Oliver Sacks and the Stories Behind the Science

September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Never forget: beneath the statistics, there are stories.” 

My students and I stumbled onto this essential, but often forgotten truth yesterday in my ninth grade Global Seminar course.   It was one of those rare moments where a conversation turns and creates language for something that one has sensed but not previously had the perception, power, or capacity to express in any kind of coherent shape.

The wisdom emerged from a lesson on the European migrant crisis.  As we frame up our work in the course for the year, this topic connects us to so many important conversations that will unfold in the months to come.

  • Are our traditional ideas about nationhood adequate for understanding the current geopolitical landscape? 
  • How does an impact in one area of a global system produce intended and unintended consequences in another?  
  • As global citizens, what responsibilities do we have to each other? 

We struggled through the conversation.  The issue is complex, frustrating the simple cause and effect thinking that schooling may have required of many in the room prior to their arrival in high school.  Along the way, we surfaced some uncomfortable opinions, including talking points culled from the debate on US immigration policy that has dominated the early portions of the current US election cycle.  

When confronted with rhetoric like this that too easily reduces complex debates to simple platitudes, I tend, by training, to turn to stories.   In this case, we were able to draw on our all school read, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.  In the novel, readers meet the Hatian protagonist Sophie, whose mother has immigrated to the US prior to the opening of the narrative, and sends for Sophie to join her in New York in the opening pages.   In the summary/synthesis exercise that closed the class, I prodded the students to draw the threads of the European migrant crisis together with Sophie’s lived experience of arrival and integration in New York.  Slowly, the insights emerged, moving beyond the rhetoric to consider the human scale of the problem.

While reading the New Yorker later that evening, I happened upon Atul Gawande’s remembrance of the late Oliver Sacks — a meditation on Sacks’ singular gifts, but also on what narrative storytelling has to offer to the field of scientific writing:

“‘Studies, yes,’ he wrote in the preface, but ‘why stories, or cases?’ Because, he explained, the understanding of disease cannot be separated from the understanding of the person. They are interwoven, and this has been forgotten in our era of scans, tests, genetics, and procedures. He compared the modern clinical practitioner to the man who mistook his wife for a hat—able to register many details yet still miss the person entirely. ‘To restore the human subject at the centre—the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject—we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale.;”

While the conventional wisdom in schools silos the fields of English, History and Science, there is “real-world” richness in the areas of elision between them.   In order to go about answering some of the biggest questions we can ask in our classrooms, we need to think beyond our artificial structures. We are drawn to narrative — the arc from mystery, to conflict, and perhaps, to resolution.  How healthy and freeing to to inhabit the perspective of another, no matter how brief the stay.  The “stickiness” of narrative in the human consciousness suggests that teachers are well served to consider the following questions in the design of our course units and activities:

  • How do we learn to see the texture of a human life? 
  •  Which methods of inquiry and analysis allow us to best capture the complexity of a real-world situation? 
  •  How to the decisions we make each day impact someone a world away?

Beneath the statistics, there are stories.  “Suffering, afflicted, fighting,” but also laughing, celebrating, and healing.  The trick is learning how to hear them. 


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