Picking Apart the Vision of Humanistic Teaching and Learning in Dead Poet’s Society

I watched Dead Poet’s Society last night. To be honest, I’m not sure if I was watching it for the first time, or if it had merely been so long that it just felt like I was. Either way, I am relatively confident that I was watching the film (which features strikingly youthful versions of some really fabulous actors) with fresh eyes. I didn’t choose that particular movie for my Sunday night procrastination at random; instead, I carved the time out to watch it because of a tirade that appeared in the Atlantic last month.

Kevin J.H. Dettmar, who wrote this particular polemic, opens by explaining that: “I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society.” “I expect that them’s fighting words,” he continues,  “at least in some quarters; at least I hope they are.” In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that Dettmar’s tone got my back up – he pretty much spews bile for 3500 words – even though I hadn’t seen or couldn’t remember the movie. And so, in my opinion, Dettmar comes off as the worst kind of pedant, despite his accurate analysis the film’s misreading of poetry.

In a nutshell, Dettmar is upset because – even after 25 years – Dead Poet’s Society remains a very popular and seductive defense of the Humanities in a society that currently undervalues humanistic learning. He finds this defense not just misleading, but also dangerous.

In some ways, I agree. John Keating – an inspirational teacher played by Robin Williams – does have a tendency to produce reductive, poorly edited, and narcissistic readings of the poems that he teaches his students. There are also myriad problems with the negotiation of gender and race in the movie (don’t even get me started on the whole “Indian Cave”/Nuwanda thing). And despite Keating’s constant refrain that he is teaching individuality and critical thought, very little thought seems to go into the way that the students construct their new identities.

But I think Dettmar is misreading the film as badly as Keating misreads all that poetry. If you take a closer look at what the film is actually saying, and how it is saying it, the carefree, youthful romance with a smattering of dead poets is actually something that the film critiques. By the end of the movie, a more level-headed viewer than Dettmar might easily conclude that the writer and director want audiences to seek a middle path between Keating and the stodgy old boys who run the prep school.

Near the beginning of the film, when we’re still being introduced to Keating, he has an interesting exchange with a relatively sympathetic colleague. It goes like this:

McAllister: “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man.”

John Keating: “But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”

McAllister: “Tennyson?”

John Keating: “No, Keating.”

To me, this exchange foregrounds the rest of the movie, as it questions the nature and limitations of freedom. Keating is encouraging his students to dream big, and then to chase those dreams, but McAllister’s more pragmatic voice speaks caution in a world that places real constraints on agency.

To me, this is where the film gets interesting. You might say that I’m reading too much into a tiny snippet of dialogue, and that may well be. But there is more to support the argument that Keating is irresponsible, even within the context of the film itself. Keating has the students tear out pages of the admittedly terrible introduction to their poetry readers, scream inspirational quotes before kicking soccer balls, and march around a courtyard in such a way as to avoid conformity. And yet, none of this seems to involve teaching the critical thought that Keating himself allegedly defends – something that should disturb the educated viewer.

As a humanist myself, all of these scenes did indeed make me profoundly uncomfortable, and I started to wonder if maybe Dettmar was right and that the film does advocate for some sort of thoughtless assertion of individuality in an egoistic quest for literary-induced pleasure. This type of self-assured blustering surely fails to consider either the consequences of action or the complexity of language – be that the language of written texts or an actual human exchange. Surely in order for one’s individuality to have meaning, I thought, those who rebel must have a proper understanding of what it is they’re doing, and why. They must become the self-aware and critical beings that Keating briefly gestures towards and then ignores.

So, to be fair to Dettmar, I can see why he got annoyed. However, I think the film itself is suspicious of the way in which the boys internalize the message. Even Keating backs away from what is happening after Charlie/Nuwanda surreptitiously publishes a demand that girls be admitted to the school in the school’s newspaper. After the fiasco blows over, he walks into a rather Bohemian looking gathering and explains that: “sucking out the marrow doesn’t mean getting the bone stuck in your throat, Charles. … There is a place for daring and a place for caution as well, and a wise person understands which one is called for.” When you add to this the fact that the two boys who are most enamored with Keating’s lessons end up either dead or expelled, well, you get the picture.

At the end of the film, it is a more moderate and more reflective individuality and approach to life/learning that remains. A chastised group of boys revisit their poetry readers – they even have to reread that god-awful introduction. But instead of a zealous shredding of the single remaining copy, or a complete acceptance of the notion that poetry can be reduced to a graph, there is a silent skepticism about the day’s lesson. And when Keating comes to collect his things in his final exit from the school after he’s been fired, the boys defiantly stand on their desks to show him that he has indeed changed their perspectives.

What is so interesting about this last scene is that half the boys in the room actually stay seated, so the choice to stand becomes more individual and more critical. Each student must decide for himself if he should pay tribute to his erstwhile mentor, and each boy who stands does so knowing what the potential consequences are – and accepting them. The students no longer blindly follow either the rules of the prep school or the rules of Keating’s classroom, and there is little indication that they will ever return to that Indian Cave.

What does any of this have to do with my blog, you ask? Well, for one, I would argue that the movie is indeed an excellent defense of the Humanities, if you can watch it with enough of a critical eye to see that it’s not Keating who embodies true learning. The lessons that his students learn are very much those which I would like to teach my own students, but without the need for such dramatic loss and suffering. Humanistic learning is seen as valuable, and as distinct from what can be learned in business or medicine. But it is also difficult, complex, and most of all, self-aware and critical of what it does, how, and why.

That said, many of the responses to Dettmar’s piece were uninterested in the Humanities per se. They were actually much more interested in debating what makes a great teacher, and there seems to be some level on consensus that being able to ignite a “spark” is the mark of success in this regard. I think the movie – and I would agree with it here as well – cautions us that a great teacher doesn’t just inspire students. Yes, a great teacher needs to impart the daring and zeal to challenge a harsh world; but he or she also needs to provide a toolkit that will allow students to do this intelligently and successfully.

Encouraging students to dream big really does have risks and we, as educators, have a responsibility to teach evaluation and analysis alongside passion and perseverance. If we don’t do this, then we set them up for tragic failure (albeit on a smaller scale than the kind depicted by Hollywood). Like travellers who encounter a gigantic ravine, our students will eventually reach an impasse of some sort; they simply cannot thrust themselves forward without resistance forever. We therefore need to make sure that we have convinced them that when they get there, instead of attempting the impossible and self-assured leap into the abyss – plummeting to their metaphorical deaths – that they begin to construct a bridge instead. The success rate is bound to be higher and the disillusionment much less intense.

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Confession: I’m Really Bad at Starting Stuff

Does anyone else find that starting things is unspeakably difficult? There’s something daunting about a blank page, a large and/or complicated project, or a big stack of midterms (which was my project this past week). It’s funny, because once I get started, it’s never that bad. Sometimes, I even really enjoy it. But sitting down – being at the beginning – fills me with dread. Beginnings aren’t all bad. By definition, they represent the start of something new, and potentially exciting. There’s an energy present, and that energy is useful if one can harness it and channel the momentum away from anxiety and towards productivity. It’s just that, oftentimes, this is easier said than done.

Occasionally, I wonder if this is an age-related thing. Perhaps the older I get, the more I hate being pushed out of my comfort zone and into something new. But when I really think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever really liked to be at the beginning. For that matter, I’ve never really liked to be at the end either. I’m a “comfy-middle” sort of gal, and I often just want to immerse myself in the challenge at hand, enjoying the steady rhythm of a difficult but familiar foe.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my hatred of beginnings in both my research and my teaching. If I’m being honest, the book project is probably stalled less by the threshold of a new chapter, and more by a genuine lack of time. Not to mention the distraction of a particularly aggressive strain of identity politics, which is currently being played out around me here in Quebec. But in the past, I’ve managed to juggle more balls, and even to be more politically engaged, so I can’t shake the feeling that what is really holding me back is that clean, empty, white page.

In terms of teaching, my disdain for starting new tasks has been palpable this year. I am teaching what is pretty much my dream course (although I have traded an historical focus for a philosophical one), and I get to talk about how people use and abuse the public sphere on an almost daily basis. I also love my students, who have turned out to be a very smart, curious, and engaged group of young people who email me because they want to continue the conversation beyond the classroom. And yet still, every time I open my computer to write a new lecture, I temporarily seize up.

My usual tactic for overcoming my skittishness is to do every other possible thing on my “to do list” – you know the trick, the one you learned in grad school, where you procrastinate by simply doing other work. I also check Facebook about 6000 times, and go get at least one more cup of coffee. Eventually, with nothing else left to do, I commit to defacing that blank page and I start writing about a new topic; one day I draft a lecture on gender in the mainstream media, the next I tackle the questions raised by international attempts to control how people use the internet. Sometimes I do a great of job and at other times, it’s merely OK – but I do always slay the dragon, and I almost always find it fulfilling. You’d think that eventually I’d figure out how to sit my ass down without freaking out; however, this hasn’t happened yet.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising that when I came home from the office on the Friday before reading week, I didn’t rush right to my desk and start grading the stack of 100 midterms that I had in my bag. Instead, I had a beer. Actually, I had several, and I assume that my students were doing the same thing. But when I did start working – alright, I confess, I caved by Saturday afternoon – I opted to finish the half-written lecture I had managed to start back in my office instead of cracking that ominous pile of little blue books. Unlike most people, I don’t even mind marking, I just hate starting to mark! (For the record, I did get started – and I even finished the pile – but it wasn’t until I had a very clean apartment, had finished last week’s blog, and had gone to the grocery store.)

All of this behavior is completely irrational, not to mention ridiculous. This is especially true since those of us who work in higher education don’t exactly have time to spare, dicking around at the computer and jaunting off for another cup of coffee. Just “get ‘er done,” I tell myself… because that always works. I suspect that I will struggle with getting started throughout my career, and I can’t help but picture a grey-haired version of myself looking at that book that I always swore I would read when I got the time… and then turning on the TV. “I’ll start it later,” I mumble, and then search for the latest episode of whatever cheesy crime drama the future holds.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, first of all, an admittedly small part of me hopes that someone will have some sage advice and leave it in the comments. Maybe the omniscience and communal brilliance of the internet will cure me, once and for all, and I will no longer procrastinate. But as we approach the deadline for my students’ second paper, I also thought it was timely to remind myself not to get annoyed when my students email me at what seems to be like the last minute, betraying the fact that they haven’t yet started their papers. If I can’t bring myself to take the first step in a timely fashion, how can I expect more of them? Perhaps one day I’ll overcome my hatred of beginnings, but until then, I am going to try to avoid judging others for the same flaw. 

Bias vs. Perspective

Alright, dear readers, it’s time for another rant. Can we, as educators, please stop teaching students to look for the author’s “bias?” Now, I know that if you’re a high school teacher, this isn’t really your fault, as you’re beholden to curriculum that’s outside of your control. But it just seems so simple to fix, and yet, it’s painfully persistent.  I hoped that this vocabulary might be generational, and that there was a chance that it would fade away in the same way that that old Whig narrative no longer holds the same sway as it did when I was an undergrad. My students now know James VI  and I as so much more than a homosexual old fool – and they look at me with bewilderment when I try to explain how important revisionism was in changing what previous generations had said about that particular king. Thus, I naively dreamt that eventually I would get a cohort who had never become attached to the concept of pervasive author bias; students who felt that the blanket use of that term was as ill-advised as dismissing a king who united Britain and penned treatises about politics, religion, and witchcraft.

 

Some of my colleagues complain about students not knowing how to do research, write a paper, or analyze texts. Not me. I take it for granted that all of those things are long-term learning processes and I’m ready to get my hands dirty, helping my students figure it all out. Me…I get my knickers in a knot when students put up their hands during a discussion, only to inform me that “author x” is clearly “biased.” Why, you ask, does such a simple thing upset me so? Because it’s not actually so simple and it has huge ramifications for the way that students perceive the scholarly process. It contributes to the widespread lack of understanding about what the humanities are and what humanists do. And, as I said before, it’s so easy to fix.

 

It’s gotten to the point that at the beginning of any seminar, I explain to my students that I am banning the word “bias,” unless they’re absolutely, 100% sure that it applies. Instead, they’re to talk about an author’s perspective, or the author’s argument. This gives rise to both protest and confusion. “What’s the difference between bias and perspective,” they demand, “and why does it matter?” And so I explain that bias has a negative connotation in our society – that it implies unfounded skewing of information, or the bending of facts to fit the narrative. Many definitions of the word bias include the concept of prejudice, or preconceived ideas. Perspective, on the other hand, has to do with how someone interprets the facts – the choosing of an interpretational framework without trying to force the square peg through the round hole.

 

This conversation always takes place after and introductory lecture where I have explained that the role of a scholar is to interpret information, and this is why we have so many competing accounts of historical events (or, in the context of my current Media Ethics course, why people tend to profoundly disagree about what one should do in any given situation).  Facts, I tell them, are nothing more than bits of data. They don’t mean anything on their own. Scholars have to collect some facts, leave others aside, and then try to determine what all of this means through analysis. At this point, my students usually nod their heads in agreement, some giving me the “no shit” face, while others have that epiphany moment. It’s true, they say: humans do have to construct meaning from their past, in their present, and for their future. And then, we start talking, and the bias monster still storms into the room.

 

What I’m saying is that even after such an introduction, students still need me to put all this together for them. Most of them cannot see the links between the need for scholarly interpretation and the problem of always speaking in terms of bias. This is because bias, the way they were taught to use it, means roughly the same thing as perspective. But their version of bias/perspective seems also always to be a bad thing – something that they can easily identify and critique. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that this is a hangover from a simpler time, before postmodernism cautioned us that there is no such thing as pure, objective truth. Whatever the reason, it usually takes me about 15 minutes to explain to my seminar group that if they concede that scholars need to interpret facts, that they are then going to have a particular vision of what those facts mean, and that this interpretation is not necessarily biased.

 

This does not mean that a scholar can’t be biased, and so I usually give the hypothetical example of someone writing a book that is clearly racist, and which has manipulated the facts in order to reach a conclusion that is dubious at best. Most of time, however, scholars simply have a particular perspective, which influences their argument. That doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t make them wrong. It simply means that they’re doing their job, and interpreting facts. It is the job of students – who are learning the scholarly process – to decide if they are convinced by said author’s perspective, or if they feel that the facts need to be interpreted in a different way.

 

But what does any of this have to do with my flippant remark that teaching students to talk about bias is damaging to how they perceive the humanities? Simple. If bias is perspective, and perspective is bad, that means that a subjective position of any kind is bad. The corollary is that scholars are involved in a project that seeks – and produces – objective truth. Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I do. What I do is far more interesting, and it involves acknowledging my own limitations and subject position while still striving to discover a little bit more about the human condition. It involves dialogue, and difference, and probably a whole lot of failure. But it teaches us much more about the complexity of human society than the assumption that facts can somehow speak for themselves without any interpretation involved. One might even say that it is a blindness to the need for interpretation that opens the door to bias in the first place. But I digress.

 

I know it only takes me half an hour in lecture, and another 15 minutes in seminar to explain all of this to my students, so it’s really not the time that annoys me. What annoys me is the thought of all those students who learned to think this way and who never end up in my class – or in any other humanities class for that matter. If we keep teaching them to talk about bias, they will continue to misunderstand the value of the humanities. And they will grow into adults who continue to write tirades about the useless nature of non-STEM degrees. And so, I beseech anyone who is reading this: please stop using that word. It is misleading and problematic, and may cause this particular blogger to fall into a rage-induced coma. That’s all for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to rant about soon.