Where Has Groucho Marx Gone? Teaching Social Satire in a Time of Tyrants

With the miasma of crackdowns, collusions, and demonization that has become a weekly occurrence here in the United States, I wonder, where have all our Groucho Marxs’ gone.  All those wry, witty, double entendre, in-your-face comic geniuses who makeup the American landscape of satirists and comics. They who make us squirm or double over in revealing life’s absurdities and injustices.

With a lineage that traces back to Aristophanes and Ovid, social satire has long been a form of social criticism and a voice of dissent. It is a sensibility that is iconoclastic and irreligious and challenges all the sacred cows of a culture. Sometimes at great expense: Ovid and Lenny Bruce being two salient examples. When power is thin skinned and reactive it resorts to brute force to silence or exile its unrepentant critics.

Here in America we have a gilded tradition. Mark Twain, H.L. Menken, Groucho Marx, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Robert Altman, Russell Baker, George Carlin, to name but a few. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about genocide, imperialism, capitalism and industrialism, racism, environmental destruction, are to be found here. It is a tradition, that cuts across genres that has long informed the American experience and the spirit of social critique. And yet, what school, what middle or high school humanities program, has considered this tradition as legitimate a form to study as ancient civilizations or chemistry? It would appear, that we are missing out on something that is an essential vehicle for cultural critique.

We live in a time of the narrowing of discourse and plurality of viewpoints. Is there not a better time, with democratic ideals at risk, to expose young people to this boisterous, often unrepentant tradition of satirists? The world has always needed a dangerous comic tradition and needs one now more than ever before. It needs voices that are inimical to greed, mendacity, shortsightedness, and intimidation. A nation that cannot laugh at itself, is a country that takes itself too seriously or too sanctimoniously. Both are omissions of resilience and humility. Call it an elective, an extra. Name it independent study. Where it fits into your curriculum doesn’t really matter. What does, is connecting the young to a tradition that has often been at the forefront of upholding civil liberties and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Is there not be a more propitious time to insert a study of social satire in the curriculum? Unless we see no place for humor in the expansive lists of 21st century skills. Or in the words of Groucho Marx: “Humor is reason gone mad.” In America, it is time to get mad.

 

 

 

About David Penberg

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. He has held leadership roles in non-profits, community-based organizations, independent, international and charter schools, and in higher education. He has a deep grounding in progressive education, the cross-cultural experience and leadership development. Dr. Penberg has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He was a fellow in the Carey Leadership Program at Bank Street College (1982-84) and Klingenstein Fellow for International School Heads at Teachers College, Columbia University (2008). He was the founding director of the nationally recognized Liberty Partnerships Program at Bank Street College. Since then, Penberg has held posts as Head of Studies and Head of School in international schools in Mexico City and Barcelona. He was most recently the Head of School at Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the lower east side and is an adjunct at Pace University’s Teaching Fellows program. He abides by Auden's dictum "We were put on earth to make things."
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2 Responses to Where Has Groucho Marx Gone? Teaching Social Satire in a Time of Tyrants

  1. Rick Phipps says:

    I’m all for satire even in the ‘serious’ science that I teach. C.G. Jung wrote, in ‘The Undiscovered Self’ that “one of the chief factors responsible for psychological mass-mindedness is scientific rationalism” —. Wouldn’t it be healthy to satirize the very thing we teach, and, how we teach it? Seems like there’s a sacred cow or two hiding in there. Is there a danger, in questioning the effects of scientific thinking on society, that we further undercut its status; i.e. Trump supporters et al? Are we willing to risk attacks by the uncomprehending ‘masses’? I work comments and discussion (mostly one-sided) into my routine. I guess I’m a dabbler, and a diver, in that sense. But, really, how many are willing, and able, to appreciate the value of making light of anything and everything? By the time I’m ready to teach scientific satire full time, I’ll be too old, according to the mass mind, to teach. I like the idea of teaching satire, but shouldn’t we also work it into whatever it is that we are teaching?

  2. George Kaye says:

    I agree courses in social satire should be taught. How? As history courses? As courses in the nuts and bolts of satire and comedy?

    I don’t think we are lacking in social satire available to all ages. Saturday Night Live,
    The Late Show with Steven Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Stephanie Miller Show (radio), Larry Wilmore, Bill Mahar, Lewis Black are the current generation of comedians and satirists. There are many other lesser known comedians that work politics into their acts.

    We may be in a Golden Age of Political Satire right now. The US “alternative truth” president and cabinet write the material for them.

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