Why Higher Education Might Discourage a Sense of Humor

January 6, 2012

Years ago, it began to dawn on me that the funniest people I knew were those who either had not gone to college or had not taken it, uh, seriously. At this point, I have spent more than 17 years in higher education, and I am more convinced than ever of a link.

Obviously, like most other places, universities do have funny people; most students enjoy some fun and humor in their extracurricular life; and many educated people realize that humor is useful. For instance, humor can be therapeutically beneficial and can also be a powerful teaching aid.  But does the university value humor, not merely as a tool, but as a legitimate part of normal life in its own right?

I wasn’t aware of research on that question, and I wasn’t about to conduct a study just for purposes of writing this post.  But I did find a few indications that my impression might be accurate.  Preliminary searches seemed to suggest that there might be several times as many webpages referring to seriousness as to humor in higher education.  A quick Google Scholar search for research into the prevalence of humor in higher education turned up only three articles.  Another search of the same general nature, seeking to distinguish the experience of humor from its functional uses in higher education, seemed to be leading toward a similar conclusion.

There’s certainly a lot of funny material about higher education.  The classic Animal House movie, the inevitable plethora of joke websites, an endless selection of funny videos depicting campus experiences — the list goes on.  Of course, all areas of life have their funny sides, or can be portrayed as such.  Education also opens up certain kinds of material for potentially entertaining purposes.  For instance, all other things being equal, I would expect someone with high verbal abilities to have superior potential in matters of wordplay.  In selecting many of society’s brightest people to be its students and faculty, the university also has tremendous possibilities for encouraging eccentricity and funny behavior in general.

And yet, despite all those hours spent among all those people who presumably have the potential to be brilliantly humorous, it it not clear that higher education contributes much to humor.  Consider the college backgrounds of ten top-earning comedians identified by Forbes in 2010.  Jeff Dunham, at No. 1, reportedly did up to 100 comedy shows per year while getting a degree in communication at Baylor.  Baylor, not a top school, is ranked 75th nationally by U.S. News & World Report, and with a schedule like that, Dunham was perhaps not the most exceptionally prepared student, when he did make it to class.  Dane Cook, at No. 2, studied graphic design — not to foster humor, but as a fallback in case the comedy thing failed — and in any case he did not earn a degree.  Terry Fator reportedly attended Liberty University (ranked 80th among southern regional universities) but apparently did not stay long.  Chelsea Handler, the sole woman among these ten, evidently did not attend college at all.  Likewise George Lopez and Russell Peters.  According to Wikipedia, Larry the Cable Guy “went to college at the now defunct Baptist University of America” where his learning did lead directly to his tremendous success.  Specifically, “He credits his roommates from Texas and Georgia for inspiring his imitation Southern accent”; and then, having learned what he needed, “He dropped out after his junior year.”  Jeff Foxworthy is one of the few funny people who completed a four-year degree — in computer technology — at Georgia Tech (ranked 36th nationally).  Howie Mandel was expelled from high school for impersonating a member of the school board; he did not attend college.  Finally, Bill Engvall dropped out of Southwestern University (ranked 71st among national liberal arts colleges).  Similar patterns appear in the educational backgrounds of all-time greatest comedians (e.g., George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Eddie MurphyWoody Allen):  most did not attend college at all, or attended for a time and then dropped out, often demonstrating that they were ultimately unsuited for and/or uninterested in academia.  The few who did graduate tended to succeed in comedy despite, not because of, the subjects they actually studied.

There seem to be a number of reasons why higher education does not generally foster a healthy sense of humor.  Those reasons include the following:

  • Humor can impair serious achievement.  There are things in life that require earnest, uninterrupted concentration.  Humor can distract from that.  It can easily downplay the true seriousness of a matter worth studying.  Not everything in life is a joke.
  • Humor can be misunderstood or underappreciated.  Greengross, Martin, and Miller (2011) suggest that “it remains understudied in psychology, perhaps because researchers assume that its whimsical content is inconsistent with the serious business of science.”
  • Unfortunately, unfunny people can use seriousness to make themselves look (or at least feel) relatively more appealing.  Disparaging and belittling funny people can discourage and/or marginalize them.  The things they say and do can be portrayed as ridiculous.
  • On a related point, seriousness often provides a rationale for ignoring disliked viewpoints.  A sober investigation of facts and theories underlying an opponent’s argument can very often support a decision to disregard that argument — even if the investigation is not so compelling as to persuade the opponent.  In this sense seriousness is used selectively.  In effect, the flaws in the opposing view are treated as being more serious than other worthy objectives — such as getting along with the opponent, developing a synthesis of competing ideas, or moving on to other matters.
  • Humor can alter perspectives.  Supposedly serious matters may not actually be quite as serious as their scholars make out.  In other words, humor can let the hot air out of a gasbag, and that can put academic egos — potentially, academic salaries — at risk.
  • On a related note, humor is often a weapon for the powerless.  It is often possible to laugh at the high and mighty.  A hearty embrace of humor in the university could jeopardize the power of faculty and administrators over students.  Universities are big business.  Anarchy is not generally conducive to corporate objectives.
  • Differences in political convictions yield different senses of what is funny.  One dimension of this difference emerges in the struggle between the politically incorrect urge to laugh at people who are different from oneself and the repressive urge to tell people what they can and cannot find amusing.  While there are conservative institutions of higher education, university faculties tend to be liberal, and as such tend to discourage (often, to punish) expressions that non-liberals might find humorous.  Churches and religions commonly demonstrate a similar stuffiness on the conservative side.
  • While higher education still entertains at least a theoretical commitment to equal access for all qualified students, the realities of wealth and meritocracy tend to foster elitism throughout the university.  That is, lower- and working-class senses of humor are more likely to encounter resistance than encouragement.  This could mean that the humor repertoires of all students are narrowed, as they learn to eschew lowbrow tastes in academic and professional settings.  It could also mean that the humor repertoires of lower-class students are virtually prohibited, leaving them socially and intellectually disadvantaged — at least until they master higher-class values and communication styles.
  • College is hard, particularly for those who take it seriously on its own terms and/or who must work while taking classes.  While people can find humor in virtually anything, on balance the workload is more likely to wear one’s spirits down than it is to build them up.
  • College is expensive and often intimidating; that sort of thing makes people worry; and worry is not generally conducive to humor.
  • As higher education comes to be seen more universally as a means of career advancement, and more rarely as an opportunity to pursue a love of learning for its own sake, the people who are most compatible with the university will increasingly tend to be those who value and seek upward mobility.  These differing kinds of students may not prefer humor of the same types (e.g., harsh) and purposes (e.g., stress-relieving).  There may also be changes in how students and/or faculty would characterize the learning environment (e.g., lighthearted, calm, or stimulating vs. mercenary, hectic, or tedious).
  • As suggested by the foregoing lists of comedians, males tend to dominate in some visible and successful kinds of humor found in the general American culture.  Their world is obviously far removed from life in the university, where females dominate.  It is true that many positions of power in the university are still held by men — specifically, by the kind of man who is comfortable working around an increasingly majority female student (and in some departments faculty) population.  While this persisting male power does not necessarily serve the interests of women who do (or hope to) compete with those men, it can be even more limiting for the vast majority of men who do not hold such positions.  It seems that the large majority of male students approach college with a more or less male sense of humor that neither the female students nor the male or female faculty consider especially compatible with academic values.  Indeed, male students may find that many male faculty treat them (consciously or not) as potential competitors on one level or another.
  • Those lists of comedians also highlight the disproportionate presence of minorities — Jews, notably, and blacks.  In humor, as in other matters of the intellect, diversity draws upon novel perspectives.  Being atypical confers a certain advantage.  But academia requires a long, wearisome struggle before one can qualify to be taken seriously when offering an atypical perspective.  The university is not really set up to let the newcomer entertain or inform the rest of us.  That is unfortunate.  In many fields, there’s plenty of unfamiliar and/or incompletely digested material to discover and play around in — material that neither the student nor the professor has mastered — but the reigning concept is, almost invariably, that students must be channeled to view certain books and articles, and to interpret them in certain ways.  As far as the professor is concerned, the fun of discovering has already been done by others; the student’s task is to grind through the processed output in a largely preconceived manner.
  • Some leaders in comedy, as in other fields, have dropped out of college because it held them back.  Higher education — even in some places within elite universities — is too often a stultifying enshrinement of repression and mediocrity.  Being funny or flighty in the grim institution is too readily construed, not as a glimmer of possible genius, but as an indication of inattention to, or disengagement from, the chore at hand.
  • The university’s verbal and mathematical preoccupations place severe limits on the scope of potential humor in higher education.  Admittedly, comedians themselves tend to be verbal.  Yet many of the funniest things in life — indeed, many varieties of valuable life skills, ranging from bargaining to displays of affection — can benefit by drawing upon theatricality, comic deception, horseplay, practical jokes, and other behaviors and abilities that are not measured by the SAT or the GRE — and that, as noted above, may be uncomfortable to the relatively narrow higher-class propensities that tend to steer higher education.

It appears, in short, that there are many reasons why one might expect to find that higher education discourages a sense of humor.  One can hope for dozens of serious studies to evaluate the matter.  In the meantime, since humor serves many valuable functions in life, including making life more worth living, it seems reasonable to think that higher education could be much improved by becoming more seriously attuned to reality — that is, by giving humor more respect.


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