What We Can Learn from Socrates About Oral History

seshatdetail1Two years and few days ago I published a blog post comparing the modern transformation wrought by e-readers to the ancient transformation by the codex (book).  I was fascinated by the ways in which the physical changes in how we interact with the printed word led to mental changes in how we process the recorded information itself.

While reading Moonwalking with Einstein, I discovered that there was an even earlier and more significant transformation in how we preserve information:  the very creation of writing itself!  Foer explains,

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes how the Egyptian god Theuth, inventor of writing, came to Thamus, the king of Egypt, and offered to bestow his wonderful invention upon the Egyptian people.  “Here is a branch of learning that will…improve their memories,” Theuth said to the Egyptian king. “My discovery provides a recipe for both memory and wisdom.” But Thamus was reluctant to accept the gift.  “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he told the god.  “They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.  What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding.”


Of course, 2500 years later, we have been so inculcated in the ways of the written word that it’s hard to understand Socrates’ point of view.  Everything about how we remember is shaped by living in a culture of near-universal literacy.  Our ancestors, who relied upon oral traditions, might have had an easier time sympathizing.  Whether because they were illiterate or because their society’s definition of literature didn’t cover personal concerns, they took part in a long chain of oral storytelling by necessity.

It was the encounter with modernity that eliminated this chain in many cultures.  There was a sense that oral history was primitive and written history superior, but looking back we now know that not to be the case.  The irony that Socrates’ sentiments would have been forgotten had not his students “put his disdain for the written word into written words” points to the complicated relationship between the two.  Socrates lived during the many-generation flowering of Greek philosophy and knew his students would continue his teachings as had been happening since long before his time.   During such periods of continuity when people have the luxury of listening and repeating, oral history functions properly.  But written history is critical during the periods of discontinuity when the chain breaks down, as happened centuries after Socrates, when first Greek culture and then much of Western philosophy faded away.  For families like mine where the discontinuity of immigration came within the past century or two, we’re in the odd position of both ruing the loss of family storytelling as our grandparents or great-grandparents experienced it, and being in the midst of a new period of continuity in our families where this kind of storytelling could thrive once more… if only we knew the stories they did.

But in family history today, you might protest, we emphasize the important of both.  True, everyone agrees that recording one’s elders is critical, and technology abounds to make it easy to do so.  But this isn’t what Socrates meant.  To paraphrase his words, we still rely on what is recorded — now audio and video in place of text.  Yes, so much more comes alive when we can hear and see our loved ones reflect on the world they knew, but, as Socrates cautioned, these are crutches for memory, too.  His warning is still relevant millennia later:  Will the next generation use our writings and recordings as a substitute for doing the real work of remembering themselves?   How can we create a culture in our families where don’t just hand off our papers and tapes, but pass down traditions personally?

Moonwalking with our Ancestors

mooncraterIt took me a few years, but recently I finally got around to reading the bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein.  Long frustrated by my poor memory, I found a lot to learn from author Joshua Foer‘s story of his year-long preparation for a national memory competition.  His training centered around mastering the fifth-century BCE mnemonic device of memory palaces.  Whether he had to memorize a deck of cards or a sequence of numbers, he used the same technique of encoding the information using an arbitrary, pre-determined system (for example, in Foer’s personal system the number 34 is Frank Sinatra crooning into a microphone, and the five of clubs is Dom DeLuise hula-hooping) and then mentally placing those images around buildings he knew well (for example, his childhood home or his high school)  Remembering the cards or numbers became simply a matter of imagining himself walking around the buildings, noting each image he encountered along the way, and then translating it back to the card or number it represented.  At first I found it disappointing to discover that memory champions rely on such absurdity, but the science and history of memory Foer wove throughout his story showed this trick to be not only a key insight into the elusive workings of the human mind, but also a useful directive for how even family historians like us can make our discoveries more memorable for our relatives.

Why do memory champions encode straightforwards lists into complicated images?  The answer can be found in anthropology, namely, what it was our earliest ancestors had to remember:  “where to find food and resources, and the route home, and which plants were edible and which were poisonous.”  They “didn’t need to recall phone numbers, or word-for-word instructions from their bosses, or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum.”  We might not be hunter-gatherers anymore, but we still have their brains, and we still remember visual imagery best of all.  The memory champions’ trick makes the unmemorable memorable simply by giving it a visual component.

This imagery functions in another way, too.  The way in which the memory champions encode information makes the images into “information barbs,” to use the terminology of one expert Foer interviewed.  The image of, say, Dom DeLuise hula-hooping in the driveway of Foer’s childhood home acts as a sort of hook to the actual information Foer wants to remember, that the five of clubs is the first card in a particular deck.  For the average person not using the memory palace technique for trivial lists, “all you need to remember is a hook,” explains the expert.  Any small detail likely to be easily recalled can be enough to reel in the whole memory from the recesses of your mind.  And visual details have the greatest potential for memorability.

But visual imagery alone isn’t enough.  Remember, the memory champions’ trick places the visual images in a “memory palace” for the champions to walk through.  Why this extra layer?  “We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context,” Foer writes partway through a discussion explaining why the best indicator of a chess player’s prowess is how well s/he can memorize chess boards.  His point about context is meant to be taken literally:  when presented with random boards — as in, boards that could not have arisen from game play — studies show that the experts’ memories perform as poorly as chess novices’.  “Experts [interpret] the present board in terms of their massive knowledge of past ones,” it turns out, and random boards can’t be broken down in this way.  Remarkably, even MRIs support this distinction, showing that the parts of the brain associated with long-term memory are engaged when experts look at real boards, but unfamiliar boards require the part of the brain that encodes new information.  In short, the chessboards that connect to what the experts already recognize are retained more quickly and completely.  The context of game-play is essential.

Moonwalking with Einstein is primarily concerned with how individuals can do a better job of retaining memories of their own lives as they live them.  As family historians, we focus instead on turning memories of the past into living memories that the next generation of our family will pass down.  Using visual imagery and historical context for our purposes will make the stories of our ancestors more memorable.  A well-chosen photograph, evocative description, or surprising historical detail can help what we share stand out in our relatives’ minds.  Perhaps reading Foer’s book with our agenda misses his point, but the moral of his story applies to us as well.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember…Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture:  All these essentially human acts depend on memory.  Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember.  Our memories make us who we are.  They are the seat of our values and source of our character.

I have no intention of competing in a memory championship as Foer did, but if the kids in my family grow up to know more about where they came from than their peers, then they (and all the generations of our family) will have won a far greater prize.  As Foer’s memory coach says, “If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human.”

Genealogy Roadshow: Nashville

For a niche hobby, we’re steadily amassing quite a number of television programs!  From the Who Do You Think You Are? series here and in the UK, to the variety of Henry Louis Gates mini-series on PBS, we’re certainly doing a lot better than, say, stamp collecting.   Combining the host-driven approach of Gates’ series, the everyman approach of WDYTYA UK, and the format of Antiques RoadshowGenealogy Roadshow introduces us to a number of average Americans looking to discover what’s less-than-average about their family history and entertain the rest of us along the way.

The descendants of the warm photo on the monitor behind them meet for the first time.

The descendants of the little boy and old man in the warm photo on the monitor behind them meet for the first time.

This week’s episode was filmed in an antebellum mansion-turned-museum in Nashville, TN, and included segments featuring a young man awaiting his DNA results, a young woman who never knew her father, and families with rumored ancestry.  The segments rose and fell on the strength of the family story they presented.  The short DNA segment fell flat because we learned nothing about the young man nor what his results confirmed or refuted about what he had previously believed about himself.  But the African-American woman who learned that an ancestor born in 1890 was probably the son of the Governor of Tennessee and the young woman who learned the whole history of her absentee father’s family packed the kind of emotional wallop we’ve come to expect.  The story about the governor’s illegitimate, black son dramatically concluded with a surprising smoking gun, and the sense of validation of his descendant was palpable.  And I’m sure plenty of us watching remotely were tearing up along with the on-camera audience as the young woman viewed surfing pictures of her father that looked like her own, and even met her first cousin.

Well-known genealogists D. Joshua Taylor and Kenyatta Berry were alternately compassionate and erudite, guiding each of their segments with a steady hand.  The use of tablets connected to large screen to zoom into records and around trees worked quite well, though I found it a strange decision that their paper scripts were so conspicuous.  That, plus the heavily staged nature of the segments, felt a bit stifling to their natural energy and inhibited the rapport they and their guests could establish with each other.  And while I appreciated the absence of WDYTYA-style promotions for particular genealogy websites, the almost-total absence of the work that went into making these discoveries for the guests shortchanges the average viewer.

However, right on the Department of Genealogical Realism is that not everyone heard what they want to hear.  Guests were told they were not related to Davy Crockett, George Washington, Jimmy Carter, the Pointer sisters, and numerous others, though descendants of Jesse James and the feuding Hatfield family confirmed their descent (though maybe it would have better had they not!).

Overall, I liked the style of the show, especially its pacing and the diversity of stories it fit into the hour.

Next week:  onto Detroit!

The Real Reason Why Jim’s French Architect Ancestor Escaped the Guillotine

Isn’t it nice when the genealogy gods deliver? On the season finale of Who Do You Think You Are? Jim Parsons wanted a connection back to France and an artistic ancestor… and boy, did he get both!

As with many episodes, we on the other side of history can see the celebrities’ ancestors marching straight towards calamitous historical events that they had no idea they were about to encounter.  (I’ve reflected how my own descendants will perceive my life, having moved to NYC a year before 9/11.)  In this episode we learned about how Jim’s 6x great-grandfather, Louis François, became closer and closer to the King of France in the years leading up to the French Revolution, but it was hard to enjoy his success knowing that that association, once such a distinction, proved fatal for so many.  And indeed, four of Louis François’ colleagues were guillotined and twenty-five more imprisoned… but somehow Louis François emerged unscathed.

The historian suggests that it was because of Louis François’ deep connection to the Enlightenment.  And indeed, his architectural style and choice of friends (and houseguests!) reflected his radical thinking there.  But while preparing this week’s recap (which you can read above), it didn’t take long to discover that there were some key facts of Louis François’ life not included in the episode that perhaps better explain how he remained safe.

The episode suggests that Louis François had an unbroken rise, but it turns out that that is not the case.  In the early 1770s he was accused of malpractice!  As a result of this disgrace, he loses both his current job at Orléans and his post at Versailles.  That is why he living in Paris, not Versailles, at the time he hosted Abbé Reynal, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.  It wasn’t until just before the Revolution that his career turned back around.  The new king, Louis XVI, took the charges against Louis François to be slander and finally elevated him to the first class of architects in the Royal Academy in 1787, though it does not appear that Louis François ever returned to Versailles or undertook another royal commission.  So, when the French Revolution came around in 1789, though Louis François was a first class member of the Royal Academy of Architecture, he had spent most of the preceding two decades not in association with royalty at all.  I suspect that so some degree his career-ending disgrace ended up saving his life.

(Sources:  The Architecture of the French Enlighments by Allan Braham, Wikipedia)

Lords of the Manor

Ten years after nearly hanging for stealing deer from the lord of the nearby manor, Tricia’s ancestor would suffer Indians stealing animals from his own land.  Ah, when the ironies of genealogy encounter the opportunities of the New World!

In further ironies, who here thinks that the former imprisoned servant became a slave owner?  Ding, ding, ding!  In the 1820 census, he is listed as owning a whopping 22 slaves.  Yes, he had clearly left his impoverished past well and truly behind.

Samuel Winslett, 1820 census

An Anti-Royalist Descended from… Royalty!

Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? started with a Puritan who fought against the king of England and took us all the way back to Charlemagne, one of the most powerful kings of Europe ever. What a journey in forty generations and one episode.

Like so many of us, Cindy began with no inkling of where her family came from beyond her great-grandparents… but  on her first day of research she got back 10 generations to the ancestor who came from England in the 1630s!

No, it isn’t really this easy, and this episode is one of those where the behind-the-scenes if almost more interesting than what made it on air.  One thousand hours of research went into the one-hour episode we saw last night.  Scores of researchers examined scores of documents in archives across the world to lead Cindy precisely from the 1880 U.S. census to the Trowbridge genealogy book in Boston to old court records in New Haven… not to mention across the pond to the UK where even cooler documents and historic locations awaited.

What went into the making of this episode is what we as family historians must do:  find the most compelling narrative(s) of all the different threads of discovery we make.  With all one thousand hours of research, there must’ve been countless directions in which this episode could have gone; a family in America that long must have been present at all the major moments in our nation’s history.  I might have focused in on the children Thomas left behind in New Haven when he went back to England, and how such a notable New England family came to thrive from such sad beginnings.  But of all the research, the journey that stood out as not only most notable, but also most personally engaging was Thomas Trowbridge’s — a Puritan who fled to the colonies for religious freedom, sacrificed his family to fight the king who oppressed them & their people, and ultimately seems to have been a brave and honorable man.

Our trees are filled with so many great people with great life stories… which ones should you focus on passing down to your family?

“The Ultimate Eagle Scout” and His Grandfather

Cholera epidemic.  Mexican War.  War of 1812.  Chris O’Donnell has an amazing family legacy of service to this country!

Michael Hait, one of the genealogists on this episode, joined me in the live after-show hosted by the In-Depth Genealogist. This was really fortunate for me, because I had a ton of questions after this episode ended, especially:

  • What family circumstances compelled George McNeir to leave the Sea Fencibles and return to his family?
  • With eight generations before Michael McEnnis and many since, surely there are many more generations of heroes in this family?
  • At what point did Chris figure out that War of 1812 + Bombardment of Ft. McHenry = The Star-Spangled Banner?

During the show and afterwards he revealed that there was much more to Chris’ family than made the cut, as you would expect from a family in this country for fourteen generations.  Indeed, ancestors served in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  And yes, there was much more to George McEnnis court case.  He hadn’t paid rent in two years — that was clear.  But the warehouse he was renting was shared with a merchant who imported cloth from the British West Indies… and obviously you aren’t importing cloth from British anywhere when you’re at war with the British.  So the circumstances surrounding George’s poverty were more complicated than the small glimpse we got of the court case — these records were actually quite numerous (more luck for Chris!).  It was this court case, which lasted two years, and its effect, as well as the family’s general poverty, that led to George’s decision to leave the military.

And finally, I was glad to hear that Chris was a lot sharper than the episode made him seem and was one step ahead of the researchers all the way.  He and his niece couldn’t help but research in parallel with the show, and evidently every time Michael was about to drag an important connection between the evidence and history for Chris, Chris took the words right out of his mouth!

“The Best and Most Capable Woman I Ever Knew”

Wouldn’t you want your ancestor to be described that way?  Last night on Who Do You Think You Are?, Zooey Deschanel had the pleasure of reading those words about her amazing four times great-grandmother, an impassioned abolitionist.

This episode had it all — ancestors you can genuinely root for, a celebrity guest emotionally engaged in the story, amazing primary source documents, and history you were never taught in high school.  And for me, it all unfolded in a town closely tied to my own family in the present day.  How did I never know history was made by such brave people in a place I’ve so often visited?!

The Floating Middle on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Last night’s episode presented one of the most morally complicated life stories the show has ever presented.  Chelsea Handler always knew her grandfather served in the German army during World War II, but was he once a true Nazi?  Starting with only her grandmother’s German memoir which she cannot read and a German booklet with a swastika and her grandfather’s name on the cover, she travels to Germany to uncover what was her grandfather’s true participation in the Nazi regime.

More than most of the show’s celebrity participants, as she is presented with translations of these records and new records detailing her grandfather’s life, Chelsea scrutinizes and re-scrutinizes each dry detail to guess at what her grandfather’s true motivations and ideology were at the time.  She learns that with an imperfect understanding of what was happening around them, both her grandfather and grandmother supported an evil regime — at least initially.

Chelsea's grandmother's memoir

What do you think about how she reconciles the loving man she knew with the complicated morality of his history?

Heartbreak and Healing on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Last night’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” had most viewers bawling by the end.  Christina Applegate’s father never knew his mother, believing she had died young under brutal circumstances.  The truth was much more complicated and poignant.  By the end of the episode, a seventy year-old man finally knew where he came from.

Like many genealogical journeys, the answer to the original question exploded into a zillion more questions.  This episode, more than most, left me feeling unsettled and desperate to know more:

  • Why was Robert told such a dreadful story about how his mother died?  Was he really told she was dead 6 years before she actually died?
  • Why did Robert believe he was older than he was?
  • Why did Lavina’s sister, Delilah, die so young, and did she leave children?
  • When did Lavina marry Walton, and was that when Robert stopped living with her?
  • What other records can trace the family’s “descent” during the Depression?
  • Why did Lavina become an alcoholic?  Did it run in the family?  Was she that affected by the downturn in her family’s circumstances?
  • How did Paul & Lavina’s backgrounds compare?  Would they have considered themselves social equals?
  • Who is the half-brother mentioned in Lavina’s obit, and does he have descendants who remember family events from the 30s/40s/50s?
  • Why was Lavina’s mother buried separately from her husband and daughters?
  • Most of all, why was Michael Constant’s name on the cemetery records for the Shaw family?!