The real battle is not about the facts, facts as the band Talking Heads sang, “all come with points of view, facts won’t do what you want them to.” The real struggle is which story will become the one through which we see our world. “What I have to say does not answer the question, ‘This is how things are,’ but rather, ‘ This is how they are to be understood,” wrote Leo Frobenius.
Which story line we come to believe is not merely a difference of opinion. The centuries of religious wars sparked by the Reformation, as well as the philosophical and very real blood letting between various religious sects from the Shia and Sunni in the Middle East, to the more benign Baptist and Episcopalian squabbles here at home, have hinged on which version should win out of the same story one group espouses over another. My mother and oldest sister have not spoken to one another for twenty years because of differing versions of the same story: their life and relationship together. Neither one will surrender control of their version of the narrative to the other, nor accept the difference. Another sister and I argued several years ago over how we treated each other. “Then there was that time you… and then you. . .” Followed quickly with, “No, that is when you did. . .” We have not gotten along since then. No one likes an editor.
When my students spin their stories off of each others stories and the stories we read, they bring a divergent set of tales and beliefs. Rather than relying on their own narrative to determine the meaning of a text they begin to welcome the deepening of their own stories brought by others in the class telling their tales. The divergent personal narratives bring a universality to the common text; while the “canonized” text gives a significance in return to their personal stories which the students did not recognize before. When something one has to say is similiar to what one finds in Shakespeare more than a boost to one’s self-esteem occurs, one takes part in a conversation, as Mortimer Adler remarks, that has been going on for centuries.
In a graduate class, which ostensively was a survey course of Medieval English Literature, called English Identity and Cultural Formation, the professor tried to make us ask the question: Why these texts? What did the canonization of these texts create? Being a simplistic person I said they are the stories we tell each other. They are the stories we share. I once heard a story about the philospher, George Santayana. At the turn of the last century, Harvard was re-evaluating the literature they were having the boys of the American elite read. They came to Santayana and asked him what the students should read. He told them it didn’t matter as long as they all read the same books. By reading the same texts, no matter what they were studying or what they went on to accomplish in their later lives the students would have a base from which to conduct the conversation required of a democracy. Daphne Key quotes Robert Scholes, “What students need from us now is the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, both individual and collective, to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner.” The skills they learn from making connections between the stories the students read and the stories the students tell are a means to this end. The students own stories allow them access to the techniques and manipulations which authors use to tell their tales. Or as Richard Rorty writes, “ What a human being is . . is largely a matter of how he or she describes himself or herself. We have to take seriously the idea that what you experience yourself to be is largely a function of what it makes sense to describe yourself as in the languages you are able to use.”

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