One of the strangest things about watching the film again, 25 years on—for while I’ve long loathed it, until now I’d never actually revisited it—is that I now find myself sympathizing not primarily with the plucky and irreverent John Keating, but to a surprising degree with his “old fart” colleagues whom I’m clearly supposed to find benighted. (It’s also a revelation to watch a young Ethan Hawke, before he could really act—and a young Robert Sean Leonard [Dr. Wilson on House], before he couldn’t.) Smarmy to the end, Keating, when interrogated about his teaching antics by the school’s headmaster, quips, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” The film gives us no evidence that he’s done this for Neil, Todd, Knox, and Charlie. And while too cynical by half, the headmaster’s response is one with which I sympathize a good deal more now than I did back then: “At these boys’ age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.” On some level, Keating is a Lost Boy who refuses to grow up. It’s hard to forget, in this connection, that Williams went on to play Peter Banning/Peter Pan two years later in Steven Spielberg’s parental guilt-fueled remake of that story, Hook.
Why does all of this matter? In part, because Dead Poets Society might well be the most enduring and beloved picture ever made about teaching the humanities. While many English professors dislike and distrust the film, there’s another large contingent, even among those who teach literature in high school and college, that loves it. And I’m not deaf to its charms. Compared to his colleagues, Mr. Keating is a thrilling teacher, a breath of fresh air, and rightly beloved. The rote repetition and memorization taking place in adjoining classrooms makes his teaching seem quite vibrant.
But while avoiding the pitfalls of dull pedagogy, Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm. Next door, Mr. McAllister’s students are declining Latin—Agricolam, Agricola, Agricolae, Agricolarum, Agricolis, Agricolas, Agrilcolis; out in the hallway, in front of the trophy case and faded photographs of old Weltonians, Keating preaches it. “Carpe diem,” he entreats, during their first class period together.
With its 25th anniversary nearly upon us, the enduring popularity of Dead Poets Society—voted the greatest “school film” ever made, and often named by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to a 2011 piece in The Guardian—has a great deal, I believe, to tell us about the current conversation concerning the “crisis in the humanities.”
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”).