Saturday, August 2, 2008

Oral History

Oral history can be defined as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker.
It often takes the form of eye-witness evidence about past events, but can include folklore, myths, songs and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth.

Source: Wikipedia

Oral history is a developing field and an increasing amount of importance is ascribed to it. Most major museums now employ a director of oral history. Schools include an increasing amount in teaching programs. While the thoughts an feelings of common people undoubtedly do allow a valuable insight into the way events effect people, placing undue weight on personal accounts has the potential to undermine a true understanding of history.

I recently supervised a modern history Higher School Certificate (final year) exam on the First World War. To relieve my boredom, I read the exam paper. I was surprised to find that most of the questions dealt with the role of women on the home front, rationing etc. Only one or two questions actually dealt with what actually happened in military terms. It seems that a politically correct agenda has highjacked the history curriculum, as it has in most other areas.

During my first week at teachers' college, we were all asked to give a presentation on a topic we were familiar with, to practice presenting to an audience. Having studied Fine Arts, I chose to talk about the Renaissance. Five minutes into my presentation, it became clear from the blank looks that no one knew what I was talking about, and these people were all university graduates. None of them had heard of the Renaissance; I was astounded.

Another case in point is the acclaimed TV series, The Civil War. This was an excellent series, 11 hours in length. Much of the 11 hours was taken up by accounts of soldiers at the front.

"Dear mom, we are really miserable here. Laying in a muddy ditch being shot at is not much fun. Gee I hope we're home by Christmas..."

Accounts like this consume much of the series, always accompanied by the same sickly violin music. How much do accounts like this really tell us? It really comes as no surprise that laying in mud being shot at is not an enjoyable experience. All I really wanted to know was what actually happened. I gave up watching the series and read a book on the subject with much more satisfying results.

In Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith talks to an old man trying to find out about life before the revolution. He was frustrated: "The old man's mind was a rubbish heap of details". The oral history presented by the old man was evidently not very useful.

It is something of a cliche to to say "those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. We might wonder how well the Bosnian Serbs under Slobodan Milosovic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic understood the all too recent Nazi holocaust. Hardly a recipe for social improvement.

While the insights provided by oral history might be interesting and valuable, allowing it to predominate at the expense of a balanced understanding of facts and events might well have dangerous consequences.


iWalk said...

Oral history was used quite well in HBO's World War II mini-series Band of Brothers.

We can see real members of E Company tell us their ture story in World War II at the beginning of every part of mini-series.

iWalk said...

A blogger award is waiting for you, please take it from my site, thanks, have a beautiful life, best wishes from iwalk!

Liam said...

I haven't seen Band of Brothers but I'll look out for it; I love historical documentaries.

Thanks a lot for the news about the award!

Bikran said...

we don't have any special kinds of programs regarding oral history . But they do show on television sometimes .I have seen few of them Even I am much interested in historical documentaries .nice write .
take care.