Understanding others is key to narrative intelligence

As we assimilate a story, our emotions are our own, not those of the characters. By means of the story our emotions may be transformed by having them deepened or understood better, and they may be extended toward people of kinds for whom we might previously have felt nothing.

Keith Oatley, “Emotions and the Story Worlds of Fiction,” in Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Timothy C. Brock, Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange. editors.  (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 2002. p. 43.

One of the more delightful forms of human intelligence is the quickness and accuracy with which some people sense what others are feeling. To do this, they must (in Jerome Bruner‘s phrase) “construe reality.” We cannot, after all, see into others’ minds. To a large extent, our understanding of others is a story we tell ourselves about what their intentions seem to be and what might be causing them to act and speak as they do. Our knowledge of other people always has a fictive element.

We are most keenly aware of this when others fail--when they badly misconstrue us, ascribing to us motives that we do not in fact have. A Separate Peace by John Knowles has been a perennial favorite of high school English teachers precisely because it explores in the story of two friends at a boarding school during World War II the horrific conseqences of just such a failure. It suggests that the most pressing problems on earth, such as the world war that goes on relentlessly in the background, at least sometimes spring from just such failures.

The only way to understand others is through stories. Young people develop their narrative intelligence by experiencing many stories involving many kinds of people. Stories from books, stories from films, stories from old guys in the coffee shop downtown, stories from parents, stories from teachers and stories from friends. One of the great values of literature in the classroom is that “reading” another person isn’t so different from reading a character in a book. What we learn in literature and criticism often has immediate application in the seemingly unexalted transactions of daily life.

Young people who are quite fortunate will also find mentors who will think things through with them. Mentors who can teach the critical faculty needed to live well in a world of stories--especially the stories we are living and not just those we are hearing and telling--mentors who know something about how badly quick conclusions can miss the mark; who know how to test theories about what others are feeling by watching and probing for confirming or disconfirming details; who know the importance of patience in the face of things we don’t yet have enough evidence to know; and who can demonstrate the power of kindness to open up the mysteries of other people.

When our hearts are soft, we sense better the hearts of others. We think more exactly and understand better (hard-hearted people seem “smart” more often than they seem “intelligent").

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/25 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project

What genre is your life?

A man is always a teller of tales; he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others; he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

----Jean-Paul Sartre

Last week I suggested that good teachers were heroes, even though I know many people are reluctant to apply that label to themselves. In describing teachers in the Heritage Project as “heroes” I was suggesting that we are caught up in a particular kind of story--a particular genre, if you will. In this story, people make gifts of their sacrifices to others, so that the world gets better.

The relationship between character type and genre is tight enough Hamlet couldn’t really be Hamlet if his story ended in a comic crescendo. The genre we think we’re in strongly influences the character we think we are. It matters a great deal what genre we think we’re in. Carol Pearson says that most of us are “slaves of the stories we unconciously tell about our lives,” and suggests most of us make our life stories fit one of the six narrative forms we learn growing up (she calls them archetypes): the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician.

Researchers among elderly people in Scandanavia decided that most of their subjects could be classified according to what story they thought they were living: the Suffering One, the Loser, the Fighter, the Altruist, the Careerist, or the Happy One.

Most of us will draw on many genres to make stories of different episodes or stages in our lives. Such lists aren’t exhaustive of course. Our own cultural toolkits might include genres that help us see ourselves as tricksters, disciples, or knights.

Literary critic Norththrop Frye thought that the main modes of narrative were myth, romance, tragedy, comedy, and irony, and all of us have subplots or chapters in our life stories in which each of the modes comes to the fore. It’s often a matter of where we stop the story. When Falstaff is found dead on stage, the mood in the theater feels tragic. After people have spoken gravely of what a loss his death his, he gets up, ready for another swallow of wine. When we learn he had only been pretending to be dead, to save himself from the fierce battle, the tragic mode vanishes. All of us can tell stories of events that seemed horrible at the time but that now seem hilarious. Life went on, which is the essence of comedy.

Still, we know from experience that some patterns, or genres, seem dominant in some lives. Some people see the trouble in every event while others tend to see only disguised good news, which a little work will reveal. To make a plot out of all the episodes and events that happen, we need to discern or decide where things are going and we need to select which details are part of that story and which are not. In other words, we need to emplot our lives to understand them and to take intelligent action. And to do this we draw on our knowledge of what genres are available which we get from our cultural canon.

We can see the way differing narrative intelligence in different students affects everything about their lives. Some already think their life story is that of the victim of malicious plotting. Some already understand themselves as invalids. Some have a diffuse narrative intelligence, having trouble making causal connections between the events that happen to them and how these relate to their futures.

And yet, some have strongly integrated and coherent narrative intelligence--their lives make sense to them and they take actions based on what they anticipate in their future.

We know that all adolecents are new at thinking autobiographically--at seeing their lives as stories they are authoring. Can we help them author better life stories?

Here are a couple of questions:

1. Does the use of stories in the Heritage Project (those gathered from community members, those read in history or literature) help students develop their narrative intelligence? Do you think that hearing veterans, for example, tell stories of persevering and doing their duty and getting past tough times helps young people more intelligently emplot their own lives?

2. Does telling stories drawn from local and family history in public help students develop their narrative intelligence? What role do the expectations and standards we apply to these public tellings play? (By that I mean the expectation--built into the nature of heritage fairs and heritage evenings--that the stories will affirm civic values and that the telling will be coherent and well-crafted. We know that the stories we tell are powefully influenced by the audiences we have or expect to have).


Note: I came across the citation to the research in Scandanavia in Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth through Autobiographical Reflection, by Gary M. Kenyon and William L. Randall (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers) 1997, p.80. They cited: Ruth J.-E., and G. Kenyon ( 1996). “Biography in Adult Development and Aging.” In J. Birren, G. Kenyon, J.-E. Ruth, J. Schroots, and T. Svensson (eds.), Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development. New York: Springer. 1-20.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/24 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project

Teen identities are shaped by narrative environment

Wherever a story comes from, whether it is a familiar myth or a private memory, the retelling exemplifies the making of a connection from one pattern to another…. Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.
—Mary Catherine Bateson (Peripheral Visions)

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to Dan McAdams, adolescents are adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is often the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a life story that’s more or less coherent. Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. As noted by Theodore Sarbin and David Hermans, it’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolecents are surrounded by perspectives--or voices--that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

And this is why the narrative environment that surrounds teenagers is of supreme importance. Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes expectations and opportunties for them to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from a the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful adulthood.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/23 at 06:14 AM
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