I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories. They were mostly stories from books, but from time to time she would tell a short story of my father growing up, or one from her own childhood. These stories pulled from her memory sparked my imagination and brought to life my grandma’s past. It was always so strange to think of my grandmother as young girl in a world so different from my own. Looking back I realize how important her individual history is. Individual histories are important in helping people better understand the past and make the storytellers understand that their own story is important. We must first acquire the pieces before we can create a tapestry. The more detailed the pieces, the more detailed and beautiful the tapestry. Without these pieces, it is difficult to bring the past to life, which is exactly the problem occurring in America today. People are losing their sense of importance of the past as well as the benefits that come with knowing about the past.
This lost feeling about the importance of the past is causing people to become disconnected with history and their own pasts. Ancestry.com has seen this in America with only “half of Americans [knowing] the name of only one or none of their great-grandparents” and with only “fifty percent of American families [having] ever researched their roots” (PRNewswire). These statistics also apply to the community of Lincoln. Many people are not taking the time to discover their own family histories, and the story that made them who they are today.
This ignorance of the past causes people to forget how history impacts people today, which in turn causes people to lose the benefits this knowledge of the past provides. In a world that seems to be constantly advancing and looking to the future, it’s easy for people to believe that history is simply something that happened but now has no purpose in modern society. The president and CEO of The Generations Network, Tim Sullivan, reminds us that “our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents each possess a lifetime of incredible, unique experiences that have shaped their lives and impacted our own. It’s important we take time to better get to know our family members and to share our stories” (PRNewswire). The history that people choose to teach to “children is playing a role in shaping their values and beliefs” (Crabtree). Whether their past sounds good or bad, understanding how ancestors impact people today leads to a reassessment of how a person is currently living their life.
There is also a more practical reason for people to know where they came from. Many adopted children seek to find out who their birth parents are, but it’s not always for the heartwarming reasons movies might suggest. Often times, they do this so they can find out their medical histories and discover why they might act the way that they do (Betchen). The past not only shows people where they found their values and predispositions, but their personal pasts can show them why some of them sneeze because of pollen or why some of them end up with Alzheimer’s. The physical makeup of one’s ancestor’s bodies is what makes up their own body.
Going beyond just personal histories, it is important to look at the significance of history objectively. History in general is extremely important to know and understand the past because “our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems” (Crabtree). History has shaped the present that has made humans inescapably intertwined with the past. It has dictated current beliefs and shaped the issues that we face in this world today. If people do not acknowledge history and what it has already taught them “we will find ourselves fabricating a past that reinforces our understanding of current problems” (Crabtree). As people become increasingly disconnected with the past, issues may become more difficult to solve because no one has a proper understanding of its past and will therefore not truly understand how to resolve it. People will only ever look for solutions that they want to solve the issue, not solutions that will actually solve the issue.
The best way for people to learn history and appreciate its importance is to start learning it at an early age in school. It’s common to hear people complaining about their history classes. They say that history is not important to learn “because it’s already happened”, a mindset that is negatively affecting my community. The improper teaching of history has brought about this mindset. Many history classrooms only teach facts and “the teaching of only facts reduces [the student’s] intellectual abilities and denies students the expressive potential inherent in their humanity” (Ohio Department of Education). While there have been schools and teachers that are working to change this mindset, the idea that history isn’t important in schools has already been engrained in the mind of the student and reinforced by the population of the internet through memes. Students have already stopped caring, so one of the greatest challenges is to convince them to start caring again.
One of the best ways to convince students to care again and begin to enforce the importance of history is to encourage the tradition of oral history. StoryCorps is an organization that is dedicated to recording the stories of people and they emphasize its importance by reminding people what is so important about history. On their about page, StoryCorps says they collect oral histories “to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters” (StoryCorps). It sums up why it is important for people to listen to each other’s stories. Without these stories people may begin to lose their empathy towards others and lose their place in the world. Oral histories work to enhance learning, nurture empathy and help students to become conscientious students of the world.
There are multiple ways that oral history enhances learning. First off, people become more interested in history when there is a name and face that helps them to connect to it. One would argue that the “stories of past lives, communities, and events might seem intrinsically interesting” but when people only focus on groups while teaching social history it flattens the narrative and “students find the subject dry, boring, and surprisingly unconnected to their lives” (Crocco). When students are taught through oral histories though, the individual stories do not lose anything on their way to the student and retain their intrinsically interesting appeal. This encourages students to learn history by peaking their interest and enforcing the connection of history to the student.
History also enhances learning by forcing the student to think critically. This is especially true when the students go out and collect the oral histories for themselves. In discovering multiple oral histories, students develop the skills to “frame questions about why accounts differ, fosters their abilities as critical thinkers” (Miller). Every person has a different story, and every person has an account of what they experienced during different events throughout history. When given these multiple stories, students are forced to think about the past complexly. It stops becoming a feeding of facts and becomes an interactive activity that stimulates the brain and a person’s passion for history.
Oral histories work to enhance learning, but also can be used to create empathy in a student. When listening to oral histories, students are encouraged “to see the world through the eyes of another,” therefore creating an emotional link between the student and interviewee (Crocco). With this emotional link, the student will view events with a fresh perspective that allows them to better understand the events told to them and foster an emotional connection to the past. It also helps bring the history to life for the students seeing them
Once students have reaped the benefits of using oral histories, students will then have a grown appreciation for history and they can continue to receive the benefits that learning history in the classroom provides.
So far, it has been made quite clear why it is important for people to teach and study oral history, but some people may wonder why the point of the elderly being interviewed has been emphasized. An example of why interviewing the elderly is particularly important is shown in the story of Marie Wilcox, a Wukchumni Native American. Marie grew up speaking the Wukchumni language with her grandmother family, but, until recently, she did not teach the language to anyone else. When she learned that she was the last person on earth who spoke the Wukchumni language fluently though, her urgency to teach became much greater. She began to write a dictionary, as well as create an oral version of her dictionary. She also began teaching her children and grandchildren how to speak Wukchumni so that her native language would not die off. Marie was born in 1993, so she is worried that if she does not work to teach other, her native language, as well as all the stories passed down in her language, will die off with her (Vaughan-lee). If Marie wants to pass along her language though, it will not be enough for her to make an effort, but other people will have to listen and learn from her. It is not a goal that she can finish on her own.
Marie’s story is similar to the stories of many other elderly people in America and how, without someone to listen, their stories may go forever unheard. While not everyone carries a dying language with them, every person does carry an important story with them, even if they don’t believe they do. Helen Hohbein, who recorded the stories of many elderly people while she worked in a nursing home, stated that “almost always [the elderly] would say their life was boring. But asking questions, bringing out good memories, and being encouraging would bring out the good things… I never found anyone to have led a boring life” (Hohbein). Without the encouragement to share their stories, these elderly people may not have ever shared what they had to offer to the world. Their stories and experiences would have passed on with them. In order to collect stories, it’s necessary for people to ask questions and record answers to preserve stories.
People perceive history as growing increasingly boring as the years pass, but it’s not history’s fault. People in my community are losing their sense of importance of the past as well as the benefits that come with knowing about the past. By encouraging the use of oral history and relating people to their pasts, people can connect more to history and learn from it as they should.