When education is just a joke

November 10, 1995

Humour guru Joel Goodman had some prejudices to overcome when he addressed an audience at Leeds Metropolitan University recently on "The Positive Power of Humour". For the notoriously robust British sense of humour was in danger of failing at the American's suggestion that laughter can be a powerful tool for managing conflict, a catalyst for change, or a cue for innovation.

And while the physical benefits of a good giggle are well established - BUPA has recently issued a leaflet on the curative properties of humour - the psychology of laughter may be a little too American for our taste.

But overcoming prejudice is what Dr Goodman, director of the HUMOR Project, does best. Sporting the faces of the Marx Brothers on his tie, Dr Goodman quickly had his audience relaxed and grinning. As he will tell you sincerely: "A smile is the shortest distance between two people."

His stated aim is to persuade his listeners to become "inverse paranoids" - to believe that the world is out there to do them good. Believe it and it becomes a self fulfiling prophesy.

Cliche ridden it may be, but Dr Goodman liberally peppers his slick presentation with humourous insights to reinforce his points. Did you know, for instance, that humour can prevent hardening of the attitudes, or that you know you're getting older when your back goes out more often than you do? But humour also promotes creative problem solving, which is where the university starts to take an interest.

Marilyn Fryer, director of the Centre for Innovation and Creativity, organised the conference in an attempt to alert people to the uses of humour. "This is highly relevant to our work on creativity in teaching and learning," she said. "Humour facilitates creativity, breaks barriers and gives us a different perspective on life."

There were precious few barriers up after Dr Goodman had persuaded delegates to talk about sex to a complete stranger for 30 seconds, or to change three things about their appearance and challenge their neighbour to spot them. And everyone joined in when he invited people to raise their hands in the air in a jubilant gesture while shouting "I'm depressed!" Laughter, according to Dr Goodman, "goes hand in hand with learning". It captures the attention, provides the energy to maintain that attention and frees up tension, increasing retentive powers. "Laughter has no accent," he says. "For laughter is the shortest distance between two peoples."

Here he parts company from more established academic thinking in this country. Jerry Palmer, head of the department of communications at London Guildhall University and a humour specialist, says there is no value-free science of communication, particularly where humour is concerned.

"One thing you discover very quickly in the course of academic research into humour is that humour is very fragile cross-culturally and this is more fundamental than merely difficulties of translation," he said.

Professor Palmer recalls lecturing to US undergraduates. "It was impossible to use irony with them - they always took you literally." A smile, he says, can be the longest distance between two peoples.

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