Abe Lincoln loved to tell jokes and funny stories. He had to. During the War Between the States, the immense responsibility of preserving the union and ending slavery weighed heavily on the president. Once he even confessed to an Ohio congressional representative that if he [Lincoln] couldn’t tell the stories, he’d die.
History suggests that if our 16th president could come back, his “quick perception” might allow him to assimilate enough of our culture to do a star turn as a guest lecturer in any history class. If he were inspired to win over a young audience in that setting, he would surely use humor to educate them.
Indeed, Lincoln’s yarns and jokes might hold the interest of those students who find routine history lessons as dry as chalk. And at the other end of the attention yardstick, class scholars would eagerly savor the plain truth that drives Lincoln's humor, and keeps even the darkest hours in perspective.
At the moment, the closest thing we have to Abe speaking to a present-day class may be watching Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie “Lincoln,” as the actor portrays our 16th president forging an historic compromise, in part by cracking jokes and grinning to relieve his melancholy.
Watching the film gives us some idea of how Lincoln humanized humor in an age when most folks joked sarcastically to ridicule others, much the way school bullies do today. As one columnist points out, Lincoln laughed “with,” and not “at” people, for he knew full-well the human predicament, and thus ridiculed problem situations, not the people who may have been responsible for them.
That sensible tactic can work as well in the classrooms and halls of high schools as it did for Lincoln when he was negotiating the passage of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution.