Where Can Oral History Take Us?

The article “The Voice of the Past” by Paul Thompson discusses the impact that oral history could have on the purpose and effect of History. As a history major, I spend a lot of time reading. Historians’ accounts of what happened in the past as well as textbook explanations and analytical articles are primarily the way we learn about the past. On occasion, a professor will give us a primary document to read but we typically learn form second hand accounts. The constant pushing of history from the second hand voice makes history feel less personal and less relatable. Overall, history becomes less interesting.

Students in my high school classes constantly wondered why we needed to learn about the past. It was so long ago and came from such foreign contexts that it seemed almost fictional. No one could understand why exactly it was so essential to our education. Paul Thompson discusses the importance of learning history in his article. The issue isn’t in the content that we are learning but in the way that we learn it.

Oral history makes the content come alive. Hearing first hand accounts from people you know or from recordings from the past liven up the information by portraying it as more relatable and more real. Historians can only breathe so much life into something that they’re writing or speaking about and didn’t actually experience themselves. Hearing personal histories from firsthand participants is a much more effective way to teach about the past and to help people in understanding the effects and relevance of the information on today’s time.

Reading this article, I wondered how Oral history is going to become more involved as time goes on and how the digital age will impact how history is taught. I can only imagine that Oral history will become more incorporated in history education as technology progresses. For example, when we talk about the revolutionary war in school, we read stories and occasionally primary documents. Those documents are hard for students to decipher because of the nature of the language used that was relevant in that time. We can even see reenactments, but those don’t bear the same weight. Thanks to technology, students who learn about 9/11 in 50 years will be able to see documentaries made while the attack happened and the actual people who were there and their views. They will have audio and visual oral histories at their disposal. When students learn about the 2016 election, they’ll be able to read the candidate’s tweets and watch their debates and then read Facebook posts from common people about the debates to get a feel of what public opinion was. The events happening in the digital age will one day be in history textbooks and they will be taught in much more lively and interactive ways. Technology and the advancement of such will do wonderful things for oral history and history education.

How pre-digital age history can be taught


versus how events in the digital age can one day be taught

Where Can Oral History Take Us?

2 thoughts on “Where Can Oral History Take Us?

  1. Joon Lee says:

    I like what you have to say about the article, especially because you are a history major. Although I am not studying history, I took AP United States History in high school, so I greatly enjoy learning about the past. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that oral history brings a whole new perspective on historical analysis. Much of what we use to infer information from the past is unreliable. Most of this information comes in the form of second-hand accounts of events, that may often be biased or outright false. Also, what we can learn about the past almost entirely depends on what documents have been survived from the past to the present. For example, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Could you imagine all of the amazing things we could have learned of the ancient world had this library and its contents not been destroyed? We are that much more devoid of information of ancient times simply because documents of that era were not preserved. Oral history, however, provides a new perspective: first-hand accounts from individuals from all backgrounds.
    I wholeheartedly agree with your inclusion of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an example of the efficacy of oral history. There is only so much that words on a piece of paper can do to describe the tragic nature of what happened. Video footage of the event as well as eyewitness accounts of the attacks put things into perspective.


  2. themegmurray says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Anne. I’ve never been into history myself, and I felt you made really solid points about where technology can take oral history in the future. Maybe, when I was a kid, if I had more visual and oral learning tools for history like the kids in 50 years will have, maybe I would have learned better. I think it’s incredible to think about the time difference here and how much we’ve advanced. Like you said, while learning history, we’re lucky if we get to read a primary document on an account of what happened. We’re lucky if we get to get a peak into the mind of someone who witnessed something. Even some dialogue on a page is exciting when learning about history. But for students in the future, they’ll have live footage of history happening. Videos of when it happened. Live tweets, blog posts, news shows, interviews, Facebook statuses… there will be so many ways and so many mediums on which these kids can learn history, it will probably be much easier for them to do so. It also begs the question, though, if learning history for us now in 2016 is boring, how much worse must it have been for our parents or our grandparents? I’m sure they’d love to sit us down and tell us how much harder they had it…


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