Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities

The beloved film's portrayal of studying literature is both misleading and deeply seductive.
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Touchstone Pictures

I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society. I expect that them’s fighting words, at least in some quarters; at least I hope they are. Because I’m trying to pick a fight here.

I was in the last year of my English literature PhD program in the summer of 1989, when Dead Poets Society was released. My younger brother Scott, who really didn’t have the money to spare, slipped my wife Robyn and me a ten-dollar bill (these were simpler times) and told us he’d watch our kids so we could go out to see it. No one in my family quite understood what I wanted to do for a living or, having finished my bachelor’s degree, why I’d spend seven more years in school to do it; but having seen Dead Poets Society, Scott believed he finally had an idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and more importantly, why.

We went to the movie and watched, often swept up in the autumnal New England beauty of Welton Academy (the real-life St. Andrew’s School, Middletown, Delaware). But I walked out horrified that anyone would think that what happens in Mr. Keating’s classroom—or outside of it, because so many of his poetry-derived “life lessons” are taught outside the classroom, after all—had anything to do with literary study, or why I was pursuing a graduate degree in English. I think I hate Dead Poets Society for the same reason that Robyn, a physician assistant, hates House: because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive. For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading. Rather, it’s the literary equivalent of fandom. Worse, it’s anti-intellectual. It takes Emily Dickinson’s playful remark to her mentor Thomas Higginson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” and turns it into a critical principle. It’s not.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for passion in the literature classroom. Harvard poetry professor Helen Vendler uses two lines from Wordsworth’s The Prelude as the title for an essay about teaching: “What we have loved, / Others will love….” That second line concludes, “and we will teach them how.” That’s how I teach, or hope to teach: with my heart on my sleeve, perhaps, but with my brain always fully engaged. I’m fortunate to do what I love for a living, and I know it. That’s how I was taught, in high school especially. I’m an English professor today because I had Mr. Hansen in ninth grade, and Mr. Jackson in eleventh.

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.

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:

This is a battle. A war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls. Armies of academics going forward measuring poetry. No! We’ll not have that here: no more Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. [Notice how he’s just been stripped of his professional credential.] Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. 

Their textbook now purged of any taint of critical thought, the students are freed to enjoy an unmediated encounter with poetry in the raw.

This style of working with poetry—what’s sometimes termed poetry “appreciation,” as distinct from poetry criticism—is the m.o. of the Dead Poets Society, Welton’s bookish version of Yale’s Skull and Bones. Mr. Keating explains the purpose of the group to his inner circle of students in a conspiratorial whisper:

The Dead Poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. That’s a phrase from Thoreau we would invoke at the beginning of every meeting. A few would gather at the old Indian cave and read from Thoreau, Whitman, Shelley, the biggies—even some of our own verse—and in the enchantment of the moment we’d let poetry work its magic…. We were Romantics. We didn’t just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey. 

(“We would invoke”? “Our own verse”? Who’s writing this stuff?)

If the Welton School officials and parents suspect that Mr. Keating is leading his students astray, Pied Piper-like, there is at least something to that charge. Or rather, he’s sending them astray, without ever really leading them. The first meeting of the reconvened Society ends with one of the students reciting Vachel Lindsay’s notorious 1919 poem “The Congo,” a text whose racial politics are ambiguous at best; about it, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “Mr. Lindsay knows little of the Negro, and that little is dangerous.” Whatever the poem’s real or intended politics, the spectacle of an all-white clique of prep-school boys capering out of a cave into the night while chanting the poem’s refrain (“THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, / CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A GOLDEN TRACK”)—well, shudder. Shades of “What Makes the Red Man Red?,” from Disney’s Peter Pan. The setting, after all, is the “old Indian cave.”

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Kevin J.H. Dettmar is the W.M. Keck Professor of English, and the chair of the English Department, at Pomona College.

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