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.