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This essay seeks to examine the development of oral history as a research methodology through its use and evaluate its contribution to our understanding of the experience of schooling. Although oral history has the potential to provide invaluable first-hand insight into the real experiences of schooling, this potential is inescapably limited by its use and its very nature. Indeed, the use of oral history as a research methodology is limited by its perceived usefulness and relevance, which in turn is limited by the social and political climate. Irrespective of its use however, the fact remains that oral history is inherently limited by the fact that it alone cannot present complete and accurate insight into the experience of schooling. Thus, although oral history can provide incredible insight into our understanding of the experience of schooling, the potential for it to do so is limited.
Firstly, oral history has developed as a means of gaining insight into traditional schooling experiences of indigenous cultures. Oral history, often in the form of storytelling, has been a significant means for different civilisations to teach their peoples about their past (Llewellyn & Ng-A-Fook). This can provide valuable insight into the experience of schooling because these stories that have been passed between generations can be examined as the content of schooling – the raw subject material. Hodge, Pasqua, Marquez and Geishirt-Cantrell posit a similar notion that, for Native Americans, the primary goal of storytelling was to educate; that storytelling is a traditional pedagogical method to transmit educational messages. Hence, a historian hearing these traditions is, in a way, experiencing this education as it was originally experienced. Thus, this can be seen as contributing to their understanding of the experience of schooling because arguably, they would be experiencing the same schooling. However, in reality, this is not the case. Being removed from the historical and cultural context in which such stories would have been told, removes a great deal of understanding from these stories. Nonetheless, there is value in these stories as the provide understanding of how indigenous peoples understood themselves and the world around them (Langard). This is furthered by the notion that storytelling was influenced by circumstances and interpretations. Storytellers would only note and repeat key elements of stories and would add their own devices to convey contextually relevant meaning and impact (Chancellor and Lee). The fluidity of these stories thus highlights the use of such oral histories to create their own meaning. That is, storytellers would reshape stories to create relevant meaning and to foster certain interpretations. In this way, the meaning that is carried down between generations provides insight into what meaning listeners gained from these stories and creates speculation about why such meaning was relevant. That being said, the fluidity of these pan-generational stories highlights the limits of using such histories to gain insight into the experience of schooling. This form of oral history is speculative, it is not supported by other evidence that would give it strong footing. A historian’s interpretation of changes to a story as being the result of a storyteller extracting a particular meaning that may be relevant to the time of speaking is undeniably a weak premise. It lacks reliability. Moreover, the speculation surrounding the experience of schooling extracted from such stories falls short of creating understanding of the individual and their personal experience. It falls short of providing insight of what it was like to hear such stories. Indeed, Stephenson acknowledges that in this context, oral history is favoured out of necessity. As these stories are often the only available material, to overlook them would mean overlooking these histories entirely. This sense of necessity is highlighted by the lack of evidence to support these traditional accounts of history. Hence, solely relying on traditional storytelling cannot contribute a lot to our understanding the experience of schooling. This nods towards the inherent nature of oral sources; that without support from other forms of history, our understanding simply cannot be complete. Hence, in understanding indigenous experiences of schooling, storytelling is self-limiting. Storytelling reveals the content of the story, not the experience of the listener, the learner. Whilst valuable to the degree that it allows such histories to be known, storytelling does not offer a large contribution to our understanding of indigenous experiences of schooling.
Secondly, the use of oral history largely stagnated in Western cultures following the enlightenment and before the mid-20th century. During this period, oral history was not perceived as useful and thus was not used as a research methodology. Hence, as oral history’s contribution to our understanding of the experience of schooling is contingent on its use, this stagnation restricted the contribution made by oral history. Indeed, historians during this period saw oral history as unreliable and insignificant. Rather, they focused on archival and legislative (traditional) records. Contrasted against such records, it is easy to understand how oral sources were considered to be less reliable. Oral sources are subjective and reliant on memories that are by no means concrete. Indeed, Niall Fergusson has commented that oral history is bound to be misinterpreted “because almost no one tells the truth, even when they intend to.”. This sums up the attitude of mistrust towards oral sources that marked this period. As oral sources weren’t trusted, it is no wonder why they were not used and thus why oral history as a research methodology did not develop. However, Thompson has noted that prior to the 20th century, history’s focus was largely political. History favoured followed narratives of nationalism and of the powerful above experiences of the powerless and ordinary. Additionally, Thompson suggests that this preference stems from the historians themselves belonging to governing and administrative classes and therefore deeming narratives of power as more significant. From this objective of recording power and prestige, oral histories of the comparatively mundane would seem redundant and even counterproductive. For example, in Napoleonic France, all levels of education were highly regulated with a large focus on fostering French nationalism and patriotism. Indeed, school children were required to give an oath of loyalty to Napoleon. From the perspective of a traditionalist historian, this evidence would be sufficient to demonstrate the extent of Napoleon’s control and power over civilians. Thus, a narrative of Napoleon’s power could be created. However, accounts of the experience, thoughts and feelings that children had in such a school system may undermine this narrative. Indeed, Hume has noted that out of fear of the rigid discipline, some brilliant students decided not to continue on to secondary or military school. The students did not want to be used as a means to reach Napoleon’s goals. By not giving a voice to the powerless such as these students, the presentation of strong patriotism goes unquestioned. Hence, perhaps oral history was intentionally undermined in order to ensure counterproductive sentiments would not gain legitimacy. Similarly, Native American off-reservation boarding schools were presented as successful and benevolent initiatives intended to civilise Native Americans. This account would be undermined by the students accounts of excessive discipline and poor conditions. It would be counterproductive to the narrative that historians were trying to create to give a voice to those who were suffering at the hands of ‘benevolent’ America. Indeed, Llewellyn and Cook have noted that oral history democratises and humanises the past. In a context where this would act against the political motivations of the state, there is perhaps some validity to the notion that oral history was deemed unreliable because of its potential to undermine nationalist ideas. In this way, the lack of oral history during this period can be seen as successful from the point of view of nationalists as the lack of potentially harmful narratives helps shape our understanding of the experience of schooling the way they intended for us to. Objectively, however, the lack of oral history has resulted in a lack of our understanding of the real experience of schooling. Overall, because of the political climate Whilst oral testimonies potentially could have greatly contributed to our understanding of schooling during this period, this potential was limited by narratives of uselessness and redundancy that circulated oral history.
Lastly, oral history saw a resurgence in its use from the 1960s onwards. With the development of social movements that challenged dominant narratives (such as the civil rights movement and the anti-war rhetoric of the hippy-movement), oral history found its footing by giving a voice to the powerless. Such movements grew out of disillusionment with the government and with notions of blind patriotism. From this disillusionment, testimonies of the people became relevant. During this period, historians like Portelli, Passrenini and Frisch turned the perceived weaknesses of oral history on its head. They argued that the subjectivity and narrative qualities of oral history were strengths rather than weaknesses. Moreover, it must be noted that oral history also developed alongside rapidly improving recording technologies. These technologies not only made recording oral history easier and more accessible, but they also added layers of emotionality and humanity to the narratives. Combined these layers of emotionality and subjectivity have given power to narratives of the previously marginalised. It is harder to invalidate humanity than it is a statistic. Indeed, Trofaneko recognises the ability of oral history to provide insight into bleaker experiences of education than previously acknowledged. Notably, she draws reference to the use of oral history in the 2008 Canadian truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools. Through the use of oral history, the experience of students in such schools were reconsidered and reframed in a way that allowed acknowledgement that the schools did not only act in the students’ best interests.
Thus, the use of oral history allowed our understanding of the experience in such schools to be reconsidered and framed more accurately from those who experienced them first hand. Likewise, testimonies of the Little Rock Nine have provided insight into the vulnerability, humanity, and ordinariness of the students. This insight is valuable as it prevents historical agendas reforming the students as radical civil rights activists that are harder to empathise with. The normalcy of the students in such exceptional and frankly harsh circumstances contributes to our understanding of the complexity racial segregation in schools. Hence, in both instances, the subjectivity of the narratives has contributed something deeper and perhaps something more easily resonated to our understanding of the experience of schooling than what could be found in more traditional sources. Despite the limitations and unreliability of memory, there is truth in such accounts. Truth because one might feel it to be personally accurate. However, this form of the truth is where the contribution of oral history must be considered with a grain of salt. This truth is only true of the one, so to use it to surmise the experience of the many would be unfair to those who would be silenced by doing so.
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