Poetry News

Dead Poets Society's Alarming Anti-Intellectualism & the Fate of the Humanities

By Harriet Staff


The Atlantic has an in-depth piece on the movie Dead Poets Society being anti-intellectual, or in fact, a "terrible defense of the humanities." Writer Kevin J.H. Dettmar hates it, even though he can advocate for passionate teaching: "But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous." To continue:

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.

Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)

The film’s anti-intellectualism is both quite visceral and quite violent. When his students first sit down with their new poetry anthology, Keating tricks a student into reading aloud a few sentences from the banal introduction written by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD—a cartoonish version of academic criticism that opens with a split infinitive!—before instructing them to tear those pages out of their books. (Though generic-sounding, the essay’s title, “Understanding Poetry,” mischievously nods to the most influential poetry text of the 20th century, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry [1938].) Although he employs mock-heroic terms, Keating makes it clear that they’re fighting for their spiritual lives. . . .

Dettmar goes on to shudder at the white boys reading Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" in a cave off-campus. But this conversation is topical--not only because of the film's upcoming 25th anniversary, but in relation to the current crisis in humanities, says Dettmar.

Certainly it has been an interesting few years for humanists. Since the economic downturn of 2008, enrollments in humanities courses across the country have declined; at the same time—the flip-side of the coin—colleges and universities are seeing a sharp increase in students majoring in those disciplines which, rightly or wrongly, are thought to ensure better employment prospects at the conclusion of one’s studies. This titanic (if cartoonish) battle, often characterized as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) v. humanities—Big Science, little man—has been splashed across the higher education and broader popular press, and has clearly captured the public imagination. The headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggest the contours of the “crisis”: “The Humanities’ Value” (“Why should society support the humanities when so many people are suffering from the effects of the economic crisis?”); “In the Humanities, How Should We Define ‘Decline’?” (“Colleagues nationwide were stunned to learn a few weeks ago that a French department and four other humanities departments at SUNY-Albany were being sacrificed for their ‘underperformance’”); and even “It’s Time to Stop Mourning the Humanities” (“As we are forced to sell out to corporate models of higher education, let’s at least be sure to sell high”).

In the conversation about the fate of the humanities, these disciplines are often caricatured to the point of being unrecognizable to those of us in the component fields. The most alarming version—one, I’m arguing, that has been propagated by Dead Poets Society—is what I’ve taken to calling “sentimental humanities”: humanities content stripped of all humanities methodology and rigor. This is a feel-good humanities—the humanities of uplift. The film is of no help as we try to find our way out of our current standoff—and to the degree that it unconsciously stands in for humanities pedagogy and scholarship, it does real damage. I believe, in particular, that there are two fundamental problems with allowing this Dead Poets Society, sentimentalized version of the humanities to serve as our model for what it means to be deeply and passionately engaged in the study of music, art, language and literature, history, philosophy, religion—of human culture. Call them resistance and acceptance.

Dettmar also notes Keating's misreadings of Whitman:

For Keating—and one fears, examining the scant evidence the film provides, for his students—every poem is a Song of Myself. This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Read it all at The Atlantic.

Originally Published: February 19th, 2014