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Prof. Kevin Dettmar Ties Humanities Debate Into "Dead Poets Society" Critique in The Atlantic

Kevin Dettmar

In the essay "Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities," published on The Atlantic website on February 19, 2014, Professor of English Kevin Dettmar uses the 25th anniversary of the film Dead Poets Society as a launching point for a discussion of a larger conversation currently facing the humanities. In a critique of the oft-beloved 1989 film, Dettmar focuses on the anti-intellectual teaching style of Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) and his passionate, but self-serving and often wrong, readings of the poems he is teaching his prep school students. "The beloved film's portrayal of studying literature is both misleading and deeply seductive," writes Dettmar, who ties Keating's teaching style, which imparts fandom rather than rigor, to viewing humanities scholarship as lightweight.

In the years since the 2008 economic downturn, the humanities have become a point of debate in terms of job prospects for college graduates. Writes Dettmar: 

"In the conversation about the fate of the humanities, these disciplines are often caricatured to the point of being unrecognizable to those of us in the component fields. The most alarming version—one, I’m arguing, 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. This is a feel-good humanities—the humanities of uplift. The film is of no help as we try to find our way out of our current standoff—and to the degree that it unconsciously stands in for humanities pedagogy and scholarship, it does real damage."

During the 2013-14 academic year, Pomona College is hosting a speaker series on "The Heart of the Liberal Arts: Humanities in the Liberal Arts." Upcoming lectures include:

  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Director of Scholarly Communication, Modern Language Association; Visiting Research Professor of English, New York University) on "The Humanities' Digital Future" - March 6
  • Leon Botstein (President, Bard College; Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities; Music Director and Principal Conductor, American Symphony Orchestra) on "Arts and Humanities" - April 3
  • Stanley Fish (Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and a Professor of Law at Florida International University; Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago) on “What Is Academic Freedom?” - May 1

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