Is 'Dead Poets Society' Ruining Our Schools?

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by Sam Adams
February 20, 2014 12:24 PM
8 Comments
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Kevin Dettmar is hardly the first critic to take issue with Dead Poets Society, but he might be the first to accuse it of ruining our schools. More specifically, Dettmar writes in The Atlantic, the movie, which purports to extol the values of literature, is actually profoundly anti-intellectual, essentially falling in line with the caricature of the liberal arts as soft-headed and emotional-driven -- the kind of thing that's fine for long-haired teenagers but not much use in the adult world.

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

Following in the footsteps of noted literary scholar Piper Kerman, Dettmar argues that Robin Williams' beloved Mr. Keating fundamentally misreads Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken": "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 essence, rather than understanding Frost's poem as one about self-deception and the illusion of choice, Keating, and Dead Poets Society as a whole, uses it as a self-congratulatory metaphor for nonconformism (while doing so in the most conformist way imaginable). 

It's not surprising, in a sense: the exaltation of feeling over intellect is practically a manifesto for Hollywood. So if Dead Poets Society is a terrible movie about the teaching of English literature, it might be, intentionally or not, a fairly accurate one about what happens to literary complexities when they're fed through the movie industry's meat grinder.

Update: Let the counterarguments begin! Flavorwire's Jason Bailey fires back, arguing that the Atlantic essay is merely the sour grapes of a thin-skinned intellectual:

You see, Dettmar objects to the picture’s "sentimentalized version of the humanities," wherein (gasp) "passion alone" is "empty, even dangerous." OK, that’s all well and good, but we start getting into territory far off the screen when the good professor proceeds to blast the film's -- and society's -- "preference for fans over critics, amateurs over professionals." You see, he concludes, "Scholars and teachers of the humanities" like the good professor "will insist on being welcomed to the table as professionals." In other words, this lengthy ramble is less about the quality of a motion picture and more about a professional intellectual taking a strangely forced opportunity to fiercely assert his own relevance. And I'm not quite sure why anyone else needs to read that.

It's great that Dead Poets Society drove 13-year-old Bailey to seek out the works of Whitman, et al., but that's not really an argument: Salinger will undoubtedly inspire people to read Salinger, but that doesn't make it a good documentary. And Bailey's supposed rebuttal -- "What academics are supposed to do is take that passion and turn it into close study and real analysis, rather than turn up their nose at the source" -- actually sounds a lot like what Dettmar is arguing in the first place. Dettmar's not saying that passion has no place in the class room, but that while Williams' Keating removes "dull pedagogy," he "doesn't finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm." How this translates into Dettmar being a "bully," as Bailey calls him, I just don't see at all.

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8 Comments

  • Micah | February 22, 2014 5:06 AMReply

    Very interesting article. This is one of my favorite films.

  • DJ | February 20, 2014 12:43 PMReply

    Waiting for the response now from the sales team at Apple, Inc., who, in the heat of cardinal cliche, has looped Keating's voiceovers to hock their iPads. Corporate "virtue" and marketing intellection at its basest/finest.

  • TumTumClub | February 20, 2014 11:15 AMReply

    You have to be kidding me.

    Keating's teaching style leads to Neil's suicide, the destruction of the DPS itself, and the fracturing of all the students. The film is not so simple minded as to hold up Keating as an exemplar - he's a flawed man, and the consequences of his actions are enormous and heart-wrenching.

    At the same time, the stuffiness of the Great Books-style curriculum is really seen through the eyes of the teenage boys the film centers on. Of *course* they mock tradition, they're kids. Keating is an overgrown kid himself - and again, he pays for it.

    I've always taken it as a critique on the 60s, not a paeon.

  • You in carcosa now | February 19, 2014 9:56 PMReply

    DAILY REMINDER THAT ANYTHING SAM ADAMS SAYS IS INADMISSIBLE BECAUSE HE THINKS TRUE DETECTIVE IS OVERRATED.

    m8 in repsons to ur reply on another article where you asked me if i thot shows with girls as the center of the story was 'for pussies bro'.

    m8 i'll have u know that I do not think that. But there are is not a single show that is women centerd thats considerd 'impeccabble' all the great current shows are for men. i love women and pussy but im jus sayin. dont even retort by saying 'girls' because that is HBO's worst show to date, objectively speaking ofcourse.

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  • James D. | February 19, 2014 7:06 PMReply

    As a teacher who has never seen the film, I feel like I must now.

  • Michelle | February 19, 2014 5:53 PMReply

    As a college professor (of history, not English), I was dismayed when I first saw DPS. The anti-intellectualism of it is bad enough; beyond that, Keating is a narcissist who crosses boundaries he shouldn't cross and who should be kept far, far away from students for their own protection. I've been surprised to realize that many people see this film as an example of what good teaching should be.

  • No | February 19, 2014 5:28 PMReply

    Uh, isn't " the exaltation of feeling over intellect" one of the pillars of romanticism? I just find this argument a bit strange, especially given that a fair amount of Hollywood film scores are about this, as well as the movies.

  • Mike | February 19, 2014 5:00 PMReply

    All movies (and television) are like this. Movies are about feelings, not reality. In Wolf of Wall Street for example there's the scene where DiCaprio, once informed about penny-stock's having 50% commission (AS IF HE WOULDN'T HAVE KNOWN ALREADY, ya know, being a broker), gets on the phone and sells an obscene amount of them, leaving the rest of the staff to pick their jaws up off the floor. He's not just a broker, he's super-broker. The entire reason that scene exists, is because actually showing a broker work is boring as crap. So movies manufacture the feeling of what it's like to make a really big sale with a scene that merely replicates those emotions, rather than the reality. It's usually hard for the viewer to pick this up unless he actively does for a living what's being depicted. In movies like Dead Poets' Society, this is why nearly all classroom scenes the teacher is doing some introduction to the course, as if the students have no idea why they are in college/school in the first place.

    So I think the article is a little self-important, but with a touch of truth. Television and movies sort of does inform this quick-fix and lottery mentality. The 'feel good' mentality where everything is self contained, their are good guys and bad. Not all cinema, of course, some does in fact fight against usual audience expectations. I also don't think this movie necessarily ruined education as it merely mirrored a trend that was already happening. The internet is what revealed that information is cheap, and that accomplishments, skills and connections are regarded as far more important in the 'adult world'.

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