Attending to the Narrative Environment
   Continued. . .

Narrative and Story

“Narrative� and “story� have become such popular words that it’s easy to lose sight of what they mean. I use them in much the way your seventh-grade English teacher used them. A story has a few basic elements: a character who cares about something, events that touch upon those cares, and a pattern of meaning that can be either implicit or explicit. In other words, character, plot and theme.

Narrative talks about events unfold in time, as opposed to other ways of talking about things, such as analysis, which freezes time to examine relationships, as when we make a diagram of a toaster to see how all its parts work together. When historians analyze data, such as the number of people of different races incarcerated in a particular state during a given year, they are using quantitative analysis rather than narrative to find out how things really were.

I emphasize stories because, as societies and individuals, we are stories, and we understand and communicate our lives as stories. Since we not only live our stories but also tell them, we pass our experience around for others to think about. We are made to encode and decode meaning through stories.

All stories are narratives but not all narratives are stories. We transform narrative to story by find patterns that mean something. We have all had the experience of listening to someone talk who goes on and on without a point, and then this happened, and then I said this, and then he said that, and then this happened. We want to interrupt and ask, “What’s your point?� In other words, what’s the theme? The theme may not be stated explicitly, but we “get it� like the punch line of a joke.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child is and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they are born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

The Narrative Environment

During the past few decades, educators have waking up to the ways that neglecting the narrative environment of schools–the daily narration in hallways and teachers’ lounges as well as the great formal narratives of literature and history–turns out to be as educationally unsound as ignoring the microbial environment is medically unsound. Doctors once went from patient to patient, blood and body fluids on their hands, without washing. Patients were put into beds where sick people had just died without anyone changing the linen. Everyone was paying attention to other things.

And while we’ve paid attention to other things, such as data, we haven’t talked nearly enough about the stories that are loose in our schools and communities. Stories infect us. They capture our minds. They turn us into the creatures we become. We live amid narrative environments, and if we want to strengthen or help other people–and good teaching is an attempt to do just that–the most powerful way is to change their narrative environment.

The polluted narrative environment of our youth (and of ourselves) is the most serious environmental crisis we face, and the one out of which all others grow. It is from the narrative environment that young people learn who they are, how to feel, what to think, who they might be, how to react to crises, what to fear, what to admire, and what to want.

We’re so immersed in stories that it’s easy to underestimate their power. Here’s Bud Cheff, Sr., a seventy-eight-year-old rancher from the Mission Valley in western Montana, chatting about his early life:

Whenever Adelle and I went somewhere, or when we were returning home, I always put the money I had left into a big jar I kept buried. When I got a chance to buy the land where the ranch now sits, I dug out my money cache, and got out the jug that I had buried. I poured it all out on a tarp and counted it; I had just enough money to pay cash for that piece of land, 160 acres. There were pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar bills, five, ten and twenty dollar bills.

I went into the house and had Adelle and all the kids come out to my shed to see what I had on my tarp, and they all just stared at it. Adelle knew I’d been saving money, but had no idea it amounted to that much and the kids were so excited because they had never seen that much money at one time. I let them each take a handful of small change and then I gathered it up, went to the courthouse in Polson, and paid for my land.

What interests me in this little story about what Bud wants, how he sets about getting it, and what consequences follow, is how effortlessly it encodes a host of values. Children who grow up immersed in such everyday narratives probably do not notice that Bud is teaching his understanding of the little secrets of being human: what the rules of life are, what roles are available, and how to get what is wanted. In a way that’s so natural it’s easy to miss seeing, Bud teaches perseverance, postponement of gratification, affection for spouse and children, delight in the chance to struggle for a dream.

I can testify from personal experience that a person who listens to this man tell his ordinary stories about raising a family and building a ranch will feel tugs of desire to become a better person: to laugh more, work harder, have more friends.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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