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Bewildering Stories

The Meaning of Stories

by Dana M. Paramskas

The months of May and June are customarily filled with graduation ceremonies. In honour of our sixth anniversary, a professor of the Humanities shares with us some parting words intended for a university graduating class. We are reminded that storytelling does many things, and that it is far more serious a cultural undertaking than readers and even writers may realize; for in the end, stories are what we are...

Bonjour et bienvenue !

Welcome to the graduands, to their families and friends. And congratulations to all...

Now, may I tell you a story?

Why, might you ask, do I want to tell a story? Bear with me. I’ll answer that in a roundabout way...

Long ago, for a long, long time and in every culture on the planet, all knowledge was transmitted via stories. The elders told stories to the youngsters. We still have traces of that tradition: the Bible, both the Ancient and the New Testaments. The Koran. The Hindu Vedas; the Buddhist Sutras, to mention only a few.

Then, in one small part of the globe, in fact in one small part of that region, somewhere around the 16th century, Western Europe invented science. Or thought it did, because the Muslim world was way ahead in that respect in those days. At any rate, the old stories were derided, and labelled “myths.” The new era was baptised, with a nod to its ancient Greek predecessor, the Renaissance.

Now science was wonderful: where would we be without it? So many advances in particular domains such as medicine, agriculture, communications, etc.

Science thought of the world in terms of facts, data, logic. One of the prime suspects in this field was Descartes, a French philosopher who made such an impact that his name was turned into an adjective: Cartesian, meaning logical, scientific thinking. His prime idea was: Je pense, donc je suis, ‘I think therefore I am’. Actually, since he wrote in Latin as did most learned folk of his time, he said Cogito ergo sum.

Over the centuries, science became more and more prestigious. By the end of the 19th century, Berthelot, one of the most respected and famous scientists of his day, wrote:

C’est la science seule qui a transformé depuis lors [le siècle des lumières] et même depuis le commencement des temps, les conditions matérielles et morales de la vie des peuples.

Voici deux siècles et demi seulement que la méthode scientifique s’est dégagée de tout alliage étranger et manifestée dans sa pureté: son efficacité a été attestée dans les ordres les plus divers par une évolution industrielle et sociale sans cesse accélérée.

It is science and science alone that has transformed, since the Enlightenment and even from the beginnings of time, the material and moral conditions of people’s lives.

Only two and a half centuries ago, the scientific method freed itself of all external links and became known in its pure state: its efficacy has been proven in the most varied domains through an ongoing and expanding industrial and social development. [1]

The humanities were thought of more and more as frivolous, not really relevant to the modern world. They were suspiciously attracted to “stories.”

But something funny happened at the end of the 20th century. Starting with the social sciences, psychology in particular, it was noticed that human beings learn best through stories. In a scientific context, of course, they could not be called “stories”... so the word “narrative” was invented.

So here’s the story I want to tell you: what does the university offer you? An opportunity to develop your own story. As graduates from high school, you come to us with an unformed story, filled with experiences and facts rather undigested. We, at least in the Humanities, offered you a template to write your own story: your exploration of the world, its history, its art and writings.

When you come into contact with that exploration, you have the chance to write and expand your own story. Your identity, your cultural references, your values.

But it is an interactive process, as all good stories are. The storyteller needs an audience, and the reaction from that audience. The storyteller weaves and expands his story based on the reaction from the audience.

So we, as professors, tell you a story. It may be about French literature and culture; it may be about English literature; it may be about history relating to all the myriad groups which comprise Canadian society. It may be about philosophy or art.

You listen, we listen... and somewhere along the line, learning takes place, in the sense that what you hear told is processed (what a scientific term!!) in your brain and assimilated, integrated, into your own life experience.

I hope that your listening here at Guelph has allowed you to sketch out your own story, which will grow and expand as you go out into the world.

And for a final note, a paraphrase from Guelph’s own Thomas King, taken from his Massey Lectures on “The Truth about Stories” referring to the stories told by the First Nations, ones we so often did not really listen to:

“Help yourself to these stories. Do with them what you will: cry over them, get angry, forget them. But don’t say that in the years to come you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard these stories. You’ve heard them now.”

It’s up to you how to write your future story! Good luck with that...

Copyright © 2008 by Dana M. Paramskas
Professor of French, emerita
University of Guelph

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