Voices from the Past
History as Storytelling
In recent years we have underestimated the power of stories to
arouse students' interest in history. A few people, most notably Kieran
Egan (1986), have reminded us from time to time that story telling
is a powerful teaching tool, but, for the most part, curriculum developers
organize curricula around issues, themes, concepts, and skills. History
no longer tells a story; it is a collection of case-studies.
In abandoning the story, we have given up one of our most powerful
teaching tools. As Egan points out, stories possess a universal appeal.
And they appeal especially strongly to children and adolescents in
their search to understand themselves and the adult world that surrounds
Moreover, stories can raise questions as easily as they impose answers.
They can be open-ended and multi-perspective. They can even be used
as vehicles of their own deconstruction. Above all, they are a wonderful
way of making abstract ideas intelligibly concrete, of combining the
cognitive with the affective.
All this was spelled out in a book which appeared in 1903, and which,
though forgotten today, remains one of the most appealing and imaginative
handbooks on the use of stories in teaching, Special Method in History,
written by an American teacher-educator, Charles McMurry.
So far as history was concerned, McMurry began with Grade 3, assuming
that children in the first two grades were too immature to benefit
from anything that approached formal historical study. In Grade 3
children were to study Christmas and Thanksgiving, George Washington,
Indian life, and local history and geography, In Grade 4, they turned
to European explorers, beginning with their local region, and including
a number of selected important figures, among them Raleigh, John Smith,
Daniel Boone, Washington and Lincoln. Outside the American context,
other stories included Abraham, Joseph, and David; Romulus, Coriolanus,
Cincinnatus, Julius Caesar; the Angles and Saxons and King Alfred.
Grade 5 continued the theme of exploration, touching on Columbus,
Cabot, Magellan, Drake, and the Spanish; and the American explorers
of the West, from Lewis and Clark onwards. In European history, students
studied Spain and Portugal at the time of Columbus; England from the
Norman Conquest to the Armada; and Scottish history centring on William
Wallace and Robert Bruce. In Grade 6 students studied aspects of Greece
and Rome; while in American history they studied the colonial period
and the Anglo-French wars. In Grade 7, American history continued,
with students concentrating on the period from the American Revolution
to the Constitution; while in European history they studied the Reformation,
the Puritan Revolution in England, and Louis XIV of France. In Grade
8 American history continued more or less to the end of the nineteenth
century, but the topics in European history ranged far and wide through
Julius Caesar; the French Revolution and Napoleon; the British conquest
of India; British involvement in Africa; the independence of Spanish
America; the Greek War of Independence; Italian and German unification;
and Queen Victoria (1903, 238-268).
At first sight, McMurry's curriculum appears haphazard, especially
in its rejection of chronology, but it reflected his conviction that
the goal was the education of children, not the coverage of subject-matter.
He chose topics for their power to interest children and to "plant
in a child's mind a living germ capable of strong and beneficent growth"
(1903, 242-3). He also wanted to provide students with exemplars of
virtuous behavior, both positive and negative, which is why he saw
stories as so important, since stories were "especially fruitful in
those personal, concrete forms of life which reveal moral ideas in
a striking form" (1907, 11).
Whatever one thinks of McMurry's proposed program, it is clear that
it made very high demands on students, even in the early grades. It
was light years away from the expanding horizons approach that was
adopted by Canadian schools in the 1930s and that, then as now, began
with the child's everyday surroundings and moved progressively outwards.
Instead, McMurry plunged children directly into myth and fable, epic
and ballad, romance and adventure, often using adult books to do so.
He insisted that children should learn from "the best stories and
classical masterpieces-not in fragments, but as wholes" (1907, 47).
He recommended "complete translations" of the Iliad and the Odyssey
for use in Grade 4, Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome for Grade 5, and
He believed that "children are quite capable of reasoning when they
possess sufficient concrete knowledge and experience...." (1903, 143).
The task of the teacher was to provide this knowledge in ways that
children could work with, through "fact, illustration, biography,
adventure, and everyday life." Conventional teaching had not "given
children a fair chance to show what reasoning power they possess."
Teachers assumed that children "had little or nothing of this reasoning
power, but that their memories were quick and retentive of the brief
formulated statements and general conclusions of the text-books...."
(1903: 143). "But," noted McMurry, "children can reason very intelligently
about all matters of thoroughly familiar and interesting knowledge"
This did not mean that children could think only about their immediate
environment. The whole point of historical stories was to widen and
deepen children's experience. He agreed with the statement of a Massachusetts
It is a mistake to think that what is nearest in time and space will
make the strongest appeal to the child. Mature institutions and mature
customs appeal only to mature minds. The child knows only the world
that conforms to his inner experience and not the world of infinite
complexity that these days surrounds him.... Remoteness in time and
place are no obstacles to his interest. He has all the appliances,
seven-league boots, Fortunatus' wishing hat and purse, to make these
of no account. Most remote things are more real to him because they
are simple" (James 1906, 1, 91).
McMurry believed history could be made interesting and tangible even
for young children. Well chosen poems and stories, if imaginatively
taught, would lead children to identify with characters from other
times and other lands, to walk in their footsteps, to think about
their problems. Biographical stories, he believed, were "the choicest
and most educative historical material" since "they simplify history
by focussing it in a few leading characters, events, or ideas" (1903,
McMurry never saw stories as mere narration or entertainment. They
were no soft option but rather a constructive way to channel students'
interests and energies. He advised teachers to break up stories in
order to raise questions and stimulate students' imaginations: "The
effort to reason out situations and results ... will bring children
to the point of understanding what history really is and how it ought
to be studied" (1903, 73). It was not difficult, for example, for
children to see themselves as scouts on a wagon-train who spot a cloud
of dust in the distance. What caused it? How should it be investigated?
What precautions should be taken? Questions like these would engage
students and enrich their powers of thought and imagination. Properly
handled, stories should raise problems for students to explore: "suitable
history stories are just as full as problems as an arithmetic, only
we have been accustomed to give the answer instead of the problems"
Stories would also interest students so that teachers would not have
to resort to punitive discipline or to what was little better, artificial
motivating devices designed to spice up the subject. For McMurry,
interest was "intrinsic, native to the subject, and springs up naturally
when the mind is brought face to face with something attractive. It
is natural, genuine, and spontaneous, not a forced, extraneous, or
artificial phase of mental action" (1907, 87).
He insisted that to think of trying to make teaching interesting was
as absurd as trying to make sugar sweet. Good teaching had to be inherently
interesting, and interest lay in pursuing challenging problems, which
is why stories were so useful. In McMurry's view, "Many teachers make
the fatal mistake of thinking that they must make the lessons easy
and interesting. The result is a pitiful feebleness, flabbiness and
helplessness on the part of good stout boys and girls who are fully
capable of doing problems twice as difficult" (1907, 98).
Just over twenty years ago, the distinguished historian, Lawrence
Stone, wrote of a "revival of narrative" among historians (Stone 1979)
and, though he equated narrative with description, historians like
him have in fact shown how narrative can be effectively combined with
analysis. In teaching history, as in the discipline of history itself,
we need to return to narrative, to rediscover the power of story,
not only to interest students in the past but to lead them to think
about the present, and indeed the future. In this regard, Charles
McMurry and his contemporaries have something to teach us.
Egan, Kieran. 1986. Teaching as Story Telling. London, Ontario: Althouse Press.
James, J.A. 1906. "Report of the Conference on the Teaching of History in Elementary Schools." In American Historical Association Annual Report, Volume 1, pp. 135-145, Washington: Government Printing Office.
McMurry, Charles A. 1903. Special Method in History. New York: Macmillan.
McMurry, Charles A. 1907. Elements of General Method. New York: Macmillan.
Stone, Lawrence. 1979. "The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History." In Past and Present, 85. Reprinted in Lawrence Stone (1987). The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul: 74-96