Laughter, Learning, and the Classroom

Laughter, said Edward Dahlberg, is like a well of cool sweet water, refreshing and renewing us when we are parched and distempered.  Without laughter existence is brittle and hard-edged, and grows steadily more unbearable.  The accumulation of defeats and tragedies that we call life would be galling without the salve of laughter, and as Erasmus showed in his Praise of Folly, precious little dough rises in this world without the leaven of hilarity.

Laughter is particularly important in the process of education.  The great teachers, from Socrates to Comenius, knew that some of the most effective tools of pedagogy are the joke, the wry remark, and the humorous aside.  Who does not remember some moment from his schooldays when an instructor’s facetiousness made the class convulse with laughter, and thereby rendered the lesson all the more memorable?  I wager that a good many students can recall only such lessons and such moments, which stay fixed in their minds precisely because learning was inextricably linked with an irrepressible comic response.

Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton in the early seventeenth century, went so far as to judge a student’s potential by “with what kind of Jests or pleasant Accidents he is most taken in others.”  Wotton believed that a student’s capacity for laughter “will discover the degree of his apprehension.”  These views were no doubt extreme, but they show the value that past educators placed on a good sense of humor on both sides of the lectern.

In today’s classroom, however, laughter has fallen under a cloud of suspicion and disapproval.  As the process of education becomes increasingly politicized—that is, more and more subject to ideological scrutiny and censure—there are fewer and fewer occasions when genuinely spontaneous laughter is safe.  Licensed laughter (directed at approved targets and confined to certain subjects) is permitted, but such choreographed humor is mere pretense and a counterfeit.  Real laughter is perilous: it comes out of nowhere, bites its victims randomly, and has no agenda other than to enjoy itself.  It can’t, by its very nature, be controlled or policed.  In consequence, politically correct academics and administrators view laughter as at best unreliable, and at worst a menace.  It is no accident that some of the speech codes they have tried to foist on colleges today contain strictures against “inappropriate laughter.”

The literature on political correctness and its malignant influence is massive and still growing, but few writers have bothered to define the phenomenon after describing its all too obvious symptoms.  Let me attempt that now, with especial reference to laughter and learning.

Political correctness is a rabid, puritanical self-righteousness that takes major disagreement on sociopolitical issues as a moral affront.  It sees philosophical differences as great sundering divides, over which rifle fire is exchanged.  It takes the punitive, uncompromising attitude of an inquisitor towards dissent, and reflexively links opposition to itself with stupidity, degeneracy, or malevolence.  Disguising their fanaticism as moral zeal, politically correct types are always angry, congenitally judgmental, and utterly lacking in the equanimity that makes humor possible.  The zeal of such people also aims at a Nazi-like Gleichschaltung (“co-ordination”) of all social activity and discourse, whereby every public act, speech, or gesture is compelled to conform itself to the dominant sociopolitical ideology.

You think I exaggerate?  Go to any faculty meeting at any American university.  Listen to the vicious feminist bitch droning on about gender-and-sex ratios in the curriculum.  Listen to affirmative-action hires complaining about the lack of more affirmative-action hires.  Listen to angry little theorists insisting on the mandatory review of all syllabi to insure “proper approaches to teaching.”  Listen to the unending drivel about globalism and diversity and inclusion and multicultural perspectives.  Most conspicuously, notice from the pack of them the whine of anger, resentment, intellectual revanchism, and above all, moral outrage.

What place can laughter have in such a worldview?  Politically correct persons are so ferociously serious about their opinions that any sort of levity is bound to seem sacrilegious to them.  And let me add that political correctness is not limited to the liberal-left; some conservatives can be just as preachy and moralistic from their side of the spectrum.  What unites all such types is an urgency of conviction that blots out the possibility of comic distance and amused detachment whenever differences of opinion arise.  Show insufficient solemnity before one of their sacred icons, and the specter of Queen Victoria murmuring “We are not amused” will rise up before you.

Now the fact is one cannot have a stimulating undergraduate class without a bit of irreverence, whether in the form of brief jokes, an occasional anecdote, or even some salty language.  These things are the yeast, so to speak, in what otherwise might be a very flat and insipid review of material.  If you address a class of teenagers in the stilted monotone common to an academic conference (where all the participants are competing to see who can be the most primly soporific), they will tune you out within five minutes.  Nevertheless, because jokes, anecdotes, and salty language are particularly vulnerable to self-righteous reproach, they are becoming very rare in teaching today.  Here is a vivid instance of how generic political correctness (from the liberal-left and the religious right) has impoverished the American classroom.  Rather than make some witty, off-the-cuff double entendre, or some spontaneous wry comment, the professor will stick to his prepared notes.  Why risk enraging the feminist crank in the first row, or the fervid evangelical in the back?  The old economic law applies: if you tax something, you get less of it.  Placing penalties on wit, humor, and playful raillery means that these things will disappear from the classroom, and we shall have in their place the pious solemnity of a prayer meeting.

Once when I was teaching a section of English literature, I was distracted by the noise of singing and dancing in an adjacent classroom.  Out of pure pettishness, I rhetorically asked my students what the hell was going on in the next room, not expecting an answer.  But an earnest undergraduate spoke up and said “A class in Caribbean literature meets there, Professor.”

The opening was irresistible.  “Caribbean literature,” I harrumphed.  “Is it written down?”

The effect on my class was electric.  Smiles, titters, and giggles began to break out until a crackle of laughter swept the room.  I had said something outrageously unfair, but in the context of my student’s officious answer, and of the calypso wail coming from next door, it was perfectly apt.  Of course, I had also said something politically incorrect—horrendously so.  Despite the general laughter, one of two puritanical faces in the class glared at me like Gorgons.

Occasions always present themselves for humor during a lecture, provided one is open to the possibility of laughter.  Several years ago I taught a course in which, among other plays, John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea was assigned.  A brief drama about tragic death in the west of Ireland, it contains a great deal of keening—i.e. the mournful, high-pitched lamentations of Irish peasant women.  We read the play aloud, and whenever the stage directions called for keening, I would let out a long, ululating quaver from the back of my throat.  The class broke up in laughter every time I did this.  Were Irish students offended by my irreverence towards Synge and Hibernian womanhood?  I don’t know, and I don’t care.  But I’m certain that the class thoroughly enjoyed Riders to the Sea, and they probably remember it to this day.

So many of the complaints against political correctness deal with instances of active indoctrination and persecution that we easily overlook a much more insidious phenomenon: College is becoming a bore.  Political correctness has made everyone so circumspect in speech and thought that there is little chance for higher education to be the intellectually stimulating experience it was meant to be.  It becomes instead, for both instructor and student, a walk through a minefield where one tiptoes gingerly around warning signs put up by a spectrum of aggrieved groups and certified victims.  This is a tedious, exasperating business, and it encourages everything that university studies were supposed to counteract: prudishness, timeserving, self-censorship, and conventional pieties.

It also encourages a certain type of faculty member: the slick careerist.  More and more, the typical college teacher has come to be a silent compromise between politically correct stridency and reactive anger against it.  He is neither outrageously left-liberal nor forthrightly conservative.  His entire persona is a kind of negotiated neutrality, with smiles for everyone, commitment to nothing, and supersensitive antennae for shifts in consensus.  Political correctness has produced a generation of play-it-safe types who in their blandness and vacuity resemble nothing so much as corporate middle management.  These careful gamesters watch for trends, angle for advancement, and never risk a sentence that might cost them someone’s good will or favorable opinion.  It takes an effort of the imagination to see these grant-scrounging departmental yes-men as the heirs of Petrarch and Ascham, and yet they represent the predominant type of faculty member in the humanities today.

A faculty of this sort is bound to be boring.  And a boring faculty makes for demoralized, angry students who will at some point explode.  Think of the luckless St. Cassian of Imola, a Christian teacher of rhetoric who was martyred in the fourth century.  Cassian was stabbed to death by enraged students wielding metal styli, the standard implements for note-taking at that time.  His statue (which ought to be in every faculty lounge as a monitory device) portrays a Sebastian-like fellow in academic robes, with dozens of these sharp iron pens embedded in his flesh.

St. Cassian, I suspect, was a bore—he probably was killed more for his failings as a pedagogue than for his devotion to the faith.  Nothing enrages students more than being required to sit through an hour and a half of unrelieved tedium dispensed by some self-absorbed professor.  If Cassian was also woodenly humorless, never allowing the least levity in his classroom, I don’t wonder at his fate.

Younger faculty are the worst offenders in this respect.  Newly minted assistant professors hot from the fires of graduate school often decide that their freshmen should hear all about the latest theoretical trends that were embodied in their dissertations.  I knew one dimwitted fellow at New York University who made his Intro-to-Lit class read long selections from Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan.  His students would congregate on the couch outside my office and commiserate with each other, lamenting the sheer impenetrability of these texts and their utter irrelevance to the study of literature.  I felt sorry for these students, but even more did I pity the faculty member, so caught up in trendy theorizing that he could not see the resentment of his class, their palpable anger at not being taught.  Had he allowed himself a single joke about the material he discussed, he might have won the class over.  But he could not—Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan were gods to him, and one does not snicker at one’s religion.

This inability to laugh, coupled with the prohibition of comic spontaneity that political correctness imposes on the college classroom, are why the lights have gone out in higher learning today.  No one laughs—no one even dares to smile.  Granted, there is little left in the academy to rejoice over, but what I would not give to hear a gust of unrestrained Rabelaisian laughter!  How it would blow away the parched, dessicating ideologies that have left American education a pinched and dyspeptic bore!  Without this breath of fresh air, all that teachers and students have to look forward to is a fate analogous to St. Cassian’s: ennui, animosity, and mirthless martyrdom.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.