“Every student should do oral history at least once. You get to live history,”1 remarked a student in my Pacific War course. This endorsement came after the student completed an oral history project on his great-uncle, a soldier in the South Pacific during World War II. As a teacher of Asian history I often hear students say they “hated history,” then proceed to enumerate the usual complaints about history being nothing but names, dates, and dry-as-dust details. Many students have never experienced history as a vibrant and living field of study, nor have they come to see it as a key to understanding themselves and the world. One way to bring the study of the past alive for students is through oral history, a process by which we “collect . . . memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.”2 The following essay begins with a discussion of oral history projects as a way to engage students in the study of history, teach them how history is recorded, and enable them to make real contributions to the body of historical knowledge. Following the article is a short “how-to” section for those interested in considering such a project for their own students.
Oral history, “both the oldest type of historical inquiry . . . and one of the most modern,” is accessible history, not only to readers, but also to researchers and, in particular, to student researchers.3 Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary by nature, oral history is especially appropriate in the contemporary classroom. It may be especially valuable in Asia-related courses, bringing immediacy to subjects otherwise distant for many American students. It also addresses one of the most persistent problems in teaching Asia-related subjects in the United States: the impossibility, in most cases, of asking students to do primary-source research. Moreover, because of Asia’s important role in our country’s twentieth-century history, oral history subjects related to Asia can give students a meaningful entry into a number of areas of scholarly inquiry. The approach can be used successfully in a variety of Asia-related courses and with a variety of populations. Veterans and those who lived through the WWII, Korean, and Vietnam war eras are potentially informative subjects, as are Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants and refugees.
1. Chad W. Japhet, personal conversation, November 1, 2005.
2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, 2nd edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 19.
3. Oral History Association Web site: http://omega.dickinson.edu/ organizations/oha/, accessed February 12, 2005.