I read Kevin Dettmar’s recent piece in The Atlantic with interest criticising The Dead Poet’s Society and its legacy on how Humanities is seen. I am a big fan of the Dead Poet’s Society and working with Humanities students as a HE careers adviser have a particular interest in how the humanities is viewed. I remain a fan of The Dead Poet’s Society despite Dettmar’s critique. For me 1990s Robin Williams films are a bit like the music of Oasis (sorry for the very British reference) you know that the music is not innovative, clever or impressive but because of nostalgia and the sense of passion and enthusiasm for life the music creates I can not help but like it.
Dettmar makes some very valid points I’m sure. I am no expert in poetry but as a History student I know what it feels like to feel your subject trampled over and manipulated. I feel the world probably could do without ANY films about Nazi Germany for probably the next ten years or so (one year would be nice) I am pretty sure that Hollywood continually using Nazi Germany to depict cartoon villains does not support the proper study and understanding of the Holocaust one bit.
My question though is whether Dettmar has really understood why some people love The Dead Poet’s Society so much. Dettmar’s critique is that people want a sentimental anti-intellectual reading of the humanities dominated by the views of the amateur and not a serious academic discipline. The Dead Poet’s Society may not be academic accuracy but that does not mean it is against academic rigour. Keating appears clever articulate, knowledgeable and critically aware in the film. The film does not position him against rigour but against a certain form of conservatism. I felt reading Dettmar article that the question was if The Dead Poet’s Society was up to Dettmar’s academic values rather than asking what academic values does The Dead Poet’s Society support? There are a number of academic values I feel that The Dead Poet’s Society stands for that I am very much in support of:
- Education is inspirational – What The Dead Poet’s Society shows is that education can be something that grabs hold of someone and gives them purpose, energy and direction. The film shows a number of the boys in Keating’s class being pushed on to take action of their own.
- Education is holistic – What Keating teaches his boys breaks out of the classroom and seizes hold of all of their lives. Education is not just an area of someone’s life but learning is an underpinning facet of all of who we are. Education is about becoming who we are
- Education creates independence – Independence is clearly a big theme of The Dead Poet’s Society. The film shows the boys no longer tied down by conformity to a conservative mandate but taking control of their lives for themselves. Now independence can go to far, community is still a big facet of being human for me, but there should be a sense that education enables people to not be reliant on others but propels them to be active agents in society.
- Education is the study of the human condition – What Keating confronts his boys with is not abstract concepts with no practical implications but a study of who they are and what it means to be human. He uses academia to ask deep, profound and personal questions about existence. This I feel is humanities education as its best.
So what does this mean for the Humanities? Dettmar mentioned careers without completely answering the question of how the humanities can support student’s job prospects. I feel that Dettmar’s answer would be the the Humanities creates students with critical faculties capable of rational thought and inquiry as opposed to the sentimental anti-rationality Dettmar sees in The Dead Poet’s Society. I guess Dettmar’s claim would be that if the academic rigour of the humanities was considered to be of the same standards as STEM subjects that employers would look more favourable on Humanities students.
I think he makes a valid point here. I think many people would assume that Peter Higgs is a greater genius than Alice Munro (who won the Nobel prize for Literature the same year that Higgs did for Physics). It is wrong that you need to be cleverer to run a scientific experiment than you need to be to write a book.
I guess though I also feel that the defending the Humanities is not just about how you study but what you study as well. I feel that as a career advisor who works with humanities students my job is not just to show them how the transferable skills they have learnt (research, analysis, communication etc.) can help them find work but what value there work has in and off itself to the world around them.
Humanities at its core is the understanding of what it means to be human and is especially the belief that narratives in various forms (histories, literatures, films, philosophies, cultures etc.) tap in to a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world in a way that scientific thought with a singular focus on experimentation and observation can not.
Business needs people who understand people and can understand themselves in the profound ways that only the humanities can offer as well as in the way that the sciences offer. This I feel is how in some ways The Dead Poet’s Society defends the humanities the best.