‘Dead Poets Society’ Doesn’t Owe Academia Anything

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In case there was any doubt that we’re rapidly approaching Peak Internet Outrage, I refer you to The Atlantic, where the order of the day is issuing sharply worded rebukes to the crimes of 25-year-old Disney movies. In the 3500-plus-word (!) essay Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,” Pomona College English Department Chair Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD Kevin J.H. Dettmar takes Peter Weir’s 1989 drama to task for inaccuracy, romanticism, and anti-intellectualism, and blames it for the current crisis in the humanities. He stops short of pinning climate change and the infant mortality rate on the picture; maybe that’s in the 5000-word version.

“I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society,” Dettmar begins, indicating that this guy should really see more movies. (I’ll send him a copy of 2 Fast 2 Furious, if anybody’s got his address.) “I expect that them’s fighting words, at least in some quarters; at least I hope they are. Because I’m trying to pick a fight here.” And with that, Dettmar launches his lengthy, angry screed against what is, to most, the dictionary definition of a Harmless Inspirational Movie.

But his catalog of woes and complaints reads less like criticism and more like a therapy session. “I think I hate Dead Poets Society for the same reason that Robyn, a physician assistant, hates House,” Dettmar writes, “because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive.” Ah, yes, a movie that gets someone’s profession wrong, how novel. They say that you can’t watch a movie that was filmed in your house because you’ll never be able to get past how they changed the wallpaper; likewise, every time a film of note is set within a particular profession, out come the armchair experts to tell you how they get it all wrong, as if that actually makes any difference to the casual viewer, merely looking for a good story or an emotional experience.

The point is, it doesn’t matter one iota to the general movie-going public if Citizen Kane gets the newspaper world right, or L.A. Confidential is an accurate representation of police work, or Tootsie nails the day-to-day workings of a daytime drama. And though it might matter very much to (respectively) a newspaper editor, a cop, or a soap actor, that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them, and when Dettmar bemoans Dead Poets’ lack of representation for “the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis,” you just want to gently take him aside and explain to him how drama and movies work.

But aside from his “nuh uh that’s not how English classes are” objections, what is Dettmar’s problem with this widely beloved and aggressively likable quarter-century-old movie?

With its 25th anniversary nearly upon us, the enduring popularity of Dead Poets Society—voted the greatest “school film” ever made, and often named by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to a 2011 piece in The Guardian—has a great deal, I believe, to tell us about the current conversation concerning the “crisis in the humanities.”

This is the deep-dive portion — and the psychological treasure trove. You see, Dettmar objects to the picture’s “sentimentalized version of the humanities,” wherein (gasp) “passion alone” is “empty, even dangerous.” OK, that’s all well and good, but we start getting into territory far off the screen when the good professor proceeds to blast the film’s — and society’s — “preference for fans over critics, amateurs over professionals.” You see, he concludes, “Scholars and teachers of the humanities” like the good professor “will insist on being welcomed to the table as professionals.” In other words, this lengthy ramble is less about the quality of a motion picture and more about a professional intellectual taking a strangely forced opportunity to fiercely assert his own relevance. And I’m not quite sure why anyone else needs to read that.

But Dettmar does make one worthwhile point, once you dig out your dictionary and look up all the five-dollar words he deploys as missiles against his own obsolescence: “[T]he power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. ‘Imaginative sympathy,’ we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.” And here’s what cannot be stressed loudly enough about Dead Poets Society: if you see it as a wide-eyed young person (rather than a jaded intellectual or a self-doubting professor), this movie has that power. I first took in Dead Poets Society as a 13-year-old outcast, a Midwestern bookworm who couldn’t throw a baseball or sink a layup, and Mr. Keating was an inspiration; the film made reading, and thinking about literature, into an act that was powerful, and romantic, and important.

And guess what? That’s all it needed to do. This was a PG-rated Disney movie, and if the script were instead an intricately detailed dramatization of “real analysis,” nobody would have made it, and if they did, nobody would have seen it. But people did see this movie, and scores of them were young eggheads like me, who were inspired not by its intellectual rigor, but by the very passion that The Atlantic piece disdains. And that’s what movies do well. What academics are supposed to do is take that passion and turn it into close study and real analysis, rather than turn up their nose at the source.

It’s been a good many years since I’ve seen Dead Poets Society, and I’ve revisited enough of the beloved movies from my youth to know it probably doesn’t entirely hold up. Even at the time, I was aware of the knocks on the film from critics and grouchy grown-ups who’d seen it all before. But none of that mattered to those of us who held the movie dear — and it still doesn’t. Dead Poets is a gentle, innocuous, likable movie, a little simple perhaps, but nonetheless responsible for warming the hearts of countless pubescents, and sending droves of them to their local WaldenBooks in search of Thoreau, Whitman, and Frost. And when an uptight, self-important academic like Dettmar goes to the film, 25 years after the fact, looking to (in his words) “pick a fight,” he looks like what he is: a bully.