readers. N.p.: n.p.,
National Council of Teachers of English, comp. Teaching Storytelling: A Position Statement from
the Committee on Storytelling. NCTE, 1992. Print.
Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York: Riverhead,
Than, Wuchien. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 2016.
Than, Wuchien, Richard Lee, Renna Reddie, Sally Han, and Ric Knowles. "Our
Board." The Wuchien Michael Than Foundation. Ontario Arts Foundation, n.d.
Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Woodward, Michael and Johanna Kuyvenhoven. In the Presence of Each Other: A Pedagogy of Storytelling. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2009. Print.