A Case for Levity

…in which I reflect on the value of laughter as a curricular goal.

Last week, our students presented their first semester projects, Tiny Historians, to a packed house in the school auditorium.  A fairly typical scene: It’s 7:00 pm on a school night.  A theatre full of students, teachers, parents and friends bustle about socializing.  The projector and speakers aren’t working and our Tech Maestro, Steve Temple, furiously tries to solve the problem. He will fix it–somehow, someway.  In the meantime, a few hundred people don’t notice the passing time because of their excitement, and the fact that they are fueled by a bake sale in the hallway.  Relax and have a cupcake.

By 7:15 Steve’s magically fixed it.  And for the next hour and a half, all I hear is laughter.  Laughter and pride.  Obviously, there is pride over hard work well-received.  But I am also witness to another kind of pride that I am increasingly concerned about: the pride, joy, and pleasure you feel when you make others laugh.

Belly Howls.  Chuckles. Giggles. Smiles.  Making others laugh is good for you.

In education, we often identify the locus of both student anxiety and apathy as the result of an increasingly complex and overwhelming world fraught with dire threats.  Climate Change. Environmental Collapse. Poverty. Racism. It is everywhere, and it’s real and it’s daunting. These are issues our students encounter in their lives, and issues we study in school for good reason.  Not to do so would be pollyannaish in the extreme.

In America right now, a good high school engages its students in increased levels of active participation.  We encourage our students to see themselves as solvers of problems, not studiers of them.  As we should.  But this may have the potential to backfire. Are we communicating to students that adulthood is a constant struggle against the dark forces of the universe? Sometimes it is.  But always?  Is their anxiety and apathy a response to the consistent demand we place on them to tackle the troubles of the world?

Many things that I think are educationally important and interesting are potential evidence of this.  We see problems, and we construct projects for our students to engage in as responses: Organic Gardens.  Service Learning.  Clean up days.  Civic Action Projects. Please don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s important to participate in all these things. However, human beings also need to cultivate and nurture craft, artistry and humor.  Are we encouraging and sponsoring that?

There is a growing movement to insert an A (Arts) into STEM–STEAM.   While I am relieved somewhat by this movement, I’m not certain it addresses a more emotionally-based observation that we are increasingly burdening our students with a very heavy load of global problems that need solving.  Arts education within STEM is Art in the service of  Science Technology Engineering and Math; not Art in the service of joy or human expression.

And while the global and local problems of the world are weighty, the actual stresses of being an American high schooler right now are extreme.  Our students function in a world of increasingly oppressive academic expectation. Meet A-G? That’s just a high school diploma now. You need to have as many honors and AP’s as you can get, and a minimal 4.3 with letters of recommendation to get into the upper tier UC’s.  You better have engaged in a community based charitable activity for the last 4 years.  You definitely should be in several clubs that are focused on solving social or environmental problems.  And a sport or two, ideally as a team captain.  It is absurd and wrong.  Of course these children are anxious, overwhelmed, and terrified–we’re making them that way.  We’ve made “exceptional” and “outstanding” a required norm.  When I teach “slippery slope” these days, the most resonate example for my students is: “because you failed a test in Geometry, you will end up living out of a shopping cart under the freeway.”

I myself am guilty of feeding this beast.  I hear myself argue that the validity of Media Academy can be seen in the fact that it exposes very large numbers of young women to technology.  It’s CTE and a STEM gateway. We put highly complex and expensive equipment into our students’ hands and expect them to use it and treat it well. MAX students organize themselves in the face of highly complex tasks that require exceptional amounts of pre-planning and interpersonal communication.  They learn to function the way adults must in college and at work.  And somehow, learning to edit video magically makes them much more focused and controlled writers.  All these things are true.  And I rely on these arguments to support and promote this program.

But, you know what else is true?  Media Academy students learn how to entertain an auditorium full of people.  We make sure that they experience the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from having made others forget that the world can be a pretty overwhelming and soul crushing place.

We make a space for a community to come together in joy and laughter.  I want to figure out how to get us a grant for that!

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