I know that St. Valentine’s Day is over at this point, but I’d like to start this piece off with a few declarations of love. I love literature and some poetry. I love the teachers who have helped me to be more imaginative, to find what really captures my heart, to be more human. I love The Atlantic (the magazine, although the ocean is great too). I love Dead Poets Society.
I do not love this recent criticism of Dead Poets Society in The Atlantic.
The author, Kevin Dettmar, who has a PhD in English, argues that this movie provides a weak defense of the importance of the humanities, particularly as they are compared to disciplines seen as more employable (science, technology, engineering, math, etc.). As education administrators consider the value of the humanities, Dr. Dettmar sees a few differing versions of the humanities in the debate, and isn’t impressed with what Dead Poets Society has to offer. “The most alarming version—one, I’m arguing,” Dettmar writes, “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.”
I understand the concerns regarding employability, the tough spot humanities professors find themselves in, and their legitimate desire to be taken seriously, as indeed they should be.
I do not understand why Dr. Dettmar focuses primarily on the methodological lessons to be learned from literary analysis. Close reading and critical thought are incredible skills to be developed, to be sure, but by casting aside the “sentimental,” emotive potential of the humanities, Dr. Dettmar abandons a hugely important point he ought to make.
In the movie, the students’ encounter with poetry and the manner in which it is presented captures their imagination, makes them more invested in their learning, helps them discover their passions, and, through them, injects a vibrancy into their school that had been lacking.
These experiences, precisely because they are sentimental, make these boys more human. And this is exactly the argument that Dr. Dettmar and other advocates for the humanities ought to be promoting, not disowning. If the critics of the humanities think they have found a great weakness by pointing out that these subjects engage affects and not just intellects, stand up and declare victory!
Is the role of educators to make sure that people get jobs? Or ought they be more concerned that people get jobs? Do employers want soulless automatons mindlessly going through a daily routine? Or do they want vibrant, motivated men and women who know what makes them passionate and can think creatively on their feet?
An honest, meaningful encounter with the humanities makes us more aware of what it means to be human. It pulls at our heartstrings. It makes us sing, laugh, dance, and cry. And it makes us leap up on our desks and shout, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”
Collection of Poetry photo by Flickr user vintagecat; it can be found here.