oral history and curriculum

Oral History, Curriculum and Curriculum Studies

Curriculum studies is the interdisciplinary study of the curriculum and its various dimensions, including the inside and outside of school curriculum, the experienced, learned, intended, taught, planned, official, hidden and null curriculum, both in a narrow and broad sense. Those engaged in the curriculum studies field pose questions relevant to the fundamental curriculum question “what is worthwhile?” The study of the curriculum can be approached from various philosophical perspectives, such as intellectual traditionalism, social behaviorism, experientialism and critical reconstructionism, all of which take a particular stance toward curriculum, instruction, learning, schooling, planning, assessment and toward issues relevant to life and experiences. Its multidimensionality, variability and dynamic nature make it essential that curriculum studies field is approached and examined holistically and interdisciplinary.

Curriculum studies field, which often employs interdisciplinarity in order to examine relationships among the curriculum, schooling, the individual and the society, uses concepts pertinent to other fields and employs tools, methods and evidences offered by other academic disciplines, such as cultural, gender and auto-biographical studies. Curriculum studies involves the study of experiences that either become venues to broaden individuals’ education and perspective or they become obstacles that hinder educational opportunities and give ground to discriminations. Also, based on the way we handle and challenge curriculum, a progressive, critical, democratic, or an authoritarian and conservative spirit in the curriculum may be reinforced.

Curriculum studies is a field which is concerned with issues of narration, inclusiveness, biography, autobiography, the lived experiences of people, and examination of currere, which is the connection of the past, present and future experiences of people and the way they affect and create or hinder educative opportunities and learning experiences.

Oral history is a way of collecting and interpreting human memories to foster knowledge and human dignity. On the one hand, combining curriculum studies with oral history, we can develop a framework, which allows the study of human experiences, deriving from narrations and recollections of living memories, and examination of how knowledge fostered may enhance people’s education and lives. We may also examine the breadth and depth of the stories told, seeking in them the various dimensions of the inside and the outside of school curriculum—including the null, intended, taught, learned, experienced and hidden curriculum—as well as to trace in the curriculum and its dimensions important elements from the stories, and discuss implications.

On the other hand we may examine how this fostered knowledge can be used in various classes for developing skills, such as research skills and citizenship skills, to students. We may use oral history to examine and introduce experiences and memories into the school curriculum to help develop and advance knowledge, emotions, social and democratic skills, research skills, critical thinking skills and inquiry. Gathering data, interviewing, talking, listening, understanding, analyzing, presenting and sharing data, learning by doing and learning from others are only a few of the many activities that can be conducted in school classrooms in the framework of learning to do oral history research and learning from it. Oral history helps promote consideration on how individuals’ actions may affect the outcome, and the progression of history. All these traits and skills can also be used in classes where the intention is, among others, to teach the conflict, teach inquiry skills and cross examination of data.

Particularly it is worthwhile to ponder on and consider the following questions in reading personal stories about an event, learning about the event, and pondering on why people say what they say. The following questions of worth, drawn from curriculum studies field (based on the extensive survey of literature in the curriculum field; Schubert et al., 2002, pp. 525-526), and which are considered to be fundamental curriculum questions, have been modified to fit the purposes of the inquiry in oral history. They can be used to consider the usefulness and the applicability of oral history in the curriculum studies field:

1. What kind of knowledge, stories, living memories and events may increase meaning, goodness, and happiness in the lives of young persons and of us all?

2. What stories are worth knowing, experiencing, narrating, needing, sharing, overcoming, contributing?

3. Historically, how learning official knowledge (versus personal narratives) prevents focus on considering people’s engagement and actions in the world, and on fostering knowledge, human dignity and empowering people, which are the ideals of progressive education?

4. How do narratives and personal stories about class, race, gender, ableness, health, membership, place, belief, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, status vis-à-vis marriage and parenting, age, nationality, appearance, reputation, and other factors, alongside knowledge fostered, influence education and opportunity?

5. How can oral history as an alternative form of inquiry and mode of expression of personal narratives, alongside knowledge fostered through it provide insight about the above matters?

6. How can the wisdom and the stories (experiential knowledge, stories, and insight) of educators (teachers, parents, educational leaders) and students themselves contribute to understanding matters mentioned in these questions?

7. How can the collection and interpretation of human memories and stories enable understanding on the explicit and implicit violence and oppression in curriculum, schooling, and society, who benefits from it and how it is overcome, in order to foster knowledge and human dignity?

8. How can inquiry into the several kinds of curriculum (intended, taught, learned or embodied, null, hidden, and outside) combined with the narration of personal stories provide better understanding of the above questions?

9. How can we focus more broadly on education, seeing schooling as one of several educative forces that constitute the curriculum of life, i.e., that which influences (even creates) who we become?

10. How can we infuse into this curriculum of life (at many junctures, including schooling) reflection on what has been, is and will be worthwhile, why and how?

There are many activities that can be implemented in the school curriculum, aiming to develop critical thinking skills, research skills, and a social / democratic / activist stance using oral history. Some of them have been implemented in the Cyprus Oral History Project: in the seminar series, workshops, oral history projects with high school and graduate students employing oral history research, and with teachers and others who have watched the Cyprus Oral History documentary. Below are some suggestions, however this is not an all-inclusive list:
1. Critical thinking development: Ask students to ponder on “Why people say what they say.”
2. Students reporting on Cyprus Oral History Project stories:

  • - Students document in some way their initial responses, reactions and reflections.
  • - Students write journal entries.

3. Using the Cyprus Oral History Project aiming to develop a stance toward life:

  • - Listen to the other person.
  • - Do not accept arbitrarily, and without doubt and assessment, information, or piece of knowledge.
  • - Challenge and cross-examine knowledge.
  • - Participate in the happenings around us.
  • - Acknowledge that our actions and activities affect the outcome and history.

Applying activities and exercises in the classroom that encourage multiple lenses and multiplicity of opinions and the interpretation of events and experiences, aims to getting rid of stereotypes that prevent problem solving and bringing people together (see Stud's Terkel). Further, it focuses on looking at events anew with a fresh and critical eye, pondering questions connected with sociopolitical and other issues that influence people’s lives, what they learn, and who they become (see Schubert et al., 2002). In dealing with the multiplicity and complexity of events, it is suggested that we “teach the conflict” (Ayers, 2009) through projects that enable examination of stereotypes and realization of the one-sided presentation of historical events focusing at the development of particular historical consciousness (Papadakis, 2008). There are of course several examples that illustrate the essence of oral history. All these examples show the important role of oral history in preserving important stories of the past and its contribution in making the past part of the present experience, which is valuable in education and in curriculum studies, rather than promoting silence and unawareness.


Cyprus Oral History as an Example of Revolutionary, Authentic, Grassroots Curriculum

A revolutionary curriculum can be thought of as the curriculum that utilizes existing resources and primary sources for teaching attitudes, skills and knowledge. Particularly, it stimulates and uses people’s voice and stories to form attitudes, educate and train. The history of Cyprus, which is controversial and conflicting, can be revolutionary because it has the potential to teach the conflict, which is the purpose of the Cyprus Oral History Project. Also, the Cyprus Oral History project is authentic curriculum, because it starts from the bottom like a grassroots movement and takes account existing conditions, people’s needs, and various efforts that aim to distort the facts, in order to create a balanced, healthy condition and to shape attitudes, values​​, knowledge and to give a voice from the bottom up. In the contrary, conventional curriculum efforts include top down decisions.

The Cyprus Oral History Project relates to the idea of ​​curriculum in its broad sense. In particular, it relates to aspects of the study of curriculum that consider the significance of individual experiences, continuity of experience, and the context of curriculum in particular socio-political conditions. If we consider the curriculum as an experience, then we should consider how it relates to the experiences of people, which we often exclude. This should occur especially in subject matters that relate with the experiences of people and their origin. Such courses would be for example history, geography, literature, poetry and language.

The older generation in Cyprus has learned to remain silent, keeping securely locked important events and memories. But many stories, experiences and memories need to be unlocked in order to free the self and let others learn what happened. Traditional attitudes that insist on keeping memories and events locked, alongside their fears and insecurities, are passed on to consequent generations. The older generation which has lived through the events needs to consider its responsibility toward the younger generations, unveiling memories, stories and experiences, with love and honesty, seeking the greater benefit and prospect in the longrun, rather than the individual benefit in the short-term.

The autobiographical and biographical account of the curriculum has to do with looking at ourselves or other people to understand who we are and to explain our existence in the past, present and future, physically, geographically, emotionally, existentially, psychologically. William Pinar (1994) saw this process not only as a natural phenomenon, but as a psychological and existential phenomenon, where examining the past, as well as past incidences and people that played a significant role in people’s life, may help the individual understand who he or she is and why he or she is in a particular situation; such an awareness is very important for the future development of the individual. Pinar argues that there comes a moment in the present in which we make sense of past events, whereas up to that point we could not explain why something had happened. In this case, we have the opportunity to place "snapshots" of our past lives into a new framework to understand the importance and the impact they had. This is the process of currere and it demonstrates the importance of understanding the connection of past, present and future. This understanding adds an important dimension to the school curriculum: currere, being the extension of school curriculum, and school curriculum being the extension of currere, opens up important paths in our life curriculum.

Furtehr, Pinar, using the concept of currere, connects sexuality, politics, various political considerations, and issues of autobiography with the curriculum. This demonstrates the importance of knowing who we are in order to understand important things in our present and why they occur, to reconsider them and place the events, their meaning and the significance of their impact in revised framework, aiming to create a future with greater meaning.

Similarly, the elimination of important subject matters from the school curriculum connected with our history, memories and autobiographical paths, both as individuals and also as cultural agents, is absurd and causes reactions. The task should have been to enrich these subject matters, rather than to remove them. Likewise, the effort to describe events in a new context causes reactions. When the events are told or described in a different way each time according to our personal interests, it deminishes the work of historians who recorded the events within the context and under the circumstances they took place. Decontextualizing the events, disrespects the context in which they had happened. Rather, awareness of what happened should be sought each time, repositioning the meaning of the events, rather than the events themselves, in a revised framework. However, the specific context is determined by the particular era in which facts and events occur. Connecting past events to their own context and describing them within that, allows for new meanings and interpretations to occur. In a contemporary framework it is vital to discuss about the controversy, describing the facts as they happened in their context.

Whereas facts are objective, their interpretations are subjective. There is always objectivity in terms of how the events happened. There is also subjectivity associated with how one saw, felt, heard, tasted, and experienced the events, that is connected to one’s senses, which does not diminish the validity of the form, but rather it enriches it. Objectivity cannot be lost and reality cannot change amidst the various subjective interpretations. However, many subjective stories and interpretations are needed in order for objectivity to be unveiled through them. Likewise in the courtroom the judge needs several personal testimonies before the truth is unveiled. Thus, simultaneously, it is vital to keep the subjective perspectives which are useful to better understand our world and how it works.

School has the responsibility to examine various perspectives and to challenge them through the various subject matters taught; the way they are taught is also relevant. Simultaneously, the responsibility of the society, which is made up from its individual members, is to encourage the telling of objective facts alongside subjective perspectives, in order to reach objectivity and to better understand our world. The Cyprus Oral History research project aimed to become an exemplary subject matter itself, as well as a teaching methodology. Alongside the main question we posed, “what do you know about the events…?”, other relevant questions to pose in order to unveil objectivity and subjectivity include, but are not limited to, the following: What has happened in 1960-1974? Can you recall a strong memory from 1974? Can you recall a bad incident? What led to the 1963 and the 1974 events? Can you recall a happy incident before 1974? Can you recall a deadly incident before 1974? How shall we teach the events of 1960-1974 to the younger generation? Why? What matters the most in teaching them?

Considering Memory to Reexamine and Redefine Curriculum and Teaching

Memory is situated within a social framework as, simultaneously, it is embodied by individuals (for ‘embodiment’ see Pinar & Grumet, 1976; Grumet, 1988; Miller, 2005). Recollections of events have been lived and experienced by people, and thus, although they are not part of written history when the latter is written in a conventional way, they are a critical addition to history. As such, memory must not be neglected, but rather it should be documented and cross-examined with written history, be it official or some alternative version. Oral history is constructed via memory and it is connected to the larger framework of general and national history, as it intersects with it, it adds to it, and it shapes and is shaped by it (Halbwachs, 1950/1980; Funkenstein, 1989). Memories, being connected with individuals’ identities, should be respected and promoted rather than being silenced.

In this, transparency is important and the truth must be communicated through discourse that may be revealed via the recognition of the participants. Mnemonic dignity and memory constitute and disclose identities, and disrupt the status quo. The stories of people, their memories and the multiple interpretations expose and explicate reality. And as history does not change, but rather it is historical interpretations that change, it may create spaces to merge memory with reality. Thus, it is really essential that the interpretation of history be reworked including memories and oral history.

Memory and history should be examined and taught in relevant courses through searching and researching, documenting and discussing ambivalent and decisive moments, as well as doubting, cross-examining sources and resources, re-considering and encouraging openness and a critical eye to interpretations and differing viewpoints and positions (Creswell, 2009). All the above must be guided by inquiry. Oral history and memories facilitate consideration of why people think what they think, rather than just being interested in what they think (Portelli, 1991). Asking why is integral part of inquiry. Strengthening inquiry and making it part of any curriculum is vital, since it is the quintessence of critical thinking, which should presuppose historical thinking and emotion.

Curricula that cause negative reactions cannot lead to increased tolerance and acceptance. Rather, it is important to respect and protect people’s memories, investigating the messages that obstruct people’s perspectives, rather than imposing hegemonic ways of viewing that oppose memories. Curricula need to be redefined through an authentically democratic procedure in which many are involved constructively toward a common goal.

It is important to ‘teach the conflict’ (Ayers, 2009). That is, instead of presenting the one truth, to let many different versions of the facts and stories be revealed in order to allow students to choose and to encourage critical thinking, along with wondering, challenging ideas and pondering. Thus, it is important to enrich curriculum and teaching with experiences deriving from the oral histories and lived experiences of people and which challenge curriculum and bring awareness in it. It is also important to include in courses, which deal with historical events and memories, open and critical discussions and opportunities for students to interact with multiple and various sources, as they search various historical documents and ponder the reason for the existence of multiple sources and interpretations.

Note: The above excerpts have been extracted from the COHP book. Any reference to it should be cited as follows: Christodoulou, N. (2012). Oral history and the chronicle of the Cyprus Oral History and Living Memory Project. Nicosia, Cyprus: Frederick Research Center & Research Promotion Foundation.

Ayers, W. (2009, June 17). Rethinking democracy, justice and education in the age of Obama. Lecture at Frederick University, Frederick University, Nicosia, Cyprus.

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Funkenstein, A. (1989). Collective memory and historical consciousness. History and Memory, 1, 5-26.

Grumet, M. (1988). Bitter milk: Women and teaching. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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