There is a celebrity educator renowned among teachers for his bestselling books and the extraordinary commitment he has made to fostering the success of disadvantaged students. His achievements and advice are laudable, as is his practice of funding his school with the honorariums he earns as a popular speaker. Anyone would be thrilled to have him looking after the learning of their child. And yet, despite my admiration for all that he has done for children and teachers alike, there is one quirky aspect of his personality that makes me cringe. He is known for spontaneously mounting desks and tables and proceeding to dance.
Now, I have nothing against people dancing. For all I care, the whole of my community can shimmy about as a choreographed flash mob the next time I’m out and about town. I will smile charitably and perhaps even enjoy the display. Just don’t ask me to boogie along. Primal as the urge to dance supposedly is, I have never felt the compulsion to bust a move. Just the opposite, in fact. Never am I happier to remain seated than when a group of revelers is dancing. My reluctance to dance is little different than, say, your dismissal of foods you do not like. It’s just not for me. I simply do not enjoy it.
But the dancing celebrity educator sees it differently. Not only does he literally put himself on a pedestal and shake his groove thing, he expects everyone else to follow his lead. Whether he is addressing his student body or a convention hall full of teachers, he expects every last soul to clap along.
As with dancing, I do not begrudge anyone their right to clap along, whether in response to a prompt or simply out of sheer joy. Occasionally I will even clap along myself, if that is what I truly feel like doing, though such instances are rare. But I loathe a relentless exhortation to clap along, especially when delivered with furrowed brow and the implication that anyone who chooses not to participate is a sociopathic blight on the community. Must we obey every command to bang our hands together?
Of course, mandatory audience participation does not stop at mere hand clapping, and this is where human nature amazes me. There seems to never be a shortage of people who are willing to indulge the whimsy of a suit at a lectern, no matter how ridiculous or humiliating the manipulation may be. They will parrot whatever phrases they are told to repeat. They will obediently hold onto their abdomens while forcing out belly laughs. They’ll strap on the red, rubber noses concealed beneath their seats. And always, always, they will clap along like a thundering herd of sheep.
Should you ever wish to instill in me a leaden psychological weight of purest dread, you need only inform me that I am about to be subjected to a motivational speaker who is known for an ability to “get audiences moving.” You can increase my despair and possibly even drive me to consider self-destruction by telling me that I will be seeing a Joyologist or a Certified Laughter Leader. Too often, programs that are sold as inspirational morale boosters are merely arrogant exercises in performance art. Regardless of content, if the speaker can successfully provoke a majority of the audience to experience cathartic waves of tears and laughter, the show is considered successful. The cheapest way to achieve these emotional plateaus is to exhort the audience to become physically active and train them to respond to behavioral prompts. Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that works. A good portion of any audience apparently does not mind being treated like children, at least not enough to simply sit out the stupid stuff (or could it be that none of it seems stupid to them?).
My brother Brian once suggested that the best professional development in the world would make its point by exploiting this herd mentality to its extreme. The speaker would guide the unsuspecting audience through an increasingly stupid and demeaning series of teambuilding exercises, boldly ratcheting up the ridiculousness until finally someone is brave enough to publicly dismiss the whole affair as time-wasting nonsense. The speaker would then identify that brave dissenter as the most valuable person in the organization, chastise the lemmings, and leave.
But no. Across the land, in lecture halls, auditoriums, convention centers and school gymnasiums, grown men and women are turning to their neighbors and parroting catch phrases, locking arms and holding hands, learning to appreciate cooperation by getting tied up in human knots, stepping outside of their comfort zones to understand their peers through situational role playing, humoring every offbeat command, and always, always clapping along.
Mine is a timeless complaint, and others have voiced the same displeasure, but perhaps no one has illustrated our collective docility more eloquently than Monty Python in Life of Brian:
BRIAN: Look, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals.
CROWD: Yes, we’re all individuals.
BRIAN: You’re all different.
CROWD: Yes, we are all different.
BRIAN: Well, that’s it. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.
CROWD: Yes, yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves.
CROWD: Tell us more.
Back to our dancing celebrity educator. He was the keynote speaker at a professional development conference attended by hundreds of employees of my school district. I was sitting near the exit at one of the many round tables that filled the main floor. Sure enough, the time came when our speaker’s dynamism could not be confined to the stage, and a whoop of audience appreciation greeted his gyrations upon a table in the center of the room. When he told us to clap along, the great majority of the attendees went with the suggestion.
However, in this age of No Child Left Behind and its legal mandate that 100% or our nation’s children will be proficient in all academic areas, it can be bothersome to a celebrity educator to get anything less than the full participation of his audience. His radar detected that there were pockets of flagging enthusiasm along the periphery of the room, which he sought to remedy by dancing and scowling among the shyer sections of the crowd. Remarkably, this gambit worked, and soon perhaps 99% of the audience was obligingly clapping along.
I, however, was among the stoic 1% that refused to compromise its dignity. I will not clap, I will not clap, I told myself, no matter what he does, I will not clap. Soon our speaker was a mere table away from me, and I could see his eyes scanning the audience for malcontents. Amid the deafening clapping that filled the hall, I heard his amplified voice take on an accusatory tone.
“Sir,” he called out, “why aren’t you clapping?”
The adrenaline of steely resolve was surging through my system. I longed to stand up before hundreds of my peers and confront the unstoppable juggernaut of enforced audience participation. I wanted to point out that, as much as clapping along and dancing along might be a wonderful enhancement to the learning experience for most people, there are some for whom it is demeaning. Go ahead and tell your audiences and your students to clap along, but respect the dignity of those who prefer not to. It doesn’t mean that they are not engaged. They just don’t want to clap along.
But he wasn’t talking to me. His ire was directed at an expressionless gentleman who was leaning against the exit doors with his arms folded. The celebrity educator kept after the non-participant for a bit, but the guy refused to play along, remaining still as a mannequin. At last our speaker chose to ignore his nemesis and danced his way back toward the stage. The rest of the crowd clapped along.