“Why do we have to learn stories,” my students might have asked me the first week of class. In a few weeks they will be faced with a multiple-choice quiz and tasked with answering knowledge-based questions from a graded reader. True enough, in their other classes they are met with page after page of multiple-choice grammar gotcha questions. If my lessons are meant to support what they learned in those classes, then it’s a fair question.
“Raise your hand if you ever had a favourite teacher,” I asked them on the first day of class. At most a quarter of the hands in the classroom went up at a time, otherwise there may only have been two or three spread out amongst the tables arranged in groups around the room. “Why is it that you like those teachers,” I pressed on.
With a little coaxing, we were able to move beyond the answers such as “they gave us pizza,” or “they did not shout,” and once or twice this week a student piped up and said, “the teachers that told us stories were my favourites.”
I asked them who their first stories were told by. Most responded that it had been their mothers. What was the point of those stories? At one stage it would’ve been to establish the first building blocks of language. Later, the stories told were to instil certain social values held by the parents– “Be brave,” “be honest,” “believe in magic.”
Next, I showed pictures drawn on cave walls 10,000 years and more ago. We looked at one picture of three spear-wielding hunters and two bowmen pursuing a pair of deer. For 400 centuries this story has endured because it had to. It was recorded because it had to be. It was passed down because lives depended on it.
The first teachers were storytellers. The old wise man who taught each new generation on a plain in Africa how to get food was an imperative component as the earliest society self-assembled. Not only did someone have to figure out how to kill a lion, they had to teach other people how to do it. Our survival as a species is testament to the success of these first storytellers.
Today, rather than lions, we must become the masters of our relationships with the people around us. Every interaction between characters we encounter moulds how we attempt to negotiate the maze of intra-personal networking. The more characters we understand from our reading, the more nuanced we become in developing relationships with the people around us.
Understanding Victor Frankenstein’s motivation for piecing together his creature will not inoculate us against neighbours who reanimate the dead, nor is it meant to, but knowing how to recognise the motivation of the people with whom you interact fosters your empathy, which, in turn creates better understanding between colleagues, clients, and collaborators as we try to understand the needs and emotions that drive the individual real-life characters we meet daily. Further extrapolated, we better understand the world and how it works.
So, why, indeed, do we have to learn stories in school? It’s only the future of humanity that depends on it.