The Benefits of Comedy: Teaching Ethics Through Shared Laughter

Academic Exchange Extra (April) (2005)
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Over the last three years I have been fortunate to teach an unusual class, one that provides an academic background in ethical and social and political theory using the medium of comedy. I have taught the class at two schools, a private liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania and a public regional state university in southern Georgia. While the schools vary widely in a number of ways, there are characteristics that the students share: the school in Pennsylvania had a large population of students raised in a middle class industrial context, and the school in Georgia had a majority of students from middle-to-lower class agricultural backgrounds. Because of recent collapses in the economy of the tool and dye industry in the Great Lakes region, and the ongoing concerns for development in rural and urban areas of the southeastern United States, both groups of students were in similarly dire economic and working conditions. All faced the distinct possibility that they would not do as well in life as their parents. Most of the students grew up with television and film and had a love of comedy when they arrived at college. Entertainment and mass media contributed to the students' mindset and the lens through which they viewed and interpreted their lived experience. Comedic mass media in the form of television sitcoms and films were common choices for inexpensive entertainment, in their childhood, in their past, in their homes, and now in their college dorms and apartments. In asking students to connect their own history with cultural trends depicted in comedy in film and television, even through the history of television, gave the students a familiar venue to critically consider their own intellectual growth and development and that of American society as a whole. Many of them were familiar with the internet, and enjoyed the internet as a source of information about celebrities as well as the history and episodes of their favorite television shows and films. Students are rediscovering and discovering television programs that their professors may have watched as children, with the availability of a wide range of comedy television programs available on cable, especially TVLand, Comedy Central and Nick-at-Night. In this article I will elaborate on the value of comedy as a teaching tool for philosophers and professors. I will provide a number of examples, showing how comedy can provide fertile examples of ethical theory at work, and I will show how comedy can be used to clarify cultural norms and values. Finally, I will discuss the political activism and student empowerment involved in teaching Philosophy, Comedy and Film in southern Georgia.
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