August 21, 2023


The Case Against 'Dead Poets Society' (Elizabeth Grace Matthew, August 17, 2023, America)

Before Keating exerts his influence, Dalton is a place where many boys are thriving. We see boys sneaking transistor radios into dorms, boys contemplating how to steal the girlfriends of public-school athletes, boys forming regular study groups and occasional cheating alliances, boys bustling with the restless physical energy that, more than any other characteristic, defines male youth.

That is, we see boys pushing against the boundaries that their parents and teachers have set--exactly as healthy teens should.

Are those boundaries overly narrow and constraining, and therefore due for reform? In some cases, absolutely--and tragically so. [...]

Still, as anyone who has spent any time around teenagers (especially teenage boys) knows, their primary limitation is not an inability to seize the day; it is an inability to plan for the future. Indeed, teens' impulsivity and recklessness is best met with exactly the kind of regimentation, order and authority that Dalton as a whole was attempting to provide.

This is the same kind of regimentation, order and authority with which adults of every race, religion and class engaged with teenagers until the 1960s. And, of course, it sometimes had its excesses. Any claim to mathematically measure the "greatness" of poems is self-evidently asinine. More important, a father's attempt to make significant life decisions for his healthy and self-aware teenage son, without his input, was bound to be counterproductive in every possible way.

But these excesses of the 1950s educational order, as depicted in "Dead Poets Society," are made-up exceptions that prove the overwhelming rule: Healthy teens need order if they are to court and create developmentally healthy disorder. Being without boundaries to push and structures to push against leads to exactly the type of solipsistic, faux introspection that gives rise to the existential angst for which teens have been known ever since we accepted as a cultural rule that, in the words of Bob Dylan, "mothers and fathers throughout the land" should not "criticize what you can't understand."

But, of course, mothers and fathers can understand just fine. The only thing more anti-intellectual than some self-important college professor presuming to quantify the greatness of Shakespeare is some self-important English teacher presuming to teach impressionable boys to think for themselves by using them to unquestioningly validate his own credulous and oversimplified relationship to romantic verse. Keating demanded, remember, that his students rip out "Understanding Poetry" by the fictional foil, Pritchard--not that they develop arguments for refuting it or, forbid the thought, for agreeing with it. Keating does not want the boys to think for themselves--not really. He does not want them to think at all, in fact. He wants them to feel as he does.

Posted by at August 21, 2023 12:00 AM