School Choice

Teller Is No Fan of Safe Spaces: Magician Says Learning Should Make Kids Uncomfortable

School choice frees teachers to enchant their students.



Teller, the silent half of famed magic duo Penn & Teller, doesn't believe classrooms should be comfortable places.

During a revealing interview about his career as an educator—he spent six years teaching Latin to high schoolers before becoming a magician—Teller responded to a question about trigger warnings and censorship by professing the joy of "delicious discomfort" in the classroom. From The Atlantic:

And if Shakespeare (or Catullus or Vergil) makes students uncomfortable? That's a good thing, Teller said. Learning, like magic, should make people uncomfortable, because neither are passive acts. Elaborating on the analogy, he continued, "Magic doesn't wash over you like a gentle, reassuring lullaby. In magic, what you see comes into conflict with what you know, and that discomfort creates a kind of energy and a spark that is extremely exciting. That level of participation that magic brings from you by making you uncomfortable is a very good thing."

As we were on the subject of discomfort I asked Teller what he thinks of schools' efforts to protect students from discomfort as they learn through censoring teachers' content and requirements for trigger warnings. For the first time in our conversation, Teller illustrated the power of his trademark silence, and the line went quiet.

Just as I'd begun to think we'd been disconnected, he replied,

"When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education."

The whole interview is worth reading. Teller is a fascinating person, and was no doubt a fascinating teacher. He told The Atlantic that on his first day as a teacher, he threw away the textbook and constructed his own curriculum. "I taught [Latin] with a set of Latin readers I composed myself, complete with illustrations, called Lingua Latina Pictorius," he said.

It's deeply unfortunate that the public school system doesn't reward teachers like Teller who think outside the box. No, it does the opposite: creative, entrepreneurial teachers are thwarted at every turn until they give up. Thanks to numerous rules imposed on schools by politically powerful teachers unions, administrators are forced to reward seniority and credentials, rather than merit. It's endlessly frustrating for young, enterprising teachers to watch their older, less competent, less invested colleagues automatically collect more money than they do—because they have been on staff longer, or hold advanced degrees. According to a report from the New Teacher Project, the system incentivizes bad teachers to keep teaching while driving better teachers out of the field.

The best way to fix the status quo is to disrupt it: empower students to choose innovative schools where teachers are rewarded for working hard to deliver an enchanting education. This week is National School Choice Week, which means it's a great time to celebrate all the reasons why giving families more of a say in their children's futures is smart policy: for kids, parents, and teachers (the good apples, at least). [Related: The Libertarian Case for School Choice]

NEXT: Hillary Clinton Is Above Your Little Oversight Laws: 'Nothing I Did Was Wrong'

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  1. “School choice frees teachers to enchant their students”

    So…kids who go to charter schools can do 20 points of frost damage?

    1. Everyone knows schools only do Arcane specs.

  2. And if Shakespeare (or Catullus or Vergil) makes students uncomfortable?

    It’s good to know that the Atlantic’s writer here can’t distinguish between a Roman poet and a Devil May Cry character.

    (Yes, yes, it is occasionally spelled with the “e”, I just wanted to be the worst.)

    1. Writer? If you were the worst you’d know to always blame the editor.

      1. Why can’t you let me have my day in the worst sun?!?

        1. You’ll never beat nicole, Epi. But you can still be the wurst.

          1. Hugh, I’ll undoubtedly never say these words again, but…you’re a genius.

        2. The worst sun is probably the black hole S5 0014+813

    2. Spelling Virgil with an ‘E’ is pure evel.

      1. +14 buses

      2. Like a vergin.

  3. When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.”

    So education is basically Lovecraftian agoraphobia?

    Seems legit.

    1. Existential dread and the horror of the other ftw!

    2. The “delicious” part makes me think that it’s more a sense of wonder than existential dread.

      Maybe I’m weird, but I always find those moments of what I assume is what people mean by “existential dread” to be quite wonderful and spur me on to learn more about things. I think I get and agree with what Teller is saying.

      1. I was just making a joke. “Existential dread” to me is more of the realization that a gamma-ray burst could wipe out all life on this planet and there is nothing we can currently do about it.

        1. What really keeps me up at night is the fear that, if we let the whales go extinct, what if an all-powerful alien probe comes back looking for them and starts destroying the planet when it can’t find any? What will we do?!?

            1. Double dumbass on you, HM. Double dumbass on you.

                1. His name is Toby.

                2. I so badly want this to be true that I’m just going to act like it is in defiance of all possible evidence to the contrary.

        2. Ah, yes. Well, you can always count on me to take the wrong things seriously.

          To me, it’s when I wake up at night (for example) and think “holy shit, I exist and I don’t even know what that really means or entails”.

      2. People devote decades of intensive study and training merely to master a single culinary cuisine. I find that thrilling, and cooking is but one aspect of a fantastically complex knowledge base.

        There’s so much information. How did we ever invent boredom?

        1. How did we ever invent boredom?

          Depression and habit, maybe. Happy people don’t get bored.

        2. Uh, have you not seen Millionaire Matchmaker?

        3. Boredom is the by-product of not getting to do what we want when we want it. Obligation breeds boredom, like maggots squirming in rotted meat.

        4. Yeah, yeah, we know hamsters don’t get bored.

    3. Well, to be fair, the night sky does look bigger to Teller than to the rest of us.

  4. I knew Teller was awesome, but I didn’t know he was Classicist awesome.

    Sapientia ex silentio

    1. Back when Craig Kilborn was host of the Daily Show, he had Penn & Teller on for “Five Questions:”

      Kilborn: “Number five. Teller, SAY SOMETHING, dammit!”

      Teller [with his hand over his mouth]: “Fuck you, Craig.”

  5. empower students to choose innovative schools…

    Robbie doesn’t have kids, evidently. He seems OK, would probably make a good dad, and would change his mind on that brain fart in about a week.

    1. Because good parents know their kids shouldn’t be free to choose.

      1. Human brains are not capable of making choices until people turn 18, Nicole. It’s a scientific fact. Look it up.

        1. Everyone knows that mental and emotional maturation don’t take place via a gradual increase in opportunity, choice, and responsibility commensurate with a given adolescent’s ability to handle same! That shit happens all at once as soon as they get a piece of paper from a government-accredited educational facility!

        2. Actually, it’s 32. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully maturate until a person is anywhere from 28 to 32 years of age.

          1. And it’s all downhill from there.

          2. Must be why I’ve recently turned into such a huge asshole

          3. Yeah, they used to call this Saturn Returning, n’est pas? You sort of get set in your ways around that age. Better get hitched before then or you will find it hard to compromise once your brain matter congeals into its eternal stubborness.

      2. Exactly, that’s exactly what good parents know and practice.

        I choose for my kids all the time without any input from them whatsoever, it’s called responsible parenting.

        1. It’s certainly a good to breed a healthy contempt for authority in them. Or maybe an inferiority complex that manifests as the desire to control others with no input from them whatsoever.

          1. Or not.

            You make the classic error of conflating appropriate public policy and governance by the state with parenting. The two roles are quite different.

            I choose for my kids all the time, sometimes they are in accord with my decisions, sometimes not, but as parents our decision is the one that carries the day. Families are not democracies.

            1. Every woman adores a Fascist,
              The boot in the face, the brute
              Brute heart of a brute like you.

              You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
              In the picture I have of you,
              A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
              But no less a devil for that, no not
              Any less the black man who

              Bit my pretty red heart in two.

              1. SugarFree aka ContentFree.

                1. Don’t you have some statutes you should be sexually mutilating?

                  1. Wow, went downhill fast.

            2. Families are not democracies.

              Nicole has a rather different view of things.

              1. Which as an adult she has every right to, as do I to disregard it.

              2. Nicole has a rather different view of things.

                I would describe Nicole’s views as more Marxist/Leninist than democratic.

                1. I would describe them as precisely the kind of silly, absurd rhetoric that gives libertarians a bad name.

                  1. I would describe them as precisely the kind of silly, absurd rhetoric that gives libertarians a bad name.

                    Nikki is, professedly, non-libertarian. However, there is a cadre of commentators (presumably at least somewhat libertarian) around here who play out like antagonists in an Ayn Rand novel when it comes to parenting.

                    It can be like getting parenting advice from Lenin’s corpse.

                    1. Rand’s novels are populated with adults and curiously free of children.

                      Never really bothered with parenting books as the ones I’ve dipped into offer advice that’s either blindingly obvious or certifiably insane.

                      Did I mention my kids don’t even get due process?

            3. “It’s ok to be a totalitarian when you do it on a small enough scale.”

              1. “And for good enough reasons. How lucky for me I only have good reasons!”

              2. And It’s okay to be a navel gazing fool as long as it only affects you.

                1. Well, yeah. But parents also affect their kids.

                  1. Your only true statement, and it’s an utterly banal one.

            4. You make the classic error of conflating appropriate public policy and governance by the state with parenting. The two roles are quite different.

              From the perspective of your child, how are you different from a state he never consented to?

              Don’t forget, politicians also claim to care about your best interest.

              Families are not democracies.

              Democracy would also be oppressive.

              1. My perspective indicates complete indifference to yours.

                We’ll continue as benevolent dictators.

                1. Hope you don’t have to deal with a slave revolt, Alci.

                  1. Put down many.

                    We always prevail.

              2. Doesn’t matter children are idiots. It’s best to explain your reasons where practical so they will understand what is going on, but a four year old would gladly shoot themselves are jump off a four story building if parents don’t make decisions for them. A parents job is to make decisions for their children until they are old enough to do so for themselves. Ideally on a scaled basis with more decision making responsibility going to the child as they age and become capable of handling them.

                It’s wise to remember that the ability to conceive of and plan around long term consequences is not fully developed in teenagers. It’s one of the reasons they are known for making colossally dumb decisions. A good parent makes sure their kid isn’t allowed to get a forehead tattoo of a swastika until they are either capable of understanding why it’s a bad idea or have reached the age of majority.

        2. I choose for my kids all the time without any input from them whatsoever

          How old are your children, if I may ask?

          1. Six, seven and nine.

            1. That’s a little old for “without any input”, especially the nine year old, no?

              1. That’s decided on a case by case basis, with our decision being the final one.

                1. I see no problem with that.

            2. Smother mother. Cut the cord, you aren’t doing them any favors.

              1. You’ve a very novel definition of parenting if you think it amounts to doing “favors”.

                Will continue as before.

        3. it’s called responsible parenting.

          Actually, the term you were looking for was “imprisonment.”

          1. Nope, right the first time.

            1. Well, technically it can be both.

              1. Actually no, just more rhetorical silliness from Nikki.

                1. Well, actually yes.

                  1. Oops, my bad.

                    Guess I’ll be abducting the eldest then when he wants to stay an hour longer at his buddies this weekend.

          2. The important thing is that you both disagree on parenting principles but would never use aggression to “persuade” the other, right? Guys? Right??

            *eyes case with two pistols nervously*

            1. Sure, if Nikki’s a parent she can raise her brats her way and we’ll raise our brats our way.

              What could be more libertarian than that!

        4. I’ve got a seven month old daughter. She’s a very bright kid, but she’s an infant. She doesn’t even know that there’s stuff she doesn’t know.

          I’m all for voluntaryist parenting, and I fully intend to let my kid figure stuff out on her own as much as is reasonably safe, but no reasonable, moderately intelligent person could honestly believe that children are immediately equipped to make considered, thoughtful choices with reasonable chances of success straight from the womb. Thus it follows that parents have a moral obligation to their children to make those choices for them where their children aren’t yet able to appreciate the choices or handle the results.

          My daughter wasn’t particularly interested in being put in her carseat to ride over to daycare this morning. We did not sit down and have a discussion about the relative merits of her getting in the carseat or even going to daycare at all versus her staying home, throwing her toys at the dogs, pooping herself, and taking a nap. Just as when I was twelve and decided that I’d rather go fishing and then maybe play some video games instead of going to school the idea was not seriously entertained by my father.

          Of course everyone’s free to parent the way they see fit, but I’d suggest that it’s a pretty cruel, cynical kind of liberty that throws a child into the deep end of the pool decision-wise just to remain ideologically “pure”.

    2. I hooked up with a family in progress. My Hong Kong wife galsplained this to me at a McDonald’s parking lot. Human kids don’t naturally know how to behave well. You have to tell them how to.

      1. You have to break a horse before it will pull the plow.

      2. Not anything against your wife, but hands-down the worst parenting I saw in Asia was consistently from the Chinese. God, those kids were screeching hell-beasts!

        That having been said, I agree with your wife. Parents must model responsible behavior for their children and provide clear boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Most kids don’t do “context” well.

        1. Hong Kong is better than mainland China that way, I think. When I went there, I was talking to someone who was complaining about mainland visitors and how they don’t seem to understand basic decorum, let their kids shit in subway stations, all kinds of terrible crap. He blamed it on the communists totally fucking up the culture there.

          I don’t know if that’s the sort of bad parenting you were thinking of.

          1. They also have a tendency to let their children run amok until they are around ten, which they then guilt them into utter submission.

  6. And if Shakespeare (or Catullus or Vergil) makes students uncomfortable? That’s a good thing, Teller said.

    Catullus 16

    I’ll gape and gag you ass-to-mouth,
    Aurelis the Cock-Gobbler and Power Bottom Furius,
    Because you think that if my poetry
    is soft, that means I am soft.
    While it is good for the poet to be civilized
    himself, the poetry can be savage.
    But well-written lyrics,
    if they are thought-out and sexy,
    Can excite the mind of men,
    And I don’t mean just twinks, but even in hairy old bears,
    who can’t get it hard any longer.
    Because you two have read my “Thousand Kisses,”
    you think I’m some prissy pussy?
    I’ll gape and gag you ass-to-mouth.

    1. I’ll gape and gag you ass-to-mouth,

      That’s not a bad translation, trading alliteration for the assonance of the original.

      1. Thank you. It was always meant to be an insulting poem, so the language was meant to be rude and shocking.

    2. Uh, NutraSweet, what meter is that in?

      1. Your mom.

        1. Of course! Ok, now it reads correctly.

        2. High-on-dick seamen eater

    3. Catullus was possibly the crassest dude who ever lived. Larry Flynt WISHES he was Catullus.

      Picture some students in 2000 years translating and interpreting the works of SugarFree for college credit. That’s Catullus.

  7. Just to be clear, this “discomfort/ safe space” nonsense is not about triggers and micro-aggression; it is about suppression of any idea that does not conform to progressive liberalism as it is promulgated on college campuses. Those who cry about their mental health being disturbed present no more than a feinted attempt to just not hear what they do not want [others] to hear.

    In this regard, at least the carrot top Click chick at Mizzou was more or less honest in calling for “some muscle over here.”

  8. When I see the words “safe space” I immediately think of the South Park song In My Safe Space.

    Then I sing along, alone, while I contemplate what I have become.

  9. Having watched the entirety of Bullshit! (great show), I’m having trouble picturing Teller speaking words.

    You could say it makes me… uncomfortable.

    1. He just types into one of those Stephen Hawking computers.

    2. Go to one of their stage shows. Afterwards, Teller comes out and signs autographs and talks with everyone.

    3. I read a while back that the silence act was also a result of his experiences teaching. He found students, especially the loud disruptive ones, paid more attention to someone who didn’t say anything rather than a loudmouth trying to win the decibel contest.

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