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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