Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Is Dead Poet's Society a Terrible Ad for the Humanities?

It's doubtful that any English or humanities teacher of the past thirty years doesn't like the classic Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poet's Society.  In fact, one could reasonably argue that the movie influenced more than a few young people to pursue a career in the liberal arts. I mean, what teacher out there doesn't want to be like Mr. Keating? Who hasn't envisioned inspiring kids with those poetic artful monologues? What student doesn't want to feel so inspired to "live deliberately" and jump up on a desk, saying, "Oh, Captain, my Captain"? The movie is truly inspiring and truly encapsulates what all humanities teachers seek to be. And everyone has their own favorite part or DPS-influenced memory. It is simply a movie that deeply effects and resonates with people, and it's one of those films that can't help but launch a discussion.  We all want to create that love of the arts, especially in the STEM-happy world that public education has become. (Though we should all be focusing on turning STEM to STEAM).  And now, the biggest company in the world has appropriated some of Keating's most magical words in a new commercial to sell us ever more exciting technology and media. Is that wrong? Kevin Detmer of The Atlantic seems to think so.

But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. We see Mr. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’” Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.

Ultimately, I'd have to argue that there is much more to praise about the movie than to criticize about it. The ground-breaking and career-defining role for Williams - which moved him past the role of comedian - is still popular and leading idealistic young people into teaching. For that reason alone, it's probably still one of the best teacher films, and a pretty darn good promotion of the humanities.

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