We Have a Moral Obligation to Teach Storytelling

There’s a famous story about a chained elephant that goes something like this:

“When the elephant was younger and weaker, its owners put a huge chain on it. When it was older and stronger, they put a small chain on it. Though the older elephant could easily break this new chain, it had learned it was pointless to try.”

Queue life lesson about having a growth mindset, changing the patterns of your life, breaking free from the shackles of your mind, etc.

I’m not going to pretend as though I’ve not trotted out this chestnut myself. It does a decent job of making a point about, well, growth mindsets, breaking habits, and such. But it is also dangerous.

Consider:

  • Fact: The newer chain is small.
  • Fact: The older elephant is strong.
  • Conclusion: The elephant could break the chain if it tried.
  • Ergo: It’s not the chain on its leg that is holding the elephant back but the chain in its mind.

So very logical, which is precisely why it can be so very dangerous, for it makes a saint of facts and a devil of story. If only the elephant would use reasoning and data – to let the truth flow from the facts – it could undo the false story holding it back. Put another way, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to trash reason, the scientific method, or fact-based evidence, and I am certainly not here to advocate for “alternative facts” or whatever the word du jour. But I am also dead set on the notion that it is to our very great peril that we underestimate the power of story. Yes, we must root our stories in fact, but we can’t assume that the facts alone are what make something compelling.

Building a Stone Path

It’s the Stone Path principle. Facts are like stones. They have strength and integrity. Stories are the path itself. They take us places. And here’s the rub. The stones don’t know or care that they’re in a path. They’re just stones. It’s the path builder – the storyteller – who determines where we go. The facts have strength. The story has authority. Which is why a compelling story beats a boring fact more often than we’re comfortable with. Or as linguist George Lakoff says, “lies are not as important as the truth that defines who you are.”

So where does that leave us? To be sure, the answer isn't too go full-tilt Pinocchio. We must strive for a truthful recounting of the facts when we communicate. The further erosion of public faith in scientific and reason-derived factual evidence is, frankly, terrifying.

But we must never forget that the facts don't speak for themselves. We, the storytellers – the path builders – must give them voice. And above all, we must stop thinking of the artful retelling of facts as a moral failing. It's a human trait - part and parcel of us. When we fail to acknowledge this fact, we leave ourselves open to deception (he said it so it must be true), confusion (I don't understand why people believe what he just said), and frustration (why won't people believe me; I've got facts on my side.)

The Bias in Education

As does so much, education plays a central role in solving this problem. To start, we must acknowledge our societal bias to equate the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) with rigorous, valid academics – and, implicitly, view all other subjects as “other.” A serious study of the arts, philosophy, theology, and other “soft” subjects helps equip us with the skills needed to appreciate the role both fact and story have in our lives. Yet we consistently rob the arts of their vitality by putting them on a pedestal – literally on a pedestal in an art museum. We visit the arts; we live amongst technology. We love a song; we rely on the electrical grid. We have math nerds but art snobs.

And if those stories aren’t enough, look at the facts as told via school funding. As the Washington Post reports:

"Schools in areas serving children from low-income families have reduced or completely cut their arts and music programs. These programs tend to be the first casualties of budget cuts in hard-pressed school districts already struggling to meet other demands of the academic curriculum, and they are rarely restored.”

The story isn’t much different for schools serving middle- and higher-income families, either, though with greater wealth comes greater opportunity for enrichment beyond the classroom. That once a year family trek to see The Nutcracker helps offset the loss of the school’s theater program.

But it doesn’t help make the arts any more vital or relevant. They remain on a pedestal – distant and removed from everyday life. And with them sits the belief that the truths they convey are not facts. They’re just stories.

I knew we left that chain somewhere. It’s around our legs.