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]