Alasdair MacIntyre, “How to Be a North American.”

Washington, D.C.: Federation of State Humanities Councils, 1988.

This marvelous lecture addresses the formation of identity in a pluralistic country without institutions or places for storytelling. Storytelling is vital: “every society enacts its own history as a more or less coherent dramatic narrative, a story in which each of us has to find his or her own place as a character, in order to know how to participate in it and how to continue it further. This is why the initiation of children into the lives of their family, their tribe, their city, their country, in almost all cultures is one in which children learn a stock of stories and so encounter the magical and the religious, the historical and the contemporary, the familiar and the heroic in narrative forms. It is through narrative that they learn to hope and to fear, to love and to hate, to dream and to want, to understand and identify” (3). Given this, what kind of stories do North Americans need? For we have dual identities: American and then ethnic which makes for some key problems in the selection and telling of stories.

1. The language of the story. If English, then the best English. But we each have our own language, and they cannot really be called “foreign languages.” We no longer have caretakers of language who could solve this problem. It used to be poets, but now “we let them teach college courses in creative writing” (5).
2. We have many rival stories, each understood in its own terms. We must understand them and find ways to reconcile them.
3. So we need a shared history.
4. We need shared forms of culture.

Without stories we suffer three losses:
1. At the level of everyday interchange. Our ethnic backgrounds become “mere nostalgia and sentimentality” or we drop them completely and become “bland, homogenized persons . . . one of whose aims is to make sure that we please others, so that they are pleased at being pleased by us. And this wanting to be liked is one of the great American vices that emerges from this refusal of particularity and conflict. Americans tend under the influence of this vice to turn into parodies of themselves—smiling, earnest, very kind, generous, nice people, who do terrible things quite inexplicably. We become people with no depth, no depth of understanding, masters of technique and technology, but not of ourselves” (8).
2. At the level of politics and economics, we become superficial and “rights” and “interests” become abstract, often destructive constructs.
3. At the level of language, we can no longer have constructive debates, so divided are we in thought and impoverished in language.

A solution? We need to read together—the same books, both children and adults, and renew story-telling, beginning with the family.

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