Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling

In a nutshell: The musical number "A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down" from the film Mary Poppins helps students understand the Horatian principle of pleasure and didacticism in literature.

We generally credit the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE) for introducing the idea that poetry has the dual objective "to please and instruct" in his Art of Poetry (Ars Poetica), lines 333-4:
Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae
aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae.

Poets wish either to profit (prodesse) or to delight (delectare) or at the same time to say things both pleasant (iucunda) and suited to life (idonea vitae). 
In English literary theory, this idea resurfaces in the writings of Sir Philip Sydney (1554-1586) and John Dryden (1631-1700), among others. Parallels can be found in the other vernacular Renaissance literatures as well.

In recent decades, didacticism, particularly in the form of moral instruction, has fallen out of fashion as an objective of literature--as well it should have. On the other hand, this cultural change has had problematic consequences for pedagogy. Since the era of New Criticism (roughly speaking, post 1945), English teachers, and other professors of literature, tend to use close reading as their pedagogical approach: narration, description, characterization, plot, rhyme, rhythm, the many forms of metaphor, the operations of irony, and the whole range of literary and rhetorical devices--all of these have become the focus of literary analysis and also of classroom instruction.

This focus on literary devices and explicating the text is fine. We do a disservice to our students, however, if we do not ALSO alert them to the long history of pleasure and didacticism as competing/complementary objectives of literature. In particular, it is difficult, if not impossible, for our students to understand most literature prior to the twentieth century if they do not grasp the ancient Horatian construct and its modern legacy. Moreover, while our students tend to come into our classrooms thinking that any poem, story, or play we give them to read has a "moral" to which it can be reduced, they do not realize that they themselves intuitively embrace an Horatian concept of pleasure and didacticism in literature.

How do we bring to life for our students the idea of pleasure and didacticism in literature? For those who tend to think in terms of "the moral of the story," how do we get them to recognize the element of pleasure? For those who want to know from nothing besides Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or more grownup versions like Scott Turow and Barbara Taylor Bradford, how do we get them to recognize that even these pleasure fests are replete with implicit meanings and values, including moral ones?

In my Classical Civilization classroom, I began approaching this important concept through what I christened The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling. I use the term "storytelling" instead of "literature" because I want students to apply this concept to ancient epic poetry, tragedy, and even history and philosophy, as well as to contemporary poems, stories, plays, film, television, etc.

As you may already have guessed, The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling states that "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." There is nothing brilliant or original in my citation of this sagacious dictum. What I do think is innovative, however, and what I have found to be successful in the classroom, is actually using Mary Poppins and the "Spoonful of Sugar" number from the 1964 Julie Andrews film to teach this concept.

First, I will ask my students, in the midst of a discussion of virtually any text (Homer's Odyssey early in a Classical Civilization semester, Boccaccio's Decameron early in a World Literature semester), what they think was the author's objective or purpose in composing or writing the text. Some students will obligingly say, "To teach a lesson." Others will say, "Because it's a good story." In fact, more students tend to say "teach a lesson" and fewer tend to say "good story" because, again, they come into the classroom assuming that I, the professor, am there to shove didactic lessons down their throat, even if they can't articulate it quite as elegantly as that.

Once I've got "teach a lesson" and "good story" out on the table, I will say, "That's what I refer to as The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling." And they will go glassy-eyed, cuz what the fudge is Dr. Broder doing talking about Mary Poppins in the middle of Classical Civ or World Lit or Intro to Myth??? So I wait. A beat. Or two. And then ask (cuz they are, after all, only 19-ish years old), "How many of you are familiar with Marry Poppins, the movie?" Many, if not most, will raise a hand.

Then I will ask, "So, can anyone tell me what The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling is?" And, because I have already gotten the ideas of instruction and entertainment out there, it is very likely that a few students will murmur, half under their breath, "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Or perhaps, "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.....????" If so, great, and I will call on the murmurers to say it again, NICE AND LOUD. I have never taught a class where at least a third of my students were not familiar with the movie and the song. This is where, in the best of all possible worlds, you go to your Smart Console and press play on this YouTube video, which you have all queued up and ready to go. If not, you can post it on Blackboard and have them watch it before the next class.

What makes the video work especially well is the part about the robin building his nest, because "He knows a song will move the job along." I started teaching The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling in the context of Homer's Odyssey, and I had already taught my students that epic poetry was sung, not spoken, more like contemporary song than poetry. So Homer is the robin, and the Odyssey is the nest. The job is communicating social values and cultural practices. The fun is song and story. Moreover, they have learned that for the ancient Greeks, poetry and song are the gifts of the Muses, divine inspiration, almost a kind of magic. So when Mary Poppins starts snapping her fingers and the beds make themselves and the toys put themselves away, it resonates with the idea of divinely inspired poetry and song. Finally, the brother and sister start to get in on the act, seeking to snap their own fingers and reproduce the musical magic, as it were. The little girl is an expert finger-snapper from the get-go, and has wooden soldiers marching into toy chests in no time. The poor little boy, however (ah, boys), can't quite get the mechanics of finger-snapping down, and is very evidently quite distressed. Mary Poppins, then, is the Muse, the little girl is divinely inspired, like Homer, and the little boy, well, he's trying, but not everyone has the gift of the Muses. Finally, of course, he starts to get the hang of it. But his imperfect finger-snapping has untoward implications for slamming doors and flying balls, suggesting that the power of poetry requires considerable effort to master and can be dangerous if uncontrolled.

OK, I think I've given you the idea, and brevity remains the soul of wit, so I'll leave it there. But I beg you, once again, to make Pedagogishness an interactive forum, and leave comments, positive or negative, yay or nay, about The Mary Poppins Theory of Storytelling and its pedagogic potential.


  1. Michael
    Thank you for sharing how you use story as the means and not the end to learning! For some time, I have been sharing with clients and others with whom I work the power of story as a learning device in itself.
    You did a wonderful job in this post of helping your students "use what they know" to explore what they don't yet know. By giving them a playful way to attend to the task of the new text, you enable them to flip their perspective in much the same way as a telescope. one side sees the micro elements in front of them or the immediate text, the other side gives them a macro view that they can see only because they are USING the telescope's technology or in your case Mary Poppins lessons to draw out the larger meanings in a most pleasurable way.

    I have written a little about this in my blog, hope you will check it out..

    1. Thanks, rk. What would be really great is if you would share my post on your blog, facebook page, and/or twitter feed!

    2. It's also the case that much literary theory of the late twentieth century was founded on exposing the awful medicine (racism, sexism, homophobia, classicism, etc) that all those spoonfuls of sugar are helping down (and rotting your teeth!).

  2. Excellent post, Michael, and beautifully written! I discuss "morals" of stories in myth class and encourage students to recontextualize the story, envision a specific storyteller, setting and audience and then have them retell the story. It helps to reveal that whole set of cultural assumptions behind the myth as well as getting students to understand that no one ever tells a story without a reason.

    Finally, I like the Horace quote, but the here's one from Lucretius that's still more appropriate to your Mary Poppins reference: Lucretius writes that expounding Epicurus' scientific theories in poetry is like smearing the rim of the cup of wormwood with honey to get young boys to swallow their medicine.

    1. Thanks, Julie. That's a great quote! You may find it worked into a revised version of this post in the near future. If you'd would not mind being credited for this insight, email me at with your name, affiliation, etc, and I will credit you when the time comes. Thanks again!