The trouble with our lives, as you may have noticed, is that they don’t have any clear meaning, except in as far as we can fit them into stories.
Have you ever been reading an article (!) or a book and suddenly, without any warning, an idea will jump off the page, grab you by the shoulders and give you a good shake? Recently, I’ve been exploring some of the work of Canadian education thinker, Kieran Egan. (For some reason, wherever I happen to wander in my own consideration of this place we call school, I always seem to be drawn back to the work of Egan!)
Among other things, Egan’s The Future of Education introduces the idea of framing a re-imagination of the schools that we have, and the curriculum that we design in terms of cognitive tools: “the things that allow our brains to do cultural work”. One such tool is mythic understanding and, specifically, learning to use the structures and features of story to help us build and design learning opportunities for our students.
The quote with which I began this post probably isn’t the take-away that Egan intended us to…well..take away, but as soon as I encountered it, I was forced to stop, put my wine glass down, turn to my wife and declare, “He’s absolutely right.”
When I wake up in the morning and decide whether or not to get out of bed, I, in effect, remove the bookmark from the story that is my life and continue reading…and writing. But the really powerful understanding, for me, is that I’m not completely free in how this whole thing plays itself out. Instead, I’m part of a larger narrative that has been written for me—one in which, through schooling, family life and community participation, I’ve been immersed, woven, socialized—however you want to see it. And the story in which I am a part has shaped my understanding of the world, provided me with a set of windows through which to look at the world and enabled me (if I’m really thinking) to see myself as part of that story.
Part of that story tells me what it means to be happy, to be successful, what it means to fail, to care about others, to not care about others. Part of that story tells me what is acceptable, what is laudable and what is deplorable. As Egan points out, stories allow us to develop an understanding about how to feel about certain things. Compelling, powerful stuff!
There’s much more to say about this…I’m sure of it! For now, a few questions as I continue to meander through this particular chapter of Egan’s book: Has our focus on achievement in the area of literacy allowed us to spend enough time exploring the power and potential of story? Do we recognize the value of interrogating our community and cultural stories in order to be able to critically examine how we are shaped by those very stories? Where in our current structure of schooling can we carve out the room needed to explore the power of story and how the power can be harnessed for deeper understanding?