“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Hearing this line from the fictional Mr. Keating for the first time was enough to cement that literature was what I wanted to pursue at university. Hoorah! We who pursue the arts have found our saviour, someone who understands us! I felt like chanting Carpe Diem along with the Welton boys from my hoary dormitory.
Now, years later, English finally being my degree, I rewatched Dead Poets Society and found myself less sympathetic to Keating’s ethos. In fact, I found myself questioning: is Dead Poets Society actually a deeply anti-intellectual take on the arts?
I would venture to say that all those studying humanities have been asked on multiple occasions the same loaded question: ‘But what will you do with that degree?’. How do you turn loving poetry into a career?
The 1989 classic pioneers an individual passion for literature and humanities, as Keating tells the boys “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” But is this quite right? We might think “Ah yes, he’s evoking Barthes’ The Death of the Author, a critical lens” ... yet he also instructs the boys to tear the critical essay on poetry out of their English textbooks. With this gesture, Keating seems to renounce literary criticism entirely.
But what is the study of literature without literary criticism? Reading and enjoying poetry for its own sake isn’t what I’m criticising, but rather Keating’s rejection of critical thinking, in a move completely at odds with his own goal to make the boys ‘free thinkers’. Free thinking shouldn’t mean uneducated or misinformed thinking, but according to Keating, that works too. He references famous poets but never does this in a way that actually makes sense to those who have read them critically.
For example, Keating quotes “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference” from Frost’s The Road Not Taken in order to promote individuality and free thinking. This is a common misinterpretation; the poem rather suggests that a choice involves the loss of opportunity. However, his confident delivery, which upholds his point, makes us want to blindly believe him (he’s an academic after all).
Nevertheless, Keating makes an enticing case for the feelings that poetry evokes. In doing so poetry is idealised as an emotional pursuit to the extent that it’s diluted to a mere sentiment without much depth, without intellectual engagement. This is what our parents were worried about when we told them we wanted to study humanities. It’s this non-thinking, sentimental approach to literature that devalues it in the eyes of others. The critical study of literature seems wholly absent in the film apart from those pages of critical literature ripped from the textbooks.
The trope of the rebellious yet inspiring teacher isn’t new or unique — most recently Derry Girls incorporated it into an episode although in a far more tongue-in-cheek manner. Unlike Dead Poets Society, the TV show pokes fun at the superficial archetype, as the inspirational teacher seems more akin to a motivational speaker.
Keating obviously stands out against Welton’s humanities teachers, whose personalities the writers apparently didn’t have time to write so they can all broadly be categorised as boring and uptight. He teaches the boys to rebel and question authority, and the boys flock behind him: viewing him as their leader, authority having shifted from the rigid headmaster to the spirited English teacher. Ironic. The pursuit of passion and academic rigour seem mutually exclusive in the film, which surely doesn’t make a compelling case for studying humanities.
Having said this, beyond its academic pitfalls, the film remains a beacon of inspiration for many, myself included. Admittedly, Dead Poets Society never fails to be included in my list of films that inspired my degree. It is undoubtedly encouraging, if not for the study of the humanities then for the deep love for them and the joy which they bring to us. While never making a good case for academia, the film makes a good case for passion which the humanities have the potential to incite in us.
Illustration by Darcey Bateson