I used to be the kind of person who assumed that history was just a boring bundle of facts, numbers, and place names that I was forced to memorize every so often. In school, I definitely gravitate more towards the humanities, though even with my interest in the writing and storytelling, I always found it difficult to engage myself in social studies. We learned too much about facts and figures, like what people ate and how their clothes were made, for my personal tastes. I never had the opportunity to break the surface of history into the really deep, interesting stuff. We were stuck in the shallow end with dates and events, and never got to learn about the ideas or philosophies behind any of it. However, after two years of Heritage Fair and two more years of great high school social studies teachers, I’m starting to realize that if you look at it from the right point of view, history isn’t just about a mess of war dates and biographies, it’s about concepts, ideas, and most importantly, stories. We’ve been talking about stories a lot, both in my high school classes and during our monthly Heritage Fair alumni conferences, and I do think I’ve gained quite a bit of knowledge from it.
Stories are the building blocks of our civilization; they allow us to imagine ourselves in the past as if we were right there experiencing everything along with the storyteller. That being said, you always need to be a little cautious with stories, especially with oral stories that have no real documentation, because words are easily twisted around and tweaked and fiddled with to suit the storyteller’s needs. Sure, the tale they are telling did probably happen, but it’s difficult to tell whether or not they were subtly trying to change the story to put themselves or their ancestors in a more favorable light. Of course, it’s natural human instinct to want to stand up for oneself and protect one’s own culture, race, or family, but stories from a subjective point of view can (and have) changed events and happenings entirely to make one side look ‘innocent’ and the other side look ‘guilty’. This is why it is very important for us, as students, to look at the stories we learn about from an objective point of view, and to take a step back and consider both sides of the tale. Yes, a biased point of view told through the eyes of a narrator from one side of the story can be extremely interesting and engaging, but it may not be an actual representation of what really happened back then. For example, if you were acting as a mediator between two friends who were in an argument, would you only listen to one person and assume they are telling the truth, or would you hear from both friends and try to figure out where to go from there? Listening to only one friend could have allowed them to twist the story so you would look favorably upon them, which wouldn’t be fair to the other friend. This translates exactly to the idea of history and stories. It’s important to find reliable sources from both points of views because we owe at least that much respect to our ancestors who actually lived through these events.
An example of a ‘twisted story’ our social studies teacher had us think about was the conflict between the First Nations peoples and the early European explorers, who came into contact during the very beginnings of the formation of Canada. If you were to be living in Europe generations after these happenings, you might have heard tales passed down from the European explorers of a brutish, childlike race, the ‘Indians’, who ate meat straight from the wild and paraded around with little covering their bodies. You might have heard about the violent ways of battle of the Indians when provoked, or their simple and innocent ways of life. However, if you were a First Nations child living generations later, you might know of the hundreds of Aboriginal peoples sent to other countries to be enslaved and tortured by the Europeans, forced to give up their own culture and ways of life in order to adhere to the Christian religion. You might have heard about the many First Nations that were killed off by the European’s foreign diseases, or later on, the First Nations children taken from their parents and forced into residential schools in an effort to eliminate all of their traditional culture, art, and language.
As you can see, a story can leave you with a very different impression depending on who you were hearing it from and the background of the storyteller. This is something that not only applies to history, but also to everyday life and problems people run into all the time. If you’re interested in learning more about stories and how one’s opinion can influence them, you can listen to this great TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie on The Danger of a Single Story, where she talks about how one-sided stories can influence the way people think, act, and are perceived.
Author: Emily M.