What We Can Learn From Oral History

9, 10, 11, 12

Learners will read a passage of an historical narrative in order to analyze how one gains a better understanding of an historical event from the experience of people actually present at the event. They will describe how the passing down of oral history helps contribute to the tradition of American history and civil society, thus helping to strengthen the social contract and common good.

Lesson Rating 
PrintThree to Five Fifty-Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • use oral histories to understand events of the 1930s and 1940s.
  • define social contract, civil society and common good, and analyze how the behavior of diverse Americans strengthened all three.
  • Video and learner copies of The Greatest Generation
  • Learner copies of What We Can Learn from Oral History (Handout One)
  • Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998. ISBN: 0375502025
  • Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. NBC News Special. Video companion to the book. Studio: New Video Group, 1999. ASIN: 0767015991


  1. Anticipatory set:

    Write "The Greatest Generation" on the chalkboard or overhead. Ask the learners to describe what characteristics would be needed for someone to qualify for such a designation.

  2. Show learners the first ten minutes of the video The Greatest Generation and discuss what they saw.

  3. Put the terms civil society, social contract and common good on the board. Define them as follows:

    • civil society: A set of intermediate associations which are neither the state nor the extended family; civil society therefore includes voluntary associations and nonprofit organizations.
    • social contract: People/citizens agree to be governed (give up some of their natural freedoms) and, as a part of the government’s responsibility, it must guarantee certain rights to its people/citizens. In return, citizens have responsibilities, such as obeying the laws. 
    • common good: Involves individual citizens having the commitment and motivation to promote the welfare of the community (even if they must sacrifice their own time, personal preferences or money) to work together with other members for the greater benefit of all.
  4. Assign learners different chapters of The Greatest Generation to read, three or four learners per chapter. Have learners take notes and be prepared to discuss what they read the next day in class. Distribute What We Can Learn from Oral History (Handout One) to help learners get started.

  5. Have the learners discuss the stories they have read, using the questions from the worksheet as a guide.

  6. Discuss how civil society, the common good and the social contract were strengthened by the sacrifice of these men and the sharing of their oral histories.

  7. After all the learners have shared, have them discuss what they previously thought war was like and compare it with what they have just read and talked about. After the discussion, ask the learners to list two things about the war they didn’t know before reading The Greatest Generation.

  8. Have the class discuss which three periods in American history, from the 1940s to the present, they would like to study. The periods can be in five-year segments, i.e., 1940-45, 1960-65, or cover important movements such as the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War.


Learner reports on the individual stories from The Greatest Generation may be used as assessments of learning.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
    2. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Analyze philanthropic traditions of diverse cultural groups and their contributions to civil society.