Historical Narratives: Why Storytelling in History matters

In my personal experience, one of the most compelling aspects of history has always been the storytelling aspect of it. While I have always enjoyed the study of history as a means of understanding the world, it is the stories of the past which have truly captured and retained my interest in history as a subject. This aspect of history, however, is often overlooked when teaching the subject in schools. All too often, history as a school subject is associated with a rote recollection of a series of dates, events and persons with little in the way of a compelling reason to remember these beyond a test or exam. Using storytelling and narrative history, particularly with contemporary resources such as historical podcasts like those of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Daniele Bolelli’s History On Fire series can be a way to remedy this issue.

There is ample scientific evidence to back up claims of storytelling and oral recounting being effective from a learning standpoint. The reason why storytelling is so compelling has its roots in evolutionary psychology. Marina Bianchi, in a 2014 research paper entitled The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work argues that the telling of stories arouses an intensely pleasurable sensation both externally and internally. One of the psychological appeals of storytelling, Bianchi argues, is that it presents otherwise unfamiliar information in a familiar format. For students who may otherwise be unfamiliar with a topic such as World War Two or the Ancient Roman Empire, utilising storytelling and narrative forms of history can be a powerful way of making a connection. This can take multiple forms, such as a history book which utilises a narrative format or even through oral transmission to students.

Two examples of historians (although Dan Carlin humbly eschews this label in favour of the more modest ‘fan of history’ label) who are expert at narration and storytelling are the aforementioned Carlin and Daniele Bolelli. Through their critically acclaimed podcasts Hardcore History and History on Fire, they take historical events and figures and bring them to life through vivid narration and gripping storytelling. Despite their podcasts frequently spanning several hours in length, they have nonetheless both amassed large audiences on the strength of their narration. Although they are often referred to as ‘popularisers’ of history, their works are academically rigorous, with months of research going into each episode. One of the best parts of both Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts is that they often raise pointed questions for the listener. Both podcasts are effective in taking historical subject matter and placing it in a contemporary context. These podcasts, while going into extensive detail on their respective subjects, also contain some conjecture and commentary interwoven into the accounts. This conjecture raises interesting questions, which can be utilised to spark discussion among students.

There are of course drawbacks with utilising these or other podcasts in the teaching of history, as is the case with just about any resource. Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts are quite lengthy, so limited excerpts rather than entire podcast episodes series would likely be the way to go when designing activites around their use. It is also important to note, in the case of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, he is not a historian by academic background. Though his research is thorough, there are occasionally gaps and errors in his account, which Carlin himself readily admits. As a result I would caution against utilising his podcasts as a main resource to build a unit of work around. His podcasts are still a great supplementary resource however, especially as an engagement tool for students.

With these factors in mind, the Hardcore History and History On Fire podcast series are well worth considering using in a classroom context. They are accessible, engaging and thought-provoking, combining academic rigour with engaging narration and historical perspectives which are nuanced and also provocative at times. Combined with more traditional teaching materials, I firmly believe Dan Carlin’s and Daniele Bolelli’s history podcasts have a place as a teaching resource in any History classroom.

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