Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dead Poets Society

My mom has a hideous habit of buying weird, awkward movies that I’ve never expressed interest in for me every Christmas season. In my senior year of high school, however, I saw Dead Poets Society peeking through the opening of my stocking, and put it in the DVD player immediately.

I’m not going to ramble about my love for the film. I have a soft spot for movies that romanticize the importance of teachers; and, since the film’s Mr. Keating is an English teacher, I was doing backflips before I even turned on the TV…

…which is why this supercilious, pedantic commentary on it vexed me.

I’ll concede to a few of Kevin Dettmar’s points: certainly, Mr. Keating’s unconventional approach to classroom management and teaching literature brutally falls prey to criticism of literature as a study designed to “make students feel happy” rather than exercise their minds and inspire them to think critically. The more I watch the film, the more I find myself thinking: He actually didn’t teach them a lot about literature. He just quoted lines from poems and made them like literature. Dettmar’s obloquy argues that Keating consistently quotes poems out of context, applying them to abstract Romantic ideals about life and devaluing their actual points. And, by doing so, Dettmar concludes that Dead Poets Society “finally comes down to a preference for fans over critics, amateurs over professionals.”

That’s where I have to interject. Keating isn’t preparing students to meet Common Core standards, nor is he readying them for an exam at the end of the year. Certainly, he’s not the ideal literature teacher because—within the scope of the plot—he all but ignores analysis and criticism of literature. But Keating’s purpose and brilliance have nothing to do with academics. Rather, they are to spark a love for literature. And, as any high school teacher knows, whetting students’ curiosity and making them interested is half the battle. Had Keating succumbed to the prescribed, institutionalized, and robotic method of teaching theory that Dettmar champions, his students may very well have gained knowledge. But: Do they love the knowledge they’ve gained? Have they learned to appreciate learning, or just to learn information for the sake of earning a diploma?

By quoting poems of out context and creating “fans” rather than “critics,” Keating has aced the first and most crucial step to educating: getting your students to love learning. Creating fans rather than critics does not denigrate the value of literature as a course of study. High school is supposed to prepare students for college and a career. Part of surviving in either of the aforementioned constructs is developing a deep-rooted empathy for humans, a love of learning, and the audacity to stand before a room full of peers and colleagues and embrace your own creativity.

Keating created human beings. He may not have prepared them for the world of academia by teaching them criticism, but I think that Dettmar is under the misguided assumption that criticism is the only practical side to literature.

Literature is specifically designed to make us feel, to learn how to feel for others, to embrace our uniqueness, and to constantly shift between perspectives – for without a change in perspective, we’d surely go mad. Education extends far beyond teaching students a laundry list of skills, information, and facts. The art of teaching and learning is not bulimic. When teachers educate their students, they’re teaching them not only the skills and information necessary to have a prolific career, but they’re also teaching them how to navigate the world, interact with each other, embrace their uniqueness, be confident, and love to learn. And that’s exactly what Mr. Keating does. That’s why he is an exemplary teacher.

Image Source: http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2010-10-04-DeadPoetsSociety1989CD2.avi_003839798.jpg

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