We think of stories as entertainment. Enjoyable mental confectionery, quite removed from the hard facts venerated in science and maths. Our focus on science and maths is primarily responsible for our current wealth, technological innovation, and social progress. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Everyone worries about the school system not applying enough focus on these ‘hard’ sciences, as opposed to the ‘soft’ humanities, and that the end result will be the inevitable decline of the OECD’s – or modern world’s – civilization.
And yet, the most powerful way to teach, and to learn, is through storytelling. In my high school, the two dumbest guys in my year, or at least, the two guys who failed every other class including physical education – passed physics.
WTF? Physics is meant to be… you know, hard. It’s one of the hardest of the hard sciences, given that it involves algebra and chemistry as well as actual physics. So what gives?
We had an American physics teacher by the name of Tom Parsons whose teaching style was unlike any other teacher’s. We weren’t required to take any notes – they were given to us for our later reference. Parsons wanted us to focus, not be distracted by trying to remember the last thing he said when he’d moved on to something else. And he would typically only scribble a handful of equations on the blackboard. So what filled up the rest of this hour of instruction?
Stories. Crazy stories. Stories that may even have been true, even if they did reference the CIA and all sorts of other unlikely adventures. It was like being in an oral MacGuyver episode. And each of these stories Dr Parsons used to illustrate a different part of the equation on the board, so that we knew what each symbol meant, and how it related to the other symbols in such a way that even if the equation was rearranged, we still understood what it meant.
In this way I learned that from E=mc2 we can come up with equations like km/h, let alone a bunch of other concepts that I still remember to this day, nearly two decades later. Everyone in Dr Parson’s class passed physics, and no, the smart ones weren’t dragged down by the stragglers – they did exceptionally well too.
Stories are how we learn, and make sense of the world. In fact, the best art and fiction arguably give us more profound truths about the world, and the nature of the human condition, than memorizing terabytes of facts, figures, and tables will ever be able to.
In fact, what is culture if not the sum total of stories that a given population tells about itself, to itself?
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
And yet, the stories of history, art, literature, philosophy and religion – the humanities – are receiving ever decreasing prominence in the modern western school system, at the expense of maths and science. Stanford University’s Peter Berkowitz acutely sums up the problem in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:
How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life?
To me, it’s high time we re-examined the importance of the stories in our lives.