The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Understanding “Humor”

Humor, education news, artificial intelligence, Connie Malamed, comedians, teachers, world news, today’s news, latest news, news headlines

© TypoArt BS

March 23, 2018 13:47 EDT

Today’s lesson for education: jokes are the trees and humor is the forest. Don’t miss the latter for the former.

As the world awaits the future reign of artificial intelligence in the realm of education, teachers can rejoice. A study reminds us of the importance of something typically human: humor.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The rigorous discipline of knowing how to avoid seeming too rigorously disciplined

Contextual note

The author of this article, Connie Malamed, proposes a simple guideline: “appropriate humor can enhance a learning experience.” While this is true, a number of other things serve to enhance a learning experience. For example, active physical exploration, drama, games and simulations of various kinds in which the learners feel creatively involved. In the most natural way, humor plays a positive role whenever creativity is encouraged.

The article presents humor as a kind of performance tool of the teacher. This leaves the impression that humor is synonymous with telling jokes. The teacher becomes a part-time standup comedian, producing and managing formal humor in the classroom. The author warns us that “it must be used correctly so that it is not a distraction.”

This kind of advice should set off a number of alarm bells. What makes humor “appropriate”? What does she mean by “used correctly”?

Sigmund Freud insisted in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious that humor always contains something subversive and disturbing, reflecting the unconscious or repressed knowledge. Whether one accepts Freud’s theory of the unconscious or not, humor works by opening a space of liberty and risk that teaching too often attempts to close. It challenges certain norms. Policing humor to make sure it’s “correct” and “appropriate” could be a recipe for undermining the very nature and essential value of humor.

Rather than programming and policing it, teachers should learn to integrate humor. The article proposes a top-down model in which the teacher plans and delivers the humor. But authentic humor emerges from context, which includes the setting, topics of conversation, mood, style and personality. Humor is also fundamentally a shared experience, whose chemistry is never obvious.

In contrast, we would propose the following guidelines for the use of humor in a classroom:

1) Create an atmosphere in which humor can emerge naturally

2) Make sure there is some form of real and natural interaction with the learners and between the learners

3) Encourage “liberating” activities — such as certain forms of brainstorming — where contrasting perspectives will develop

4) Develop a tone and style that allow even serious things to sound or become funny on occasion

Authentic humor provokes more than laughter. It has the power to change perspective. When a pretext for humorous enjoyment emerges, it can be used to deepen reflection and enrich understanding.

Historical note

In 1969, the Monty Python put the question of the value of jokes to rest with their sketch on the funniest joke in the world. It plays out like an elaborate joke about jokes. The sketch is nearly 10 minutes long and funny in multiple ways from beginning to end, but, because it is well scaffolded humor, we never hear the killer joke or even get an idea of what it might be. The moral of the story is clear: Jokes have no value in themselves. Humor, however, springs from context. It gets us involved in a network of associations that enrich our understanding and broaden our experience.

Authentic humor draws on multiple levels of perception and cultural data. That’s why humor represents far more than the sum of the jokes one can draw out of a joke book or insert into a lesson.

While Malamed offers useful advice and we agree with the general drift of the message, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary will be excused for pointing out how the uncompromising seriousness of the article seems to evade the fundamental question of the nature of humor, leaving the impression that it’s just about adding some seasoning to the pedagogical sauce. Dropping in “three or four jokes per lesson” sounds like an instruction from a cookbook, which will only work if the ingredients are fresh, the dosage, timing and cooking temperature are right, and the appropriate utensils available. And it will only produce its effect if the table is properly set, the atmosphere conducive and the mood of the guests positive.

In other words, bon appétit!

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: TypoArt BS /

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