The Onion and Spelling

The tough thing about humor is it always takes risks. What do you think of this?

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?

The right use of humor

This summer, we’ll be contemplating humor at the CiRCE conference. It’s easy to struggle with the use of humor because it’s so easy to abuse it, to substitute sarcasm for irony, abuse for satire, cruel pranks for slapstick. Consequently, we can sometimes wonder if maybe humor isn’t destructive. Or maybe it’s even the result of fallenness. We’re going to try to figure out if maybe humor is in fact related to our sense of justice. Maybe humor is a key apologetic for the natural law.

Certainly one use of humor is to bring down the high and mighty and to reveal con men. I never saw the show, but I read the following quote about a South Park episode and how it explosed the folly of one of America’s most embarrassing realities.

American popular culture makes a running joke of Smith’s 1827 claim to have discovered golden tablets containing the history of an Israelite migration to North America including a cameo appearance by Jesus Christ. Thanks to the animated satire “South Park”, Americans know that Smith “translated” golden tablets that no-one else could see by looking at “seer stones” inside his hat. That is the power of mass media; one half-hour cartoon can undo the work of a million missionaries.

So humor, handled properly, can serve justice. But it’s easy to see how false analogies can apply to other spheres, so one has to be careful.

If you are going to be funny, you are going to live dangerously. The main virtue of the comedian is, I’m certain, courage.

Humor and Humility

I’m still not sure if these words have the same etymology or if the first syllable is a coincidence, but the link is quite profound. A healthy sense of humor lives in humility, while a diseased one is grounded in ego. Humor is rooted in the bringing down of the exalted, the humiliation of the proud. It finds its higher fulfillment in the surprising and delightful exaltation of the humble.

 Perhaps we find an indication of the warpedness of our age when we note that people don’t seem to find the exaltation of the humble very delightful, but they do delight in the humiliation of the proud. I’m speculating on the basis of logic there, not noting anything historical. If anybody knows enough about, say, 17th century humor to evaluate that statement, I’d be very interested in what you can find. Furthermore, I do recognize that we like the Horatio Alger stories, though we seem to be losing our pleasure in them to an extent. We think of them as sentimental (think Rocky) and that leads us to cynicism just when we are most in need of heroes.

But back to the point, humor delights in humility and justice. That is one reason we’re focusing on it as a conference theme. Humor restores our confidence that things do work out well and that there is justice after all. It encourages us to hope, no matter how dark things look.  It helps us to adjust and adapt in this fallen world. It links us to a standard of justice that helps us to keep our perspective. That’s why comics can sometimes get so angry when they deal with political themes – and that’s when they stop being funny.

Any experienced teacher knows how important that sense of humor is when she looks at some of the children she has taught – not to mention when she remembers some of the things she has done or believed as a teacher. If we lose our sense of humor over ourselves, we are finished.

How can you see humor mattering in the classroom or in the teacher’s inner world? How does a teacher maintain a healthy sense of humor, avoiding cynicism when she sees that students don’t become superstars under their tutelage as a matter of course? How does a teacher develop a sense of humor in the first place? What sorts of things are funny about a teacher’s life?

These are some of the things we’ll be reflecting on and discussing at the 2008 conference in Houston. Click here and Be there! (And, for a special surprise, click on the picture of the monk!).

Divine Comedy

Contrary to the common assumption, desire does not always arise from lack… Christian desire is then triply comic since there are desirable goods that come only by giving–certain possessions, as Augustine said, that are only possessed by dispossession. Fulfillment of desire is in these cases comically enhanced by the opportunity to extend and enhance fulfillment of desire in others.

Peter Leithart, Deep Comedy

So saying, Dr. Leithart provides a hint to our summer conference theme: A Contemplation of Humor: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Education.

The nihilistic humor of the modern cinema and Christian humor are two very different animals, and the need to feed one and flee the other presses vigorously on our souls. In an age dominated by entertainment, we play the fools as teachers if we fail to cultivate judgment and taste in our students. That might well be the underlying motivation behind our conference theme. And the comparison of the two humors might well make a good workshop. Doesn’t seem practical does it? Unless you want to cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students instead of merely preparing them for a test.

That and the desire for a Rabellaisian time!

Be sure to register before December 15 for two reasons: huge savings and increased odds of getting a seat. Since we only provide 200 seats, and since we are located in Houston this summer, we expect to fill the conference very early. Click here to learn more.