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Megha Majumdar: Laughter as Criticism

Notes from a School in Senegal


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Image taken by Flickr user Ben Grey

by Megha Majumdar

More than a century ago, in France, a philosopher named Henri Bergson published a book called Le Rire (1900). In translation, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Though a minor book in Bergson’s oeuvre, it proposed an intriguing idea.

Bergson proposed that we laugh when we notice something machine-like in people.

Bergson began in this way. Why do we laugh, he asked, at a person who falls down in the street? We would not laugh at a person who was taken by a desire to sit in the street. So there must be something funny about the accident of it.

We laugh, Bergson argued, because this person’s contact with the ground comes about due to their clumsiness—their inability, given, say, a stone in the street, to change course. What we find funny is their failure to adapt, their inflexibility.

Why is inflexibility funny? Because it reminds us of the qualities of a machine. Machines work by automation and rigidity; people work by responding to their circumstances with suppleness and agility. Bergson proposed that we laugh when we notice something machine-like in people.

Humanitarian agencies might do well to be attentive to what makes people laugh, that funny crease of the mouth directing us to consider—think about this—where and how development projects fail. Bergson’s theory came to mind in 2013, when I was doing fieldwork at a struggling school in Dakar, Senegal. École Gueye was participating in a development aid program which championed the use of computer technologies in the classroom. It is fair to say nobody anticipated the absurd scenarios that resulted.

One day, I came upon the English teacher, Mr. Thiam, looking harassed. The good teacher, meaning to enliven the day’s lesson, had begun setting up a laptop, projector, and screen, an hour ago. Now the laptop was awake, the screen was up—and the video could not be made to appear as anything but a tilted trapezoid.

In classes, red-eyed kids dozed, while others leaped up, eager to answer, even when they didn’t know the answer. They were learning the gestures, if nothing else, of acquiring an education.

Mr. Thiam had sweat forming upon his bald head. His blinding white shirt was beginning to stick to the vertebral basin. How to salvage the class?

Now, Mr. Thiam was not one of those “dinosaurs” (his word) who found computers suspect. In fact, he had great faith in computers. They were, in his view, an essential sign and component of modernity.

Mr. Thiam’s faith in technology was shared across Senegal, a country which has embraced digital interventions in schooling, and among others in this very institution. So it was that the principal had petitioned the development organization to include the school in a pilot program in which schools received desktop computers and teaching kits which allowed the inclusion of video in lessons. These were intended to boost learning and bring some dynamism to the typically hierarchical classrooms, in which teachers read and called, and students responded.

But, as anyone who has ever tried to set up video for a lecture can attest, the computer finds a way to disobey. And there was a great deal at stake. This was a school in which twelve teachers taught four hundred students. The children’s parents were snack vendors, or maids. They struggled to pay the annual fee of ten thousand CFA (twenty dollars). In classes, red-eyed kids dozed, while others leaped up, eager to answer, even when they didn’t know the answer. They were learning the gestures, if nothing else, of acquiring an education.

When computers arrived in this scenario, the students adored the machines, as much for the videos as for the free time gained while a teacher struggled with the equipment. In Mr. Thiam’s class, the boys and girls turned sideways in their benches, heads dipped in gossip, yells let loose from one corner and another. Is there anything more fun than a botched class?

Finally the misshapen video played. Mr. Thiam began to ask questions to test comprehension. Students raised their arms high: “Sir, me! Sir!”

The boy Mr. Thiam called—to answer the question of, how much did it cost to rent the room in the video?—went to the blackboard with a look of defeat. He dived under the teacher’s desk and retrieved a nub of chalk. His classmates shouted suggestions.

Then a clever child raised an important point. How could they write the rent if they did not know the sign for the currency, the British Pound? After all, they had watched a video set in Britain.

This, it suddenly seemed to everyone, was key to moving forward with the lesson. Meanwhile, beyond the gates of the school, women, possibly the mothers of these children, hiked up waxcloth skirts to sit before baskets of peanuts and madd fruit. Boys little older than the ones in the classroom hawked alphabet books and roach poison.

The boy at the blackboard had a flash of inspiration. He wrote something resembling the Euro. At this, his friends (some friends) slapped their desks and hooted with laughter.

Afterwards, Mr. Thiam walked across the courtyard, slashed by the blade of sun into brightness and shade. He looked thoughtful. Recovering from the derailed class, and comprehending the skepticism brewing in my mind, he told me: “You know, the pessimists are wrong.”

He continued, “Nothing can stop development.”

Where was their criticism? Why did they not speak up about the shortcomings of this so-called development project?

I was taken aback. We had just been in the same class, hadn’t we? We had both seen “development” in action, and noted how the gift of computers, given as a solution to schools which struggled with low learning outcomes, did not complement—rather, it supplanted—learning.

Physical introduction of the computer was feted, while pedagogical integration lagged. In the absence of thorough comprehension of what a class struggled with—poorly trained teachers, exam-oriented learning, children whose difficult home lives kept them from coming or from concentrating—the computers became little more than a performance of progress. The fundamental incompatibility between the possibilities of computers (access to knowledge beyond a classroom’s restrictions, freedom to pursue intellectual interests, independent research) and the narrow aims of the education system remained unaddressed.

Strangely, the teachers, observing how computers were in no way able to resolve the problems burdening their classrooms, nevertheless persisted in their faith in the computer. Where was their criticism? Why did they not speak up about the shortcomings of this so-called development project?

It turns out, they did express their views.

Some teachers took to gestures. A geography teacher, made to attend a mandatory training session in the school’s new computer room, took a seat at his assigned PC and unfolded a newspaper. He held the newspaper high in front of his face, and began to read. Mr. Thiam leaned to me and, truly troubled, whispered: Here was a dinosaur.

Then, one day, it emerged that, after the computer teacher had gone to France and decided to stay put, the school had found itself with no funds to recruit a substitute teacher. This meant the ten new computers were gathering dust (figuratively—they were kept immaculate, under plastic casing in a locked room).

Parents commonly worried that the children would watch pornography, so unsupervised computer time was out of the question.

Imagine. Ten computers dormant, their vast capacity powered off. Recalling the futility of the situation, a teacher laughed. Then another teacher laughed. In time, I realized, every time I nudged a teacher to consider questions about computers or about “development,” they paused—and laughed.

Were the teachers laughing at how development machinery turned them into devices—unable to respond to the failures they encountered in the classroom, compelled to carry forward the gospel of computer when what the students needed was, say, a lesson in vocabulary or reading?

The teachers’ laughter, then, was not only an expression of hilarity but a mode of utterance when no other was available. The teachers were beneficiaries of aid, and did not want to provide negative feedback to the aid agency for fear of “exaggerating.” They knew this much: They were to be grateful.

Machine-like rigidity, argues Bergson, indicates a failure to become a socially active, responsive being. So when the creativity and adaptability of the human form are co-opted by the attitudes and gestures of a machine, we find it funny. Is this how the teachers felt—that they had been turned into implements in an aid arrangement?

Mr. Diop was an English teacher at the school, a champion of computer usage. In a class on idiom, he installed a screen, and even the dozing boys in the back looked up.

This video got right to the point. A woman on the screen introduced phrases: “24/7,” “like the back of my hand,” and “give me a hand.”

Afterwards, Mr. Diop, who had gone to some length to have an uncommonly fun class, distributed sheets of green paper with exercises printed on them. I was called upon to lead.

Handing greater control to the teachers may have allowed for productive and meaningful integration of computers in pedagogy.

In the exercises, a man who had just flown into a new city stood outside the airport looking for a taxi. Maybe Mr. Diop thought the aspirational scenario would motivate the children.

“Can you _____ with my bags?” the traveller asked a taxi driver.

I looked about for the answer. The room was a collection of grinning children in soiled tunics and trousers, their hearts bursting with enthusiasm.

Then a girl I called on said, “Can you… back of my hand! Back of my hand with my bags!”

The class waited for my reaction. Judging quickly, they booed, and other hands shot up.

Then a boy said, “24/7!”

On it went, until Mr. Diop intervened. He was wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. He was a cool teacher. “Guys,” he said. He half-sat on the teacher’s desk. “We are gonna pause, because you are not understanding.”

Given the skill level of the students, and given the classroom infrastructure, handing greater control to the teachers may have allowed for productive and meaningful integration of computers in pedagogy. But being made to work within the manufactured framework of the development project made a person a little like an automaton, in that they were perfectly capable of observing and comprehending the inadequacies, but could not adjust their response—in this case, teaching with computers—to the altered reality.

Here, the teachers’ laughter pointed out that placing a computer in a struggling classroom was, in many cases, a move which avoided grappling with the tough problems students faced. The computer, heralded as solution, could only provide technological zest—it could enliven, but not provide intellectual ballast to, a lesson in which the essential skills of gathering and questioning knowledge were not transferred. A computer could not teach comprehension or critical thinking. Nor could it solve the human issues—poor training, large classes—that burdened schools. Yet this technological device was taken not as an index, nor an aid, of progress, but as progress itself.

When spoken criticism is inhibited, laughter might be a way for beneficiaries of aid to remark on incongruity and friction. Bergson’s theory of laughter—that what we find funny is inflexibility, or a failure to adapt—marks a new set of signals by which to pay attention to the shortcomings of development aid.

Names have been changed.

Megha Majumdar is editorial assistant at Catapult. Follow her on Twitter: @MeghaMaj

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