Abraham Lincoln was funny. Dante’s Inferno was funny. Chaucer was funnier than that one story involving a poker in the dude’s butt which your teacher had no choice but to admit approached funny because, I mean, poker in the butt.
But why don’t we teach these things? Specifically to younger students –- the ones who could benefit most from knowing that Moby Dick is packed with intentionally weird sitcom-y moments between the narrator and the crew. The ones who might study a little harder if they knew that Andrew Jackson was a smartass. The ones who would try harder to understand Shakespeare if they understood his insults.
Why are these stories and anecdotes relegated to college and graduate school classes that just preach to the choir? Why do we suck the humor out of education?
The most reasonable explanation is appropriateness. A lot of the humor we find in history and literature regards sex. People have always enjoyed having sex, and because people have never gotten as much sex as they wanted, they often resorted to jokes.
Yt ys grawntyde of Pope Pokett, Yf ye wyll putt yowr nose in hys wyffys sockett, 3e xall haue forty days of pardon.
No high school English teacher who wants to keep her class in their seats (not to mention her job safe) would review these lines spoken by demons in the medieval play Mankind:Which essentially translates to, “The pope guarantees that if you put your nose in your wife’s socket [vagina], he’ll give you 40 days of forgiveness for your sins.”
For a classroom of kids, this type of meaning can be inappropriate at best and order-shattering at worst. If it’s hard to keep their hormones in check normally, bringing in oral sex between popes and demons and people is sure to make things even stranger.
Yet at the same time, this was in the play.
The demons in this play are comic relief. While the angelic characters teach mankind how to lead a proper life, the demons keep the whole production from being boring. Meaning the writer(s) of the play had to keep things interesting for an intended audience.
This information is vital to not only understanding the play, but understanding the time. The presence of jokes means the audience liked to laugh and needed to be entertained. The nature of the joke itself means that the audience participated in sexual humor and, on some level, gender politics. The characters in the joke indicate the audience was accepting of jokes about the current religious order. And the presence of the joke implies that the status-quo and social order of medieval Europe was not the strict ladder we tend to think it is.
All this comes from knowledge of the joke.
The medieval period suddenly seems to have more in common with us when we hear that joke. Maybe it’s not the funniest joke in the world, but it is a joke. It made people laugh. They weren’t just farming mud and ramming poles into each others’ shields. They lived lives that had concerns outside of their simple class roles.
Removing this joke from the play and ignoring jokes and humor in other works dries them out and makes them lifeless. We lose the flavor of the people of the period. When we forget that Abraham Lincoln told corny jokes at rallies, we forget who the man really was. We forget that he wasn’t a god on a marble throne of morality, but the type of person who would’ve appeared on The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live to promote their campaign.
In fact, without the matrix of humor, we often lose the entire meaning of a work or person.
It wasn’t until college that I realized Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock was supposed to be funny. Whenever it had been taught to me in the past, it was just a poem about how pretty a chick’s hair was and how sad it was that someone had cut it. One teacher literally told us that the poem represented the tragedy of beauty lost. The tragedy of beauty lost!
That’s like saying Back to the Future is about the fragility of science. Yeah, sure, that’s in there –- but it isn’t the point.
Rape of the Lock is the “white people rapping” of its day. In Pope’s day, everyone wanted to be an epic character. People enjoyed comparing themselves to heroes such as Helen and Achilles and tried to fashion themselves as demigods. And during a time that fashion was so overtly fancy and self-centered, Pope and his friends got a kick out of writing a heroic tragedy in which some dude cuts a girl’s hair without asking.
The tragedy of beauty lost!
Now this doesn’t mean that all literature should be taught with a sparkle in your eye and sarcasm in your throat. But at the same time, we need to stop telling kids that books and history are supposed to be boring. That laughing was invented after 1989.
I’m not asking that everyone with chalk in their hands become a teaching Patch Adams. Rather, I’m insisting that we don’t lose the natural flavor of some of the greatest works and people in history. Benjamin Franklin is so much more interesting when he’s a womanizing humorist.
Maybe the larger issue is moving away from the canonization of educational materials. There is a feeling –- and I hear this from friends who are teachers –- that if something isn’t “serious” in education, it isn’t necessary. “Another brick in the wall” is still the preferred way of education students. It’s easy and efficient. “You must learn The Illiad.” Why? “Because I said so.” Making the argument that it’s “fun” or “exciting” would reduce its value to an opinion which could be disagreed with. But when you say “because The Illiad is a book that is taught,” you remove any sort of possible disagreement from the equation. And, of course, in the process lose why The Illiad has lasted for so many generations.
If anything –- and this is my terrible, terrible thesis statement –- humor proves that humans from the past were, well, human. They weren’t different from us. They didn’t have ancient secrets lost to the sands of time. They weren’t Gods. They liked fart jokes. They were us.
And if we make kids understand that people in the past were like us, they might actually give a damn about them.
Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and Nintendo. He’s also a stand-up or something, I guess.