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Science, History, Storytelling

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Bennett Smith

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Brain, Education, Inquiry Final Paper

Science, History, Storytelling


History and natural science: two nebulous indices which stake out the relative borders of two academic disciplines ostensibly different in kind, which in fact intersect in as many places as they can; we can imagine a history of science, probably a science of history. What science as story offers us is a way to think about history as a positive, generative discipline that has much more in common with scientific practice than it is a fundamentally different enterprise of thought. This paper will use pieces of Paul Grobstein’s model of science as story, as well as a paper from 2006 which seeks to apply that conception of science to history, to try to make a case for teaching history differently in American secondary schools in 2010, at least.


Grobstein defines science as “nothing more (or less) than the dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels virtually all productive inquiry, and is inherent in all humans from the time they are born” (Grobstein 2005, §3). For Grobstein, many of the elements of science that rarify it to the eyes of the public (the jargon, the advanced math, etc.) are powerful tools that come only after the productive skepticism, the desire to understand is activated. Furthermore, Grobstein is not particularly interested in the  relatively high truth-status that science seems to have with some of the public and with some undergraduate students: “When given to believe that science is about getting things right, students (and others) are being seriously misled about the fundamental character of the scientific process. Like ‘true,’ ‘right’ has, at best, a very local and restricted meaning in science: both refer to stories that have not yet been proven wrong” (Grobstein 2005 §2). Here Grobstein is aiming not to diminish science or to render its work “worthless,” but to qualify it and in so doing to transform. He suggests (very reasonably) a kind of basic relativity to truth claims, without foreclosing the possibility of saying anything at all about the world: “There is always more than one possible summary/story that will fit any given set of observations. And so there is always a choice (conscious or unconscious) to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world“ (Grobstein 2005 §2). Thus, for him in this article, science is about curiosity, skepticism, story-telling, and, maybe finally, plurality: the plurality of explanatory and narrative difference. He writes: “As summaries of observations, scientific stories are only as good as the breadth of the observations they summarize, so the more people contributing observations the better” (Grobstein 2005 §4). Which is not to say that “doing science”–contributing stories about the world, doing some kind of systematized research–is or should be the task of every person. Science is not, in this sense, some kind of requirement for life. Rather, Grobstein suggests that science “can best and most distinctively contribute to culture by providing stories that may increase (but never guarantee) human well-being, by serving as a supportive nexus for human story telling in general…” (Grobstein 2005 §5). This “supportive nexus” is impossible without a robust plurality: for Grobstein, science is not for some objective or inductive (and so pseudo-objective) truth; rather it is for us, for the human culture that we (royal we) experience, and is most healthy when it is conducted as an exercise of distinctively human (and basically irreducible) curiosity and skepticism.


The for us of science is repeated in historical practice, for better or for worse. For better: at some (too simple) level, “history” is a record of human events, relationships, ideas, etc. History is for us because it is of us. For worse: history offers us a chance to identify with a particular historical affiliation, simultaneously affirming the past as having been and enabling a violent break from historical setting and from narrative difference. We see this in the many multitudes of museums that memorialize particular groups at the exclusion of others; “Tea Parties” all over the United States; racist and nationalist political groups that agitate for some return to some original condition, etc. We need to be selective, we cannot remember everything, but we can make a distinction between being selective and simply not seeing. For precisely this reason, some of the procedural and epistemic aspects of “science as storytelling” appear especially applicable to the practice of history.


Toni Weller, in an article in the Journal of Research Practice, picks up on those relations and suggests that history be understood as a gradual, plural (subjective) process of storytelling and story revision. She agrees with Grobstein that “rousing curiosity and skepticism in a wider audience is the best way to engage with the world around us,” and seizes upon the dramatic technological changes that we’ve seen in the last several decades as a major indicator of the possibilities of history in the future (Weller 2006 §3). Weller sees the wide accessibility of technology as positive not least because it has the capacity to be very inclusive and to provide for the dissemination of a variety of stories; near the end of §3 she suggests that history has always striven toward “the view from everywhere”. Elsewhere, she writes: “History, as with Grobstein’s view of science, is made up of multiple truths. These truths, or stories, engage with the culture in which they are immersed at any one moment in time, all of which are susceptible to change, challenge, and revision” (Weller 2006 §2).


One major danger, not new to history but perhaps intensified by technology, is that someone could simply get the facts wrong. To try to protect against this possibility, Weller offers a list of rules: “To ensure valid and acceptable historical stories, research must be rigorous in its methodology, that is, internally coherent and consistent. It must also ensure that the evidence used have [sic] been checked back to their original sources…” (Weller 2006 §2). This is all well and good; the rules are reasonable and reasonably enforceable in the context of professional history. But what we want is history for ourselves: history that illuminates our world from the very moment of skepticism or curiosity, the way that Grobstein suggests that some substantial part of science comes before advanced math or disciplinary jargon or institutionalized research. Weller does consider “Public Stories and Popular History,” including some examples of ways that people are using technology to make historical information accessible, but in the end she somewhat limits the possibility of a fully plural historical practice: “While anyone who practices history needs to have an ability to understand complex historical context, to be able to argue and weigh up evidence, and to think critically, these technological developments undoubtedly suggest new methods of telling historical stories” (Weller 2006 §3). The importance for her is not the content but the way of relating it.


We want to push this a little further. History-as-storytelling can, and should, be even more like science-as-storytelling than this arrangement allows for. We’ve acknowledged that, to put things too simply, a good deal of our conscious understanding of the world is contained in or expressed by (or both) the form of a story or narrative. History seems to operate in much the same way: by constructing, critiquing, editing, adjusting, adding, revisiting, etc. stories that we have about our past–or, to put it another way–how we got where we are. Each of us has stories about our past, and yet very few people my age whom I know (myself included) has any detailed sense of what larger political, social and economic forces and events worked to produce the circumstances in which we find ourselves– from the most material (and arguably banal) to the more abstract. We have more stories than ever; more ways of communicating with each other, widespread access to a communication network that basically grows by itself, so looking to the past feels increasingly disconnected from the pace of the present/future.


What we must do is recognize that the past is itself in the present. The past and the present are contiguous: the present passes into the past, and keeps passing. We cannot isolate ourselves from the past. I do not mean that “we cannot forget”–obviously we can forget, and we do; remembering and forgetting are the domain of history, not the past in itself. Each of us comes from somewhere, some time– and each of us is always coming into some place and time to-come. We need to talk about our stories because they do not happen in isolation from one another but instead together constitute an endlessly complex process of things together happening and unfolding onto and into each other. History gives us the capacity to understand the present by endlessly coding, decoding and recoding events from the past. A classic scene: waking up in an unfamiliar place, the dazed traveler rubs his eyes and asks “Where am I? How did I get here?” It is a cliché, but there is a kernel of truth in this scenario: we must constantly ask these questions of ourselves.


In the most basic way, this means story-telling. And in the case of history education, I want to suggest that we should be teaching history in reverse chronological order, beginning as Annette Atkins, a professor of history at St. John’s University in Minnesota, suggests that we do: “Day 1: First thing, I ask the students to list 10 issues that most concern them. They come up with lots of different things: world peace, pollution, AIDS, racism, paying for college, gaining weight, trying out for the golf team, relationship troubles, getting good grades, homesickness, a job, drugs, alcohol.” Because the reality is that each of these issues, the things that feel important to students and the things that they are most likely to least understand in real depth about their world, are very historical. You can’t understand pollution without understanding the history of industry, capitalism, and globalization; you can’t understand modern terrorism without having some complicated sense of the history of Western political intervention in the Middle and Near East (which I for one know that I don’t have); the list goes on. By the time classes get to these topics, if they even do, kids are likely to have lost any real sense of continuity, of how the people in these stories and the problems that they have are deeply connected to historical problems even from centuries ago. I believe very strongly that all of things we learned all semester point unambiguously toward the need to make history real for students, and that teaching it backwards might be a very effective and illuminating way to do just that.


Atkins, Annette. “A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards.”


Grobstein, Paul. “Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story



Weller, Toni. “A Contination of Paul Grobstein’s Theory of Science as Story Telling

            and Story Revising: A Discussion of its Relevance to History.”