Education Opinion

The Pleasure Principle

By James M. Banner Jr. & Harold C. Cannon — April 01, 1997 7 min read
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The classroom should be a place for light hearts as well as serious minds.

Although a few people teach because it is the only way they can earn a living while engaging in their true love--like painting or carrying on research--most teachers teach because it gives them the deepest sort of satisfaction. And this is how it should be. It is difficult to imagine effective teachers who do not have an abiding fascination with their subjects, who do not love being among students, and who do not gain fulfillment from nourishing others’ minds and lives. Most people who teach also do so in part because it involves plain good fun--laughter, humor, and wit. Teaching, that is, ought to bring and give pleasure of many kinds; it should be play as well as work. The classroom should be a place for light hearts as well as serious minds. It should be a place where knowledge is fastened to desire and where the passion for understanding is satisfied.

This may seem like heresy to classroom puritans, but it must be recognized that while the purpose of all learning and instruction is deadly serious, the paths to the mind, like those to the heart, are many and varied, and pleasure is one of the most direct. Who has not known students who learn because for some mysterious reason of their own they find a subject captivating? When a class masters a difficult subject, should not a teacher’s spirits soar? And should not pride, admiration, and praise be among students’ rewards for learning? If students and their teachers fail to experience feelings of joy, happiness, even occasional giddiness as they learn and develop together, then something is wrong.

At its very best, teaching is a form of intellectual play in which students are invited to join. Play for the purpose of learning asks students to bring to their learning the same traits of mind and spirit called for by all genuine play--delight in chance and the unexpected, concentration, inventiveness. Those who interpret play in the classroom--whether it takes the form of games, acting, debate, or contests--as “the absence of seriousness” are mistaken. As we know from watching young children playing games, their grave attention is in pursuit of fun. So, too, with the obverse: A teacher’s sheer playfulness with students can be in pursuit of knowledge. Through joking, the surprises of sharp wit, or role-playing, fun is in service to the broader aims of learning. After all, most laughter arises from recognition of truth. A teacher’s laughter often means even more--an ease with a subject and mastery of it. And as theorists of comedy have pointed out, the variant of pleasure that we know as humor implies, indeed creates, openness to the possibilities of new understandings through fresh arrangements of words, ideas, and images.

The pleasure of teaching, then, is reciprocal: As teachers feel pleasure by giving it, students gain pleasure by pleasing their teachers. Yet a teacher’s greatest pleasure always arises from the students’ achievements--from, say, their conquest of previously great intellectual challenges or from their distinctive and fresh combinations of ideas. Some teachers will become joyful as they witness their students gaining a skill; others will be delighted by their students’ imagination. In all such cases, teachers feel pleasure because through their own gift of self they have enabled others to achieve something fresh, to enlarge their understanding, to be edified as well as instructed.

The pleasure of teaching, then, is reciprocal: As teachers feel pleasure by giving it, students gain pleasure by pleasing their teachers.

All of which suggests a cautionary note: that the pleasure of teaching and learning must always be directed at raising understanding and aspiration and should never come at another’s expense; it must be in service to appreciation, not depreciation; and it should never be cynical. These are not injunctions easily met, for the taste of humor is often sweet when ridiculing and sarcastic. Yet laughter must never cost a student’s self-respect; nor should it diminish the intrinsic integrity of something--be it a situation in the past or a work of art or a scholar’s research. An even more serious enemy to understanding is cynicism, a denial of wonder and play. Condemning our lesser ways without acknowledging our nobler nature, cynicism denies the kinds of distinctions that give knowledge and choice meaning. It implicitly suppresses analysis and exploration out of a know-it-all fatalism. And, worst of all, it implies that all human motives are base. Such attitudes are usually fatal to learning.

Not all teaching and learning can be interesting or fun; gaining and conveying knowledge often involve drudgery and, because difficult, are frequently exhausting. No good teachers fail to acknowledge that this is so, nor do they fail to make known uncomplainingly their own hard work. Teachers cannot expect to attract their students to learning through pleasure alone because learning is laborious and demanding. But as every teacher knows, it is hard work applied to mastery of something that often attracts some students by the special pleasure and satisfaction it brings them.

So how can teachers ensure that they will be feeling pleasure as well as giving it?

Pleasure means creating an atmosphere in which students enjoy learning. When learning is tied to goals within students’ extended reach, when it leads to what students can see as an enhancement of their understanding of the world, when it gives them a glimpse into the mysteries of life and into new and alien realms of knowledge, then it leads to pleasures and satisfactions of the greatest sort.

Pleasure requires letting others’ wit shine. As long as they are not employed at the expense of others, humor and fun are clarifying, relieving, and engaging. When it comes from the generous side of the spirit, humor ought to be encouraged and not dampened. Serious classrooms need not be somber ones; they can often be filled with rollicking laughter.

Pleasure leads teachers to reveal their own joys and pleasures in learning and teaching. Only masochists are drawn to learning that tastes like castor oil. Most people learn best when the exactions of learning are shown to lead not just to knowledge but also to knowledge that satisfies the human thirst for understanding. Teachers should not be self-conscious about revealing how knowledge has enriched their own lives and how their teaching is an expression of their desire to enrich others’ lives, too. On the contrary, they should try to exemplify the deep pleasure which their own continuing learning brings to them.

Pleasure means acknowledging the difficulties as well as the joys of learning. Just as happiness is deepened by the experience of sadness, so pleasure is always keener in proportion to the demands of painful effort. To gain the satisfactions of learning, students must be confirmed in their struggles, frustrations, and disappointments in learning--and led to see the rich gains that come from the risks and costs of their hard work in seeking knowledge. When the difficulties of this work are granted and confirmed, students can accept their difficulties and so more readily keep up the struggle to learn.

Pleasure comes from witnessing the successes of former students as the years go by. Because all teaching is the preparation of students for their futures, some of the pleasure of teaching must be prospective: the anticipation of learning how one’s former students have turned out. Teachers’ greatest joys originate in discovering that their students have done well, that their lives have been enriched by knowledge and understanding, and that they have been able to embrace life in all its fullness.

In its ultimate form, teachers’ pleasure arises from the knowledge that their students have learned something from them. Surely it is understandable, even forgivably egotistical, for teachers to hope that their students understand what their teachers have given to them and for students to recall their teachers with affection and respect.

Pleasure is the one element of teaching whose acknowledgment can be made to seem illegitimate by our otherwise justified emphasis on the seriousness of learning. Yet without denying teachers’ heavy responsibilities for the welfare of others and thus the gravity of their endeavor, we must also accept the place of enjoyment, both teachers’ and students’, as an instrument of instruction as well as a goal of learning. A joyless classroom, a seminar of unrelieved sobriety, a cynical teacher of gloomy mien--all are impediments to learning. It is laughter, playfulness, and wit that by contrast open doors to the mind as well as the heart, that are indispensable ingredients of the art of teaching.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as The Pleasure Principle


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