Americans love satire: from the satirical sites, The Onion and The Babylon Bee, to television shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. However, long-form satirical novels are lacking from many American curricula, an unfortunate reality; the genre is essential.
Satire pretends to take on the perspective of a particular group but uses humor to exaggerate and point out its flaws or inconsistencies. It often deals with themes that might seem offensive or sacrilegious to some. Satire, however, has been a very effective tool for journalists to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) criticize anything and everything. Which is not always popular, hence why the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo magazine was targeted by terrorists almost a decade ago.
One of my favorite books that I read in high school was Candide L’Optimisme, a satirical novel written by the French Enlightenment author, Voltaire. In Candide, the titular character took on the perspective of a philosophical optimist, someone who dealt with the problem of “sin” by claiming that if God was good then the world we live in must be “the best of all possible worlds.”
Candide then suffers all sorts of tragedies. He humorously bends over backwards to justify them, eventually losing all hope. Later, he withdraws from the world and decides to “cultivate” his garden. Voltaire uses this to point out the errors and confirmation bias he found evident in that branch of philosophy. Ignoring suffering, although it was easy to do when Candide lived in a castle, would not make it go away when experiencing it yourself.
Just the same, ignoring other points of view or refusing to expose students to them does not make them go away. As citizens of a democracy, they will have to come in contact with them someday. Satire helps students gain a better understanding of the flaws or points of weakness in their own systems of beliefs, and as such become better prepared to defend them. Or modify them, if they find they could better live up to logic or values they find more important.
Satirical humor is a tool that makes more people receptive to learning and taking a step back to critically examine their beliefs. It is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Nowadays, however, far too few can even recognize satire. High numbers of people mistake it for real news. This comes amid the so-called “fake news” epidemic. As a variation on a similar theme, fake news legitimately intends to fool people, whereas satire just tries to make a point. But both tend to use similar language.
So why isn’t satire a more common part of our school curriculum?
It would be as simple as adding a book or two to in-class reading assignments or perhaps adding a segment about internet and television adaptations of satire. Students could then critically analyze the work and “close read” to better understand the point of view. This is an essential aspect of English education already, and adding satire to the mix would make for a more well-rounded curriculum.
Educators often say that the point of school is not to learn what to think, but how to think. Satire does just that. It uses humor, in an ironic and sometimes allegorical language — already well-known to our youth in the form of meme culture — to encourage a critical examination of everything, including the things that we hold dear. This will not only help them better understand others’ points of view, but it will also help them better understand their own. In the end, it will make for better students and better people.