Dead Poets’ me-me-me message

Dead Poets Society, which came out 25 years ago, has had a pernicious influence on young writers — and on college English departments — charges novelist Stephen Marche in Esquire.

The story is a classic tale of writerly egomania, transferred onto the figure of a teacher. Robin Williams playing John Keating — he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance — was the origin of the “cool teacher” cliche that humiliated so many of us in the 1990s. Instead of staying in a classroom reading, he takes his students for long walks and life lessons. Instead of having them read interpretations of literature, he begins his class by having them rip out the pages of the introduction. He modestly suggests that they call him “O Captain, my Captain,” a title that Walt Whitman originally intended for a murdered Abraham Lincoln, martyred savior of the Republic. Keating is entitled to his students’ adulation, in the film, because he imbues in them a sense of self-worth, totally unrelated to their accomplishments.

The movie presents literature as “collective narcissism,” writes Marche. Reading and writing are easy.

Understanding the literary tradition was not a task. Nobody had to learn foreign languages or philology. Nobody had to work at it. What you really needed to be a writer was to be sensitive and to overcome the traditional strictures of mom and dad. You really just needed to be a rebel.

Dead Poets Society glorifies a terrible way to teach humanities writes Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor, in The Atlantic. It’s anti-intellectual gush.

The movie has been voted the greatest “school film” ever and often named as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to The Guardian.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The best “school film” of all time is probably either To Sir With Love or The Breakfast Club. Maybe, on a strange day, Fast Times at Ridgemont High,The Blackboard Jungle, or Stand and Deliver might make the list (though the last is treacly in a different albeit less offensive way).

    DPS’s problem is that it’s committed to a sort of dualism: either things are inert, artificial, imposed and abstracted, or they’re glorious, subjective, spontaneous and ineffable. It’s really a depiction of the triumph of the Platonic worldview (on speed) over Aristotelian moderation. It’s just too bad that mere mortals like the main character aren’t actually able to survive passing through to the realm of the eternal without DYING.

    • I saw it in the theater over 2 years ago, and no longer remember a thing. Now I feel like I ought to watch it again to find out…

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? 🙂
      And what about the Harry Potter movies ?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Ferris is explicitly *NOT* a school movie.

        It might even be said to be the opposite of a school movie.

  2. Yes, DPS is maudlin, and I agree with Michael Lopez about the faulty dualism. Now, should it get all the credit for luring English majors and professors into the mirrored halls of narcissism? What about Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” which came out in the same year?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      How is Madonna encouraging breast feeding relevant here?
      (Yes, I’m snarky today … but I always think of this when I hear that song…)

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I thought Lady Gaga wrote that.


  3. greeneyeshade says:

    You might pair it with “Good Morning Vietnam,” Robin Williams tilting against characters so grotesque they barely qualify as human. (And perhaps other Robin Williams films as well.) He can be quite a panderer.

  4. J.D. Salinger says:

    Well that cinches it. If Doug Lemov hates it, it must be a bad movie.