An Inquiry into Seattle

By George Heinrichs

The first histories were oral histories. Humans have been telling stories since we started to differentiate ourselves from other species. In fact, the act of telling stories might be the defining quality of humanity. When people think about history, however, they tend to think textbooks, old records, scrolls written to preserve the great events of the land. There is the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill that “history is written by the victors.” The truth is, history is made by whoever is willing and able to preserve someone's story. It is created by the writers, and scribes, journalists, podcasters, oral storytellers. Anytime you listen to someone else's story and then record it for others to share in, you have become a historian. 

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In 11th Grade, the final project will involve each student conducting an oral history interview and then put the interview online with a transcript for others to listen to and read. The course, History of the Pacific Northwest and Seattle, will ask them to try to answer the question: what does “Seattle” mean? No one person, book, or film can possibly answer this question. But by listening to others, by asking questions and getting the stories of people in the community, they can start to put together a complex and engaging sense of what an answer might be. 

Oral history works perfectly for the Downtown School. It asks students to engage with the community, to learn from others, to use Seattle as a place of learning, and to think about the rights of others. Oral history has consent as a key principle. Every step of the process will involve the student not creating, but helping to share what someone else has experienced. The hope is that each student will preserve a perspective, and that we will have fourteen answers this year, and dozens the year after, and more and more until there is a quilt of stories of what Seattle has meant to the narrators the students record. 

History involves giant themes and world-changing events, and it spans continents and millennia. But it all starts with individual experiences. As Seattle and the school grow and change, I want to help the students record the voices of those who are currently here. I am asking them to be historians. The word “history” comes from ancient Greek, and it means “inquiry”. This spring, the students will go out and inquire about the city and those who live in it.