Sunday, July 22, 2007

Schank: Chpt 7 - Knowing the Stories of Your Culture, Pgs. 189 - 218

Schank uses examples from the 1960's Hippie and Flower child and their, and his, use of the Chinese 'I Ching' culture describe the process of how people can make complex decisions. He points to the 'I Ching' one of three basic flavors of stories "...which are either neutral, condensed, or elaborated". The following are his story flavor definitions:
  • Neutral: "General wisdom that seems intended for your particular problem, but which, in fact, is applicable to almost any problem. This is the secret of the 'I Ching's' appeal."
  • Condensed: "...a generalization drawn from many stories ---one that predicts the outcome of events by recognizing the basic pattern inherent in other stories. The most common form of such stories occurs as proverbs."
  • Elaborated: "An elaborated story is quite a bit like a proverb except that the case in question is filled with details and particulars....Elaborated stories provide stories to aspire to, or to learn from, that the culture as a whole agrees are valuable. Myths, or heroic stories, are a typical form of elaborated story."

Schank then goes into a more detailed description of the three story flavors using both personal and well known stories as examples. I will now encapsulate what Schank said about the elaborated story.

Elaborated Story Detail per Schank

  • "We don't have to figure out the answer to hard questions by adapting well known stories to new situations. Finding a story that fits exactly would be much easier....One remedy for this, then, is to adapt our own lives to what has gone on before. If you can't make a well-known story fit your life, make you life fit a well-known story. Our need for heroes is powerful because heroes are models for our own lives....The important point is that stories of heroes' exploits are more for copying than adapting. We get our stories from heroes, and their stories become our own."
  • "Why are these evangelists so appealing? One possible answer hinges upon the concept of a culturally common story. If we all share the same stories we feel part of a common group...the stories they tell are being heard by thousands of people. If we all share the same stories we feel part of a common group....Thus, the stories automatically build a bond among these people. They each share the same stories to use as guidance in their lives."
  • "Size is actually a critical aspect to memorable stories...actually telling the story in a reasonably sized chuck is an important memory aid.
  • "... as we have seen with the 'I Ching', the more generic the story, the more it is of general usefulness. Bible stories have survived precisely because they are stories that typify situations in which people often find themselves."

Personal Observation: Schank launches into a discussion of sub-cultures, pages 195 -203. He again returns to the1960's hippie era, and adds a personal story in which he misleads his boss at Stanford University to get a trip overseas. I will not address the contents of pages 196 to 201 where Schank provides some stories that he defines as sub-culture shared stories because he uses some profane language that my culture finds offensive. However, he does make an important statement on page 203: "Self-definition means the adoption of a set of stories of one's own Adapting to another story means learning the stories of that culture."

Schank returns to a working man's culture with some illuminating information, stories, and important points in the final two sections of Chapter 7.

Untold Stories of Foreign Cultures

Schank's statement on page 203 illustrates the differing perspectives cultures: "What we learn, as we grow up, is the stories of our culture that allow us to communicate quickly and efficiently with members of our own culture...We have a lot of evidence that language is learned phrasally, rather than word by word. But to function effectively in France, learning French isn't all that is necessary. One must learn French stories, i.e. the stories that are only culturally common in France." Schank then provides an excellent well-crafted story of an American tourist who can speak French, going to a French Cafe and experiencing something very different than his culture defines restaurant experience, pages 204 - 207. The bottomline is that we learn from our experiences. When the American customer returns again he will know more than how to speak French.

Mastering One's Own Stories

Based upon the French Cafe story provided above Schank concludes that: "...coping in the modern world means knowing the stories of the cultures in which you operate....Understanding culture, then, in the sense of being able to operate easily in it, means knowing the cultures stories. And similarly, operating in the idiosyncratic world of your own subculture, you must know your own stories."

Schank points out that children and teenagers do not have their stories down, whereas,: "Adults on the other hand, needn't think at all after a while. All the stories that you ever will tell have already been thought up and stored away."

Schank goes on to say that we define ourselves through the stories we tell. To illustrate this point he launches into some detailed evaluations of two media feast stories commonly understood by the public:

Pages 208 -210: Tawana Brawley false allegation of sexual abuse by a gang of racist. An event that drew the media.

Pages 210 - 211: The Ben Jonson, Olympics runner who was disqualified and gold medal taken due to steroid violation.

Schank points out that: "Explanation patterns are cultural norms in that sub-cultures share them." Bottomline per Schank: " WhenTawana Brawley and Ben Johnson chose to start telling the story of what happened, they chose stories already accepted by the culture they lived in and which they assumed would be accepted once again." The bottomline is that the investigators found the true stories because they found other stories which sounded better and were more reasonable.

The Power of Good Story -- Last Chapter, Pgs. 212 to 218

Schank begins with a quote that underscores his theory that stories are the root of personal decisions: "Throughout history the most powerful demagogues have been the best storytellers. Today we have a breed of storytellers, namely television evangelists, who manage to mesmerize people with their stories...The television evangelists capitalize on the fact that they can tell stories that are universally understandable by their audience---stories their audience identifies with."

On pages 213-218, he launches his second personal attack on Jimmy Swaggart,the former TV evangelist who was caught in a major sin and removed from his role as a TV preacher. This time Schank describes and details how Swaggart wove his stories to attract a following. Using extracts drawn from Swaggart's sermons, Schank defines how Swaggart had such skill as a storyteller.

  • "The important point is to personalize it, to particularize it, to draw as many references as possible to real world events, that hears may have themselves experienced so that they can identify with the story."
  • To draw upon the hearers' experience reservoir, Schank says about Swaggart: "Thus Swaggart talks about difficult fathers, drunken people, people who have had very bad luck, children confronting death and other topics that the audience is likely to have some familiarity with; and then he ties those previously known and understood stories to the difficulty of understanding how God works and the importance of preaching.. Thus he adds his on conclusion to each listener's story. And his own stories become his audiences' story."
  • PAGE 17: "But in general we don't adopt other peoples stories as our own. Swaggart is trying to convince his listeners to do something that is actually very difficult to do. He wants his listeners to buy his stories, not only to believe them, but in a sense to reenact them. He probably knows, at least implicitly, that to the extent that he gets to his listeners to tell his stories and live his stories, he can manipulate them to do what he wants them to do.

CHAPTER 7 - BOTTOMLINE Page 218: "When we hear the stories of others, the issue becomes whether we choose to adopt these stories for ourselves. We define ourselves through our stories, but through teaching (and preaching), we also define ourselves through the storie of others. Many people who are good storytellers know how to take advantage of this basic human need to define oneself through the stories other people live." Personal Note: Kind of makes me wonder how good of a teller Mr. Schank may be.

Personal Assessment of Chapter 7: An interesting chapter. However, his repeated use of Jimmy Swaggart in a negative way, and his repeated use of newspaper articles to define what a story was about seemed to lose the gist for me. However, I did think that the Swaggart points might be useful when crafting a story.

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