In and Out of Humor

Sometimes we don’t realize what is most practical in a given situation. For example, the CiRCE conference theme this summer is humor. I don’t know how many people have done research on the necessity of humor in the life of a school, but I suspect scarcity defines the number.

And yet… And yet. How many headmasters have have survived without a sense of humor? How many 2nd grade teachers can get from one day to the next without taking the time out to laugh? How many middle school teachers – do I even need to complete this thought?

Furthermore, can you build a relationship without laughter? Should you?

Can you teach literature without wit? Can you teach history without drollery? Can you teach science without attic salt? Can you wake the drowsy wag without persiflage?

Can you write the preceding paragraph without a thesaurus?

Well I can’t.

And besides, what is humor and, perhaps more important, what is its importance? What is its use?

Ben Johnson wrote a pair of plays in 1598 and 1599, one called Every Man in His Humor and another called Every Man Out of His Humor. He claimed that his plays were an attempt to cure people of their humor.

But he didn’t mean that he was trying to take away what we call a sense of humor. Johnson was referring back to the original use of “humor.” In the ancient and Renaissance worlds, people believed that our personalities were governed by four dispositions, each of which depends on the liquids in our bodies: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If any of these are out of wack, a person has a disposition out of balance and needs the balance restored.

Johnson proposed to restore the balance, or at least to help restore the balance, by creating extreme and eccentric characters that the viewer would laugh at. Excess blood makes a person sanguine. Let us laugh at such a person. Excess phlegm makes him congested, but in the old days it made him phlegmatic. Excess yellow bile made him choleric and excess black bile makes him melancholy.

So to be humorous is to lack a sense of humor, which lack causes one to suffer from a humor and thus to be the object of the humor of others.

And indeed, how many excessive lovers of books have been cured by Don Quixote or how many excessively self-impressed scholars have been corrected by A Confederacy of Dunces.

I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but I can tell you that both books have terrified me through my laughter and brought greater self-awareness and balance to my soul. And that, Johnson (and Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Elyot, Thomas Linacre, and Thomas Wright in their books – which probably should have dealt with an excess of Thomas) argued, is the point of comedy.

Here at CiRCE we believe that education is about bringing human faculties to life. The faculty for humor, it turns out, may be the most practical of all. It helps us teach, it nourishes self-awareness, it promotes rest, and it balances the soul.

I hope you’ll be at this summer’s conference and laugh yourself into heaven.

Can you think of an occasion where humor has helped you?

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