Leisure Reflections 39: On Edutainment as Serious Hedonism

By Bob Stebbins. University of Calgary

stebbins@ucalgary.ca
Website (personal): http://soci.ucalgary.ca/profiles/robert-stebbins
Website (Perspective): www.seriousleisure.net

A seemingly incongruent benefit of casual leisure roots in what has come to be known as edutainment, a portmanteau word coined by Christopher Daniels (New World Encyclopedia, 2008) in 1975. His term joins education and entertainment in reference to the developmental gain that comes with participating in such mass entertainment as watching informative films and television programs (often documentaries), listening to some kinds of popular music, and reading certain popular books and articles. Museums and educational theme parks are also regarded as possible sources of edutainment. While consuming media or frequenting places of this sort, these participants, often inadvertently, learn something of substance about the social and physical world in which they live. They are, in a word, entertained and educated in the same breath.

Wolfgang Nahrstedt (2000) was possibly the first to consider edutainment as a leisure activity, albeit doing so narrowly as an avenue leading to leisure education. This was an important conceptual advance, given that from its inception the process has been almost exclusively seen in educational terms. Still, it is questionable whether in most of the kinds of mass entertainment listed in the preceding paragraph a person is truly educated (commonly a formal, systematic, supervised process) or is merely given some new information. Perhaps ‘infotainment’ would be a more accurate descriptor of this kind of learning, which when intentional might be qualified as ‘self-directed’.

What is it about edutainment that makes it a distinctive kind of leisure? Perhaps this question should have been answered before recommending that edutainment become part of any kind of education, especially the leisure variety. In this regard I (Stebbins, 2001) have argued that edutainment is one of the benefits of casual leisure that flows from participating in the mass entertainment mentioned in this introduction.

The goal of this paper is to examine more closely than I have in the past the marginal nature of edutainment enjoyed as casual leisure with serious import. In other words, concern here is with edutainment as leisure and not with, as is true of much of the literature on this subject, edutainment as a teaching technique (e.g., Svencer, 2012). Excluded for the same reason are the ‘serious games’ and game technologies used for teaching purposes (e.g., Abt, 1970; Ma, Oikonomou and Jain, 2011).

Pleasurable historical novels provide some edutainment for the reading set. Moreover, they make for an illuminating case study of the conceptual problems that spring up when joining education with entertainment.

Edutaining’ Literature

The casual leisure popular literature, compared with the belle lettres, offers it may be argued the most fertile ground for entertainment that also educates its consumers. Some museums, films and television documentaries might be seen to challenge this claim, but they lose out because of their comparative brevity. On this, the size dimension, the popular historical novel, lengthy as it often is, reigns supreme. Moreover, this genre of literature offers a fine occasion for exploring the incongruous joining of hedonism and seriousness. Also included here as edutaining, are the written legends, biographies and autobiographies and narrative non-fictional works. In these genres of literature entertainment sometimes goes beyond being pure hedonism, doing so in a process more complex than one might think.

Thus a main challenge for serious readers seeking both pleasure and information in these four kinds of popular literature is to try to separate fact from fiction. Other readers seem content to revel in the enjoyment that such material brings — in the storyline, plot, quality of writing — and treat what they presume to be factual material as little more than interesting background to be accepted as written.

Historical fiction is, in this respect, especially beguiling. Dictionary.com defines historical fiction as a novel set either in actual events or, more broadly, in a specific period of history.[1] In this genre, information about actual events is supposed to be neither fictive nor incorrect. But how does the reader know this with certainty? Here the issue of trustworthiness takes center stage. Perhaps this is a problem to some extent for all edutainment. In consuming popular historical fiction, readers are entertained and educated in the same instance, just as they are when they view as edutainment an exhibition in a science or history museum or watch a televised documentary. The latter normally come from an obvious authoritative source, however, whereas historical fiction is only as authoritative as its writer. This person may well be best known for the fictional side of this equation, as opposed to its factual-historical side.

Consider, as an example, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (published in 2002), a historical novel centered on the life of Mary Boleyn who was a sixteenth-century aristocrat in Tudor England. This book and its five sequels (i.e., The Queen’s Fool, The Virgin’s Lover, etc.) have been alleged to contain some historical inaccuracies. Particularly those set in the Tudor Age have been challenged, with critical reviewers being most upset over the fact that Gregory claimed complete accuracy. For instance, The Other Boleyn Girl is centered on Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who is seen through the eyes of Protestants as a martyr and those of feminists as an icon. But the story is also said to contain some factual errors (e.g., Weir, 2011).

Legends are traditional stories, sometimes centered on a national hero or a folk hero, which, though based in fact, include considerable imaginary material. Since legends are collective creations, shaped and passed on over time by the people whose traditions they are, we would not ordinarily expect the same level of historical accuracy demanded of single-author historical novels. In other words, readers who consume legends as pleasurable activity typically gloss this veridical nicety; legends need only be believable, not verifiable. Still, readers of legends do acquire a sort of knowledge, even while commonly showing only limited interest in questions bearing on their accuracy and authenticity. Amazon.com lists hundreds of books under the heading of ‘Folktales and Legends’.

Biographies and autobiographies are supposed to be true stories about real people written as books or as articles gathered together in a biographic compendium (e.g., the Who’s Who series, The Encyclopedia of World Biography). It is the book form that seems best suited to pleasurable reading. As a book or as an article, the information conveyed is expected by readers to be as accurate as possible, peer-reviewed, and the veracity of problematic data and observations duly noted. Here casual, pleasure-oriented readers seek enjoyment in information related imaginatively and written engagingly in a narrative about a person’s life. Whether this information is true does matter, much more so than that found in legends and even in historical fiction. A biographical hoax is therefore considered an abomination (e.g., Roberts, 2015).

In other words, casual readers of biographies and autobiographies do not usually seek fulfillment in them, nor do they regard them as utilitarian literature.[2] The facts are important, but only rarely do these readers seem inclined to check them out, challenge their accuracy, perhaps even impugn their relevance to the narrative, as would someone more analytically minded. Nevertheless, fulfillment achieved through a serious pursuit could be, or become, a future aim of the present casual reader, as in teen-age athletes who read the autobiography of a hero in their sport, coming away with an unshakable determination to excel in that activity. Initially, they probably read the book out of curiosity, expecting it to be enjoyable. Although its deeper messages were unexpected, they were presumably most welcome.

Edutaining Museums and Zoos

Zoos (including aquaria, butterfly gardens and public aviaries) and science museums commonly provide some edutainment in their displays. Most people seem to frequent zoos to see animals, birds, reptiles, fish, and the like. The casual, entertaining aspect of these visits is found in, among other features, the colours, movements, and sounds of these creatures. Accordingly, a sleeping tiger or armadillo is not nearly as interesting as one that moves in some way or that makes a sound of some kind. Yet, even an inert specimen can be informative. At the zoo, for example, a visitor can see its real colours, shape and (sleeping) position all in a quasi-natural habitat.

Here learning and education seem accidental, for the typical visitor’s intention is to enjoy some casual leisure, in this case and using the language of the serious leisure perspective they may be said to enjoy a session of sensory stimulation. Additionally, people with an educational bent may read the accompanying information about the exhibit as served up in a pamphlet or posted statement. This activity leads us to the issue of the level of seriousness in this kind of casual leisure. Such reading is meant to be informative, even moderately fulfilling to the extent that readers continue on their way with some enduring learning and a new understanding of the world in which they live.

Science museums – they include those devoted to paleontological, astronomical and natural history phenomena as well as establishments like botanical gardens and rainforest parks — offer a similar dual experience. Many visitors go to such places for the beauty and wonderment that they provide, an experience that is itself informative. Here, too, they may build on this foundation with reading material that is usually available on site by which the more serious among them may further their understanding of what they have just seen.

Can art and history museums be edutaining? Probably not. That is, such places are normally repositories of fine art and of historical artefacts and constructed historical scenarios, assembled in both cases to educate and rather than stir up hedonic pleasure. There is, of course, great beauty in the art museums, but appreciation of this beauty is an acquired taste. People with this acquisition are when visiting these museums participating in a liberal arts hobby.

Liberal arts hobbyists are enamoured of the systematic acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Many of them accomplish this primarily by reading voraciously in a field of art, sport, cuisine, language, culture, history, science, philosophy, politics or literature (Stebbins, 1994).

But some of them go beyond this to expand their knowledge still further through cultural tourism, documentary videos, television programs, visits to zoos and museums, and similar resources. Although the matter has yet to be studied in detail, it is theoretically possible to separate buffs from consumers in the liberal arts hobbies of sport, cuisine, and the fine and entertainment arts. Thus some people — call them consumers — more or less uncritically consume restaurant fare, sports events, or displays of art (concerts, shows, exhibitions) as pure entertainment and sensory stimulation, whereas others — call them buffs — participate in these same situations as knowledgeable experts at some level, as serious leisure hobbyists (for more on this distinction, see Stebbins 2002, chap. 5).

Educational theme parks (e.g., historical villages, animal safari parks, the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida), though providing plenty of edutainment, appear to be unlikely places for liberal arts hobbyists to visit. For this kind of leisure is probably too inauthentic for true history and zoology buffs. Instead, patrons of the educational theme parks are, at bottom, dabbling in one of the liberal arts. Here there is no commitment to do more with what they have learned than to savour it. Nonetheless, this savouring could push some of them toward a more enduring interest in the theme, thereby opening up for them the possibility of a full-fledged serious pursuit in it as a volunteer, amateur, or liberal arts hobbyist (on the subject of leisure-work careers in these pursuits, see Stebbins, 2014).

Conclusions

Edutainment is certainly not all fluff, not pure hedonism. The preceding paragraph shows how it can be a precursor to a substantial leisure or work activity. More circumscribed is the benefit of learning something in an enjoyable setting that could stay with the participant well beyond the visit to that setting, even while no commitment to a serious pursuit results from the experience. In this scenario participants gain the benefits of hedonic casual leisure along with some rather more profound positive intellectual acquisitions.

In other words, ‘serious hedonism’ as a concept is certainly not serious leisure. Experiencing such hedonism requires, for example, comparatively little effort or perseverance and in itself offers no leisure career, all of them hallmarks of serious leisure. Yet, my earlier statement about the benefits of casual leisure (Stebbins, 2004) revolved around the central point that it contributes to individual and society in some important ways. I should like to think that the idea of serious hedonism, exemplified here by edutainment, is one of those ways. That said, serious hedonism and serious leisure are not the same.

Endnotes

[1] Source: dictionary.reference.com/browse/historical%20fiction (retrieved 2 March 2012).

2 The concepts of ‘pleasurable’, ‘utilitarian’ and ‘fulfilling’ reading are discussed in Stebbins (2013, pp. 4-6).

References

Abt, C.C. (1970) Serious Games, New York: Viking.

Nahrstedt, W. (2000) ‘Global edutainment: the role of leisure education for community

Development’, in A. Sivan and H. Ruskin (eds.), Leisure education, community development and populations with special needs, London: CAB International, pp. 65–74.

New World Encyclopedia (2008) ‘Edutainment’ http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Edutainment , retrieved 3 March 2012.

Ma, M., Oikonomou, A. and Jain, L.C. (eds.) (2011) Serious Games and Edutainment Applications, New York: Springer.

Roberts, S. (2015) ‘Herman Rosenblat, 85, Dies: Made up Holocaust Love Story’, New York Times, 21 February (online edition).

Stebbins, R.A. (1994) ‘The liberal arts hobbies: a neglected subtype of serious leisure’, Loisir et Société/Society and Leisure, 16, 173-86.

Stebbins, R.A. (2001) ‘The costs and benefits of hedonism: some consequences of taking casual leisure seriously’, Leisure Studies, 20, 305-09.

Stebbins, R. A. (2002) The Organizational Basis of Leisure Participation: A Motivational Exploration, State College, PA: Venture.

Stebbins, R.A. (2013) The Committed Reader: Reading for Utility, Pleasure and Fulfillment in the Twenty-First Century, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Stebbins, R.A. (2014) Careers in Serious Leisure: From Dabbler to Devotee in Search of Fulfillment, Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Svencer, B.D. (2012) EDUtainment: Entertainment in the K-12 Classroom, Seattle, WA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Weir, A. (2011) Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, New York: Ballantine.

Forthcoming in LSA Newsletter No. 102

(November, 2015): Robert Stebbins’

Leisure Reflections No. 40

On ‘Tourism, Flow and the Serious Leisure Perspective’

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