Information Age Education
   Issue Number 122
September, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

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This newsletter is the eighth in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
The Role of Caricature

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

This is the second of several articles on the important roles that analogy, caricature, humor itself, and analogical extensions play in helping us to understand and then to master complexity.

Caricature and other forms of humor quickly get to the essence of understanding and diffusing complex issues. That's probably why folks who do this effectively play such important societal roles.

Comedians, cartoonists, and viral videos on the Web often ridicule poorly thought through political and cultural proposals. Their analogical ridicule then frequently gets more attention than the original proposal. When Obamacare became the morphed version of the Affordable Care Act, it switched attention from national health care to presidential hopes. The presumed existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction was a principal impetus for the Iraq War, but when none were found, their existence was ridiculed as an example of a presidential fiasco.

The previous article in this series synthesized elements of Hofstadter and Sander's monumental work on analogy, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (2013). Thought requires concepts, and analogies are perhaps the best way to gradually understand a concept. Analogical thought identifies and uses common elements between an understood concept and one that's not yet understood. Using a water pump to explain a heart is a good analogy because the key mechanism in both pumps and hearts regulates the flow of liquid. A person who understands how water gets pumped technologically can thus move towards understanding how blood flows biologically.

This illustrates one of the difficulties in teaching. Each student has a unique background of knowledge and skills. A teacher and instructional materials try to explain new concepts using analogies based on knowledge all students are assumed to have. But, some don't have it! This is especially true in teaching a group of students with mixed language and cultural backgrounds.

Successful Comedians and Cartoonists

What successful comedians and cartoonists do in ridicule is to create a caricature of a current situation. Although their exaggerated simplification of the issue (that starts the laughter) might initially seem superficially incorrect or unfair, effective caricature either actually represents the central issue or at least nudges people into thinking that it does. Caricatures of issues work best when they represent the emotions of the audience through an unexpected analogy that immediately resonates. A straightforward analogy is too bland for the passionate. They want their criticism to go to the edge and to analogically highlight the elements that sparked their passion.

For example, late night comedian Jimmy Fallon took on both Presidents Obama and Bush in a simple caricature that encapsulated very complex governmental responsibilities. He suggested that the almost $900 billion health care act is about 2000 pages long, and so it cost about $2 million per word. Fallon suggested that these were the most expensive words to come out of Washington, D.C., since George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech given on May 1, 2003.

Caricature and Political Power

The U.S. is a secular democracy. Since a secular democracy was a new concept in 1789, we had to design it ourselves. No monarch or state religion would exist, and majorities would determine legislation and administration. Courts would insure individual rights. Still, power could move towards a relatively small group of wealthy people and/or those who controlled powerful cultural organizations.

The updated medieval English Court Jester could perhaps become the solution for those who lacked political power—such as women, non-whites, the young, and the poor. Wealth and organizational leadership can provide power for the few, but the few will still have to get the majority of the rest to vote for them. Widespread ridicule within the disenfranchised is thus a powerful antidote for political pretensions and abuse.

Fast forward to the 21st century and a national population of 300 million. The various forms of social media have further elevated the importance of contemporary Court Jesters to rapidly shape opinion and to strike fear into the hopefully powerful. Politicians who might otherwise say one thing to one group of voters and the opposite to another have learned the truth of what comedian Jon Stewart said, "Don't they know that we tape everything, and we never erase the tapes?" Control problems still remain 200+ years later, but the powerful white male property owners who controlled things at the founding of our country are encountering more and more opposition.

What Makes Caricature Effective?

Assume a political or cultural proposal with potential problems. If the problem is systemic, the caricature should get to the heart of the problem. If the systemics of the proposal are OK but the proposal doesn't consider the possible negative effect of variables, the caricature should be directed at an example of an especially vulnerable variable. It's frequently possible to argue both sides of the same such issue with almost identical analogies. For example, consider these two bumper stickers: Work Harder: Millions on welfare depend on you. -and- Work Harder: Wealthy people need their tax breaks.

Caricatures either seek to ridicule structural or superficial features of the proposal. A structural feature is something that defines the category itself (the purpose of immigration). A superficial feature refers to things that can be modified without necessarily affecting the function of the category (immigrant selection criteria).

Since many societal problems are now too complex for an average person to understand, caricature as a form of analogy frequently begins by ridiculing superficial features (Annoyed by immigrants? Tell it to the Indians.). One might think that this is a negative approach for making a point when human cognition is basically about thoughtful analysis. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman begs to disagree (2011). He defines two systems we use to determine decision and consequent behavior. Emotion is a primitive evolutionary system that allows us to rapidly size up and then respond to a situation. Inferential reasoning capability came along much later and requires an advanced understanding of the issue and rational thought prior to decision and response.

Experts thus see features of an issue that novices either don't see or don't know how to interpret. To the extent that Jesters can insert the essence of depth into surface features, they help the naive to get into the structural issues without extensive initial study. The opposing side also has its Jesters. Democracy rests on the ability of voters to attend to both sides before arriving at a decision. So maybe it's the Jesters and the political artists who have now most increased their political power in an electronic age.

We're a secular democracy with a strong scientific focus. This has caused a rift. Both religion and science are currently seeking increased political power. Church and science differ in perspective and in the way they validate claims, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Jesters have entered the caricature fray on both sides. For example, "This scientific paper contains much that is new and true. Unfortunately, that which is true isn't new, and that which is new isn't true." -and- "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church."

Given the increased impressionistic availability of caricature in social media, educators must especially help students learn to understand the role of caricature in analogical thought.


Hofstadter, D., and Sander, E. (2013). Surfaces and essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking. New York: Basic Books.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. See a synthesis of Kahneman's theory in Information Age Education Newsletter issue 89,

Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE. See He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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