Saul O. Sidore Distinguished Lecture
University of New Hampshire
My topic is “Toward a New Story for Schooling,” but I’m really telling an old story: we can’t separate education from community and we can’t understand communities without understanding them as a web of stories. To improve our schools, we need to pay attention to the stories our communities tell themselves about what they face, what is worth wanting, and where to go next. A new story can suddenly change us–as individuals, communities, or nations.
In 1849 Kit Carson set off in pursuit of a band of Apaches who had captured a white woman. The anecdote, related by Carson himself, sounds like the beginning of a movie. However, Carson had to ride his sweating horse not through the West of some scriptwriter’s imagination, but through a world more like the one we experience every day. A world where we lose the trail, move too slowly, lose our nerve, take the wrong turn, arrive too late or in the wrong place. By the time Carson caught up with the Indians, the woman was dead.
In the abandoned Apache camp he found something else though. A book about a largely fictional character named “Kit Carson” who was a great Indian-slaying hero. It was a shock to him. According to historian Richard White, “Carson’s reaction to finding the book . . . was to lament his failure to live up to his fictional reputation.” The actual Kit Carson was something less than god-like. He couldn’t tuck his pants into a pair of colorful boots, swoop into the scene amid a glittering whirl of rhinestones and leather fringe to perform six-gun magic against the doomed forces of evil. Compared to pulp fiction, real life seemed a bit dismal. And so “the fictional Carson became the standard for the real Carson.”
His life began trying to imitate the story. And who can blame him? We all have within us the heroic impulse. We want lives of meaning, of purpose, of significance and so do our students. If our schools don’t allow young people to feel themselves heroically engaged in something that matters, if we don’t organize them into stories that capture their imagination, filling them with visions of how they want to be, they will fall easy prey to other storytellers, which are all around us.
It has always been that way. There are stories and images loose in the world that capture us and drive our destiny. Such stories rival geography and economics as forces that shape the history both of individuals and nations.
The trouble in schools today can best be understood as a crisis in the narrative environment.