The following piece, “What We Stay Alive For: Dead Poets Society and the Crisis of the Humanities” first appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. You can learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.
It is a strange thing to return to a coming-of-age story having doubled the age of the angsty protagonist.
I learned this lesson recently upon rewatching Dead Poets Society, the 1989 drama starring Robin Williams as John Keating, an unorthodox poetry teacher who shakes up a stodgy all-male prep school in the late 1950s. Peter Weir’s film was naturally a hit with teachers—according to Ranker.com, it is the #1 film for and about teachers—and I suspect that it has been screened for thousands upon thousands of high school students since its release. Revisiting the movie as I approach my upper thirties, though—Robin Williams’ age when it was released—I found myself standing opposite these students, with a deepened appreciation for those struggling to reach and raise them.
It more or less begins with a memento mori. In his first lesson, Keating connects the phrase carpe diem (seize the day) to a line by Robert Herrick (“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may”), explaining why the poet uses these words: “Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.” He asks them to look, to really look, at the “faces from the past” in a trophy case—young men who looked and acted just like they do who are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Lean in, he enjoins, and listen to them—and as the camera scans the black-and-white faces frozen in time, Keating whispers in a ghostly voice: “Carpe . . . Carpe. Carpe diem.” This mantra is not a call to the boys to impetuously grasp at life—though they tend to read it in just this way. (As Keating later explains: “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”) Rather, it is a call to remember their deaths; to be mindful, amid their petty pursuits and superficial distractions, of what Frost called “the slow smokeless burning of decay.” If the memento mori weren’t clear enough, a few scenes later, one of the students, Knox, goes to the home of one of his father’s friends, a polished alumni. When Knox mentions his father’s “big case for GM,” the man responds: “I know where you’re headed. Like father, like son, huh?” The camera then cuts, suddenly, to the image of a rubber skeleton.
Carpe . . .
The central drama of Dead Poets Society—one of Keating’s students, Neil Perry, dreams of being an actor, while his demanding and domineering father has other plans—ends, too, in death: the tragedy of suicide. Neil’s friends, in the agony of grief, are eager to lay the blame for Neil’s death entirely at the feet of Mr. Perry, who was certainly controlling, unfair, and short-sighted with his son. But being closer now in age to Neil’s father than to Neil himself, and watching this complex situation now as a father—a father who, like any parent, makes mistakes—I couldn’t help but see Mr. Perry in a more sympathetic light. His lament as he falls over his dead boy (“Oh my son . . . my son, my poor son!”), which echoes David’s mourning for Absalom in 2 Samuel 18, is a lament over the fragility of life and the finality of death, a death in which both he and Keating played a part but ultimately was beyond their control. It is a lived example, albeit a uniquely unexpected and tragic one, of Keating’s lesson. Viewers have debated which man bears greater responsibility for igniting Neil’s suicide, but I suspect that both men would go on to carry the weight of it for the rest of their lives, wondering what they could have done differently.
Death looms large over the drama of Dead Poets Society, perhaps more so with time. But its related central theme remains vitally important too, for people of all ages: what it means to live a human life, to be a human being—a search propelled by and toward great books. A monologue from Keating gets at the heart of it:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: “Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the fools. . . . What good amid these, O me, O life? / Answer. That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” . . . What will your verse be?
What Keating says about poetry could be applied, with equal vigor, to all the humanities. He could have just as easily been quoting Plato or Aristotle, and his students could just as easily have gone on to reignite the Dead Theologians or Dead Novelists Society. The message remains the same: an examined life, seen in light of the great masters of thought, literature, and art, is a life worth living. From Keating’s first lessons to his students to the spirited refrain of “Oh captain, my captain” from their desk tops, Dead Poets Society is a reminder of the importance of the humanities—not just for a good education but for a good life. William Faulkner captured this importance beautifully in his Nobel Prize address:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal . . . because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Dead Poets Society’s heralding of the humanities may be more important now than it ever was. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Benjamin Schmidt, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, lays out the dire state of the humanities in colleges. There has been a dramatic downward shift in humanities majors in recent years, one that applies to both men and women and cuts across racial groups. “Almost every humanities field has seen a rapid drop in majors,” he writes. “History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s. . . . The drop in majors since 2008 has been so intense that I now think there is, in the only meaningful sense of the word, a crisis.”
Whatever the cause of the decline—Schmidt pinpoints a post-2008 shift in students’ perspectives of how to improve their job prospects—it portends a great loss for the culture. The humanities, which were once the very heart and soul of education, are increasingly seen as peripheral or unserious. But we shouldn’t be surprised if this devaluation of the search for what it means to be human ends in greater inhumanity of man toward man, or if this setting aside of what we stay alive for ends in countless souls confronting a deep sense of meaninglessness in the middle of successful, comfortable lives.
What would Keating have said in response to this crisis? Leon Wieseltier’s commencement address at Brandeis University, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities,” might be close to it:
Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because—whether it knows it or not—you are.
Life does not last forever. “As for mortals,” the Psalmist sings, “their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Ps. 103:15–16). And while the culture may laugh off poetry as a waste of time, or scoff at an English degree as a waste of money, these nobler pursuits drive us on toward the serious business of life, which is discovering, embracing, and living out its meaning before it ends. In his immortal performance as John Keating, Robin Williams has given humanity a great gift of remembering these two truths of death and life—and acting accordingly.
Carpe . . .