The Dead Poets Society: Why we (don't) study the humanities

The Dead Poets Society: Why we (don't) study the humanities



what do you do with a BA in English it's one of those questions all English majors get asked at some point along with their counterparts in the classics film studies and philosophy departments now what can you do with the philosophy major you can think deep thoughts about being unemployed the supposed uselessness of a degree in the humanities has become something of a running joke in popular culture but these fields of study do sometimes find their advocates in Hollywood cinema one of the most famous examples is the 1989 Robin Williams classic the Dead Poets Society in which Williams plays an English teacher named John Keating who teaches a group of prep school boys the value of poetry we don't read and write poetry because it's cute we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion medicine law business engineering these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life the poetry Beauty romance love these are what we stay alive for Keating reaches out to his bored and passive students ultimately inspiring them to look at life from new perspectives and to pursue their dreams he uses poetry to preach the importance of individuality and nonconformity quoting Robert Frost's famous poem the road not taken' in order to inspire the boys to listen to their own inner voice we all have a great need for acceptance but you must trust that your beliefs are unique your own even though others may think them odd or unpopular even though the herd may go that had hovered Foss said two roads diverged in a wood and I I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference this is just one of many inspiring speeches that one the Dead Poets Society the Academy Award for screenwriting that year but from the perspective of someone who actually has a degree in English literature there is one tiny problem with Keating's interpretation of the poem it's wrong Robert Frost who by all accounts is a much more complex poet than people usually give him credit for describe the road not taken' as a very tricky poem if you read it closely you'll see that it isn't the impassioned call for nonconformity that it's so often painted as but a subtly contradictory poem told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator regretfully assigning false importance to minor choices made in his past don't believe me well let's take a look the speaker describes himself in the past tense standing at a metaphorical crossroads forced to choose between two options he chooses the one that looks grassy and once where the road less traveled in other words but then he immediately goes on to admit that as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same and both that morning equally lay which is to say that our narrator chose the path that looked less travelled but really wasn't the words sorry and sigh indicate regret the narrator wonders what might have happened had he taken the other Road but Frost biographers usually argue that we the readers aren't meant to accept the narrator's insistence that that made all the difference but rather question how his perspective is influenced by nostalgia regret and hindsight bias now of course this is just an interpretation supported by basic close reading it's the sort of thing you would learn how to do in an English class but it's not the sort of thing you would learn how to do in Keating's English class because Keating isn't really reading the poem at all he's reading into it he's picking out the words and phrases that best support his life philosophy and giving them to his students to absorb without considering the context come often fit pensive in yellow and gray and fooled me with tidings of nature's decay Robert Burns context is important it can dramatically change the meaning of a line in a poem or scene in a film I want to take a look at an older and less well-known movie that has a lot in common with the Dead Poets Society now I'm talking about the 1969 film adaptation of Muriel sparks classic novel the prime of Miss Jean Brodie Maggie Smith plays an eccentric teacher at a prestigious prep school who teaches her adoring students the value of passion poetry and of course nonconformity it is possible you will hear my teaching methods to create and recessional reporters as being unsuitable for a conservative school like masculine that is the assumed identity to do this day to school we will not do out history can anyone tell me who is the greatest Italian painter the plot is remarkably similar to the Dead Poets Society like Keating miss Brody is eventually forced to leave the school after her influence indirectly leads to the death of a student but unlike heating miss Brody isn't really presented as a hero or a martyr at first her proclamations about art and beauty sound inspiring intoxicating our worst a little ridiculous but as the film progresses we begin to place them within a context that becomes more and more troubling safety does not come first goodness truth and beauty come first phase is like the teens but it are always employed the catalyst individualism spinach tortellini is a great name an infinite tool but he is also a man of action you too must be prepared to self supper and sacrifice are you prepared yes if we feel seduced by miss Brody's rhetoric about truth beauty and fighting the status quo then were also repelled by her inappropriate and destructive actions which include raising funds to support Generalissimo Franco and grooming a young student to have an Sayre with her married teacher because of the way the film is structured and written we the audience are encouraged to read more closely to connect dots to decide for ourselves whether miss Brodie is a naive eccentric or a domineering and deluded narcissist we're left to wonder whether the school authorities are threatened by miss Brody's influence or justly concerned for their pupils or both we love to wonder about the true motivations of the student who eventually betrays her and to ask ourselves whether it really was a betrayal or a necessary intervention in other words it invites close reading the Dead Poets Society on the other hand discourages close reading not only in the way it presents poetry but in the way it presents itself it encourages you to feel inspired by Keating's rhetoric without digging too closely into its implications the messages are powerful and inspiring but they don't always hold up to analysis after all if keating students are really learning something for themselves then why do they worship their charismatic teacher to the point of copying him repeating after him following his instructions without question and even aping his old-school traditions and if they're learning to reject Authority then why do they call him Oh captain my captain now in my talk at Deary I mentioned the Dead Poets Society as an example of Hollywood film that gels with fascist ideology of course a few people came up to me afterwards to ask what I meant after all isn't the film above all about the value of nonconformity but my point was that fascist ideology often appears in the guise of freedom and individualism as it does with miss Brody which is why we need to look beneath the surface instead of allowing ourselves to be seduced by rhetoric designed to appeal to our egos but I want to be absolutely clear the Dead Poets Society is not a fascist film it's just a simple film a film designed to be taken at face value a film whose quotes are just as effective taken out of context the Dead Poets Society is more interested in headaches than ideology in words that in context it presents you with a path that looks less traveled but in the end Keating's anti-intellectualism and contempt for academia has some troubling implications in one thing he famously orders his students to tear up their textbooks arguing that the only real credentials for understanding poetry our passion and instinct armies of academics going forward measuring poetry now my class you will learn to think for yourself again Keating paints academics as the enemies of freedom and the agents of conformity now that is a very fascist idea it's also a very wrong one analyzing poetry doesn't mean mathematically measuring its importance or perfection the suppose that academic viewpoint were given in the film is frankly deranged Keating isn't wrong when he calls it excellent but he is wrong to teach that poetry appreciation should come at the expense of analysis in our current society the study of literature is often portrayed both positively and negatively as a kind of mental hedonism studying beautiful text simply for one's own personal growth and enjoyment lots of high-school students think that they're not good at English simply because they don't like whatever it is they happen to be reading in class and enjoying literature is supposed to be the ultimate sign that you're enlightened enough to get it but and I mean this was all due respect to Robin Williams and his incredible body of work the end goal of studying poetry isn't blind enthusiasm for literature any more than the end goal of studying medicine is joy and laughter the humanities teach close reading and critical analysis and these are powerful ethical tools genuinely threatening to the status quo because they are transferable if you can read a poem critically or a movie critically then you can read a newspaper article or an advertisement or a contract critically you can read a teacher or a politician you can read information or propaganda you can even read your family and your culture and your own deeply held beliefs in other words studying the humanities gives you the tools to take apart whatever it is you're told not just to appreciate the rhetoric but to actively see through it and personally I would argue that that is much more radically nonconformist than either passively absorbing a text or reactively carrying it up to Dead Poets Society makes a convincing and powerful case for the necessity of art and literature but it neglects to make a case for the humanities as a field of study yes we may read a poetry because we find it beautiful and inspiring but we study poetry because analyzing text is how we learn to navigate the world of ideas in our current political climate truths and facts have become increasingly murky as artists filmmakers journalists and politicians keep trying to tell us what to believe it's all the more important for English teachers to keep teaching us how to read what do you do with the BA in English what is my life going to be oh here the garbage and plenty of knowledge have earned me this useless degree

47 thoughts on “The Dead Poets Society: Why we (don't) study the humanities

  1. I honestly disagreed with the part of the poem being missed interpreted. Because poems like all other art are up to the reader to feel. That’s the beauty of art. We can come up with a feeling that we feel when we here it.

  2. Is not art and poetry the the freedom to express ones self, and others to interpret that way they wish? I find this video patronizing, and takes away from the message the film tries to convey which is an extremity positive one. We all need to seize the day. Just because it does not fit into your version of the truth, does not change the impact and meaning of this masterpiece for others.

  3. You neglect to provide the hope and drive to carry on. A simple message this film provides, with some reference to literature that most would ignore and not peruse without having a movie like this. It is not all about absolutes, it is about encouraging people to explore. It might not be entirely factually correct, but is based off a real experience from a person that experienced something and a meaning that may have not been intended. It has help many people have the courage to stand up in life and give it a go. What is wrong with any of that?

  4. I really like your video essays, I hope you'll continue to work on this because … well, I'll dare to name it … revolutionary, maybe? Using the tool that stops us froom thinking and questioning too much… also brainwashing sometimes, to open our eyes and analyze. Something we need to do.

  5. There are certain films that are considered classics that are beyond and above any critisism. One of those films is Dead Poets Society. I really respect and admire the fact that Ms. Margarita G dares to criticly dissect it. Mind you, she doesn't it's a bad film, just a "simple one". I think that is a good point.

  6. As an aside:::: I have heard that another not-great thing about the DPS film is that it only presents older poetry while the beat revolution was set in the same time and is completely ignored by Keeting. Haven't fact-checked that myself though.

  7. It's weird how we tend to separate science from the humanities because they've always been closely linked. Scientists do the exact same thing humanitarians do. They explore the world and disregard the status quo in favor of gaining knowledge and deeper understanding. We may see science as the pet of conformity but scientists are pretty punk rock. They introduce radical ideas and go against the norm. We think of all the great scientists as people who always have been praised by the masses and taken seriously, but in their days they were the odd ones out and it often wasn't until long after their deaths that they gained respect and recognition

  8. I think this video correctly points out the flaws of this movie if we closely analyse it, putting forward today's political climate and the impact of social media which tends to polarize people with certain emotional push buttons.
    But devil lies in the details, with the rising rate of college drop outs in America at that time because of its existentially challenged education system which felt rather meaningless. This film correctly points out the flawed hierarchical structure of academia and the relationship between a teacher and student.

  9. I did not care for poetry in high school. The humanities at University got in my way when I had no time and less money while struggling to remain in school. I needed my precious time and money to get on with Physics, Chemistry, and Maths. I was in my 40’s before I realized I enjoyed poetry and to make it even more challenging as I am impatient and accelerate on the down-slope side of life. I started my new adventure with French poets … in French to support concurrently my efforts to learn a new language through the beauty of French poetry. I would read and feel its meaning … fumbling to put those feelings in my own words while learning its structure and vocabulary on the go, searching later for a proper analysis by first language speakers of French. American and British poets came second. I like some of the romantics and many of the symbolists in two languages. I am having fun … even tried to write a little, great fun. PS: I kept my day job in a research chemical lab. Now I am retired and filling my remaining time with prose and doing some math and Physics so I won’t forget what I did when I was young.

  10. I'm training to be a medical doctor with a heart of a humanistic scientist. I completely agree with you that you need to analysis and critically think about a subject such as, one time when I was studying anthropology in SFSU there was a lecture with multiple doctorates. I agreed with the lecturer's argument until the lecturer said "Sociality has changed by technology. Technology has killed sociality completely." I was horrified that the lecturer destroyed her whole argument within 5 seconds. Raise my hand then spoke "I agree with you that sociality has changed by technology, but disagree with you that technology has killed sociality completely because read in anthropological article about a town in Japan found a rebirth by technology." In seconds, the lecturer was shocked and speechless and the chair of the anthropology department gave me a dirty disapproving look by what I said, but didn't care because lost a lot of respect for him days earlier, so raved in his angry with glee.

  11. That last part is precise!!! I fully agree on that, humanities is such a great tool nowadays that everything we see is so manipulated to the extent of being not authentic. People shouldn’t take humanities as joke now cause we are already living in a society that propaganda is striving no matter what ideology it carries and it’s very dangerous to the fragile minds of people

  12. I think your analysis is correct, but I think you're wrong in thinking that that's something the film did without noticing, I believe that a good bunch of it is actually intentional. Notice how at the end of the film they show how he skipped over several other movements and stuck only to Romanticism, which makes complete sense because what we see is the impact of a romantic view on life on an impressionable youth. Keating is not the ideal teacher, he is the perfect teacher to prove this point though.

  13. Well, I've never thought this is good a teacher, because he tells his students how to live, being non-conformists is a value in itself. A good teacher gives his subject and enable the students how to use knowledge and tasks.

    Furthermore he or she gives an example on how to behave as a descent individual. This teaching-style to provoce admiration for the teacher on the basis "every teaching bevor me was nothing – I'll show you know how it goes" is really seductive and can create a psychological split within the students mind.

  14. These are children, much like those today who are just eating what their parents tell them, what the one radio program or website tells them. Keating actually encourages them to disagree, even with him. Calling it simple is also a reach. Just because there was no cliffhanger or clear devil's advocate, does not mean it didn't call upon the viewer to think. So what if it spoke of conviction and took a stance. Since when did teetering upon the various permutations of interpretation come to be the meaning of objectivity? It's just a different viewpoint. The ripping of the introduction scene, is like the ripping of a news pundit- more interested in the showmanship of critique than the health of the critique itself. Dubbing oneself an expert by applying mathematics and discrete values to qualify a form of art (which is Keating's issue with the book) only serves to blindly and without historical and contextual consideration, to shred that art to pieces until you are left with nothing but opinions masquerading as nuance and innovation…it as though by trying to be outside of the box, this review just collapsed itself back into one.

  15. I understand the criticism of the film. However, when the film came out I was about 11 years old. Watching it as a youth encouraged me to read , write, and be interested in the arts and humanities. I ended up going to university to study both English and Fine Arts, which was against the wishes of my dad who thought it was useless. I embraced the passion that the film illustrated towards poetry and the arts. I think this is especially relevant today when so much of education and curriculum is focused on math, science, and technology. Not to mention the lack of human connection and passion I think we encounter because of cell phones and technology.

  16. 7:45 "the film, is above all, about the value of non-conformity" ….. where in the world do you reach that conclusion from? That is a very naive, narrow-minded, and/or utterly misguided summing up of what this film's true message and theme was. I'd ask you now that some time has passed since you made this video, looking back at that assessment, would you like to make a correction? The analysis and arugments made throughout the rest of the video was sound overall, but that one enormous error broke the flow and made it difficult to appreciate what came after it, however unfortunate that may be.

  17. I am very sorry I didn't know that Hollywood Actor Robbin Williams wrote his own scripts. I thought Hollywood employed people called scriptwriters! Bula, Bula !

  18. Wow. I was blinded by my love for Dead Poet's Society until I saw this video and realised what I was missing out on. Thank you. You gave me a new perspective about something and I've got a lot of thinking to do now. Thank you so y

  19. The students don't follow him blindly: Dalton even exercises his right not to participate. Further, there is an entire scene in which Keating tells the boys that there is a time and place to follow orders; he even visits their dorm to impress the point upon them. As to their worship of him, it is voluntary– never something that he advocates. They call him "Captain" because they choose to.

    You really want it both ways here: the Prichard introduction is rubbish– but you fault him for instructing them to tear it out. The legions of humanities students that choose that field of study because of this film (or partly because of this film) contradict your premise.

  20. I used to love this movie unconditionally when I was younger. But now as a young adult, I wish the Keating would have taught them to have a free mind in the midst of realistic conformity without creating a romantic notion that cost two students their future. That's a skill that Keating managed to have despite graduating from that school and the students would have been better off learning that lesson instead of diving headfirst into their dreams.

  21. APPLAUSE! After 30 years since seeing this movie in the theatre, and surrounded by sycophants of the film who could not see the obvious flaws in Keating's rhetoric, I am thrilled that you have dug it out and laid it bare. Well done!

  22. This is excellent. Really made me think in a more critical way about what is still one of my favorite movies but without trashing it simplistically the way, say, Siskel and Ebert did. Also, now I have another movie to watch! Thanks!

  23. I would like to argue that when it comes to context, even if it falls below the certain ideals of analysis, it still raises the students above the level of where they already are in the orthodox schooling system.

  24. Speaking of context, it is also important to observe both the context of the film and time when the director filmed to understand the purpose of scenes and content. While the plot is adapted to a school set in the 60s, the movie was filmed and produced at in 1989. That was a crytical period on old teaching methods and new paradygms were at stake. Such crisis led to question if old ways were even as effective as they seemed in the last century. The professor Keating is intended to behave ahead of its time, and the film purposely encourage to portray his anarchic behavior acting rather excentric, radical just to prove a point. But it is to prove a point only, and not to discredit the importance of learning how to write and read. Actually most of the teaching of the film itself is intended to be "read between the lines". There is a solid foundation on aesthetics regardless. Yet the whole idea of the film is praising to doubt and questioning all you were told to be acceptable. This concept (and first step in philosophy) is what would ultimately establish the idea on his students to think for themselves. Scene after scene we find this spirit about freedom and nothing more. Now you can argue examples were not fully ellaborated and there is no proof of internalization about knowledge. It is also true there are no signs of students transformation other than imitating most of what the professor did in class. But I dont think the purpose of the film was mainly focused on to characterize processes. Of course logical is very valuable, but so is time lenght in a film. The Director had to make several decissions. He chose letting the viewer to reflect upon Keating behaviour rather than fully showing the results on each individual. Given this is a film where ideas need to be simplified, it is up to the viewer to reflect in the strength of messages. I personally find the sequences overall decent and accurate. Especially "the rip out that page" was a great symbol for empowering the theme. Time in films is crucial for it is so limited and you must make all kinds of choices to make a point or to summarize your statement.

  25. As others have pointed out, it really is rare to find a video of this kind on YT. Most importantly, I sympathize with the inferences made regarding what DPS, as a movie, actually says to its audience, especially its anti-academic/anti humanities approach (though I may understand why that is so). But I also truly enjoyed the fact that your analysis in itself demonstrates the emancipatory message DPS, in its own romanticized and individualistic way, tried to convey. That is to say, the importance of not being swept away by one-liners or simple messages that may seem reasonable at first glance, but to realize the value of systematic and critical thinking, and the need to practice it over and over again, in order to reveal the true nature of the messages and viewpoints that surrounds us. That is, at least, the beginning of emancipation. So, thank you.

    P.S. I have always quite liked DPS, overall anyway. But only as long as I focus only on the themes dealing with everyday beauty and the loneliness and painful introversion of the Todd character. D.S.

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