Over-analyzing will be the death of English

Robin Williams’ role in Dead Poets Society was inspirational for English students.

Robin Williams’ role in Dead Poets Society was inspirational for English students.

ASHLEY HYSHKA

Hollywood lost one of its greatest stars on Aug. 11 with the death of Robin Williams. His passing affected millions of people around the world. Despite battling depression and addiction, Williams is remembered for many iconic roles in a variety of movies spanning several decades: Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Aladdin, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam.

One of his most memorable roles was English teacher John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. In the film, Mr. Keating inspires a class of preparatory students attending the elite Welton Academy in 1959 New England with the beauty of poetry. Naturally the all-male class is hesitant to embrace the art until Mr. Keating muses, “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.”

This is what reading narrative and poetry should be about — personal interpretation, focusing on how the words make us feel instead of suppressing the desire to learn with critical analysis and dissection. 

I have noticed that my generation is not nearly as interested in reading and writing poetry as we are in going to parties, the newest iPhone or which Kardashian got married. We are missing out on the beauty of this world, both visually and lyrically because we were never taught in school. We learn mathematics and science but when it comes to English, we’re running blind. English classes teach us how to dissect poetry and literature but not how to enjoy it.

English is the most misunderstood of the arts. Paintings, photographs and music delight our senses of sight and sound, yet creative writing and poetry require a person to really think about what they are reading. English teachers have us scrutinize and pick apart poetry and literature to further develop our analytical and writing abilities. But that is where the fault lies within the system. I believe students would enjoy the literature we read more if we discussed it instead of analyzing it. This would instead better develop writing skills, thinking abilities, communication and a beautiful love of the art.

In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating had his students rip out the introductory pages of their poetry textbooks because they displayed a mathematical equation designed to rate the “success” of a poem. Instead he tells them, “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” All teachers should have such an attitude towards education — teach us how to think, not what to think. Prepare students for the real world and not for a world crafted by an education board’s curriculum. Science and math have equations with one correct answer to their questions. Too much focus is put on these courses because that is where careers lie. If you struggle with math and science, but excel at the arts, you’re considered an academic failure by current standards. 

Let us be free in our classrooms to openly discuss how a piece of literature makes us feel or to write our own heartfelt poetry. Inspire me to marvel at the beauty of a sunrise or get lost while stargazing. Teach me how to have a way with words and develop a curiosity and passion for my future endeavours and for those with whom I share the experience. 

In a first-year university English class I received a grade of 50 per cent because I was not interested in what I was reading or how it was being taught to me. I frequently skipped class because I found the whole year-long engagement to be a waste of hundreds of my hard earned dollars. Sure, I received the six credits for the course, but I learned nothing from it. It did not teach me to become a better writer, nor did it make me appreciate literature more because I was forced to analyze it while it was crammed down my throat. 

If Williams’ John Keating can inspire such courage and passion among his students, why can’t our high school and university teachers do the same? Now don’t get me wrong, many teachers do succeed in these goals for their students. I know this because I’ve had my fair share of such educators — I just wish all students could have the privilege to experience such joy through learning and that all teachers shared that same enthusiasm.

Extraordinary teachers will inspire extraordinary students; people who will go out into this world with curiosity, adventure, hope and strive to make a difference for generations to come. As Mr, Keating said, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Photo: Eva Rinaldi/flickr

  • 刘世利

    i agree with you , but not everyone can be an inspiring teacher…a lot of people are bored down to earth since they have been tormented by all the school work and their creativity was killed since they were students in elementary schools…therefore, i feel it is too much to ask a teacher to be highly inspiring, actually, if a teacher teaches what ‘s necessary for students to find a job, that would be fine to meet up parents’ expectations..

  • 刘世利

    In addition, inspiring teachers sometimes pay a high price: they need to do a lot of explanation work to convince parents and students, anyway, remember how and why the boy in Keating’s class took his own life would be enough to demonstrate the dark sides of innovative lessons.

  • Stacey Gillespie

    Best sheaf article i’ve read, so very true and applicable to the english curriculum. As a creative writer, I tend not to enjoy english classes. That’s an issue right there.

  • Bigwally

    With all due respect to Robin Williams, this is the best refutation I’ve ever read of the kind of cartoonish English classes Dead Poets Society depicts and that the author of this piece apparently embraces: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/-em-dead-poets-society-em-is-a-terrible-defense-of-the-humanities/283853/

  • BigD

    “I believe students would enjoy the literature we read more if we discussed it instead of analyzing it.”

    Same thing

  • KDawg

    Maybe you didn’t learn anything and weren’t interested by the material because you frequently skipped class? Maybe had you shown up, during the “boring analysis” your professor might have been able to show you something interesting you missed during reading. Connect to it however you want, but at the end of the day you have to find a reason to present an academic thesis in your paper and it better damn well be rooted in the reading not just because you “felt it”.

  • NDawg

    There’s a lot of value in critical reading. If there is a problem with our generation, it’s that our attention spans are too short to read anything critically anymore, a problem brought about by our culture of instant gratification. Having your own interpretations of poems and other literature is valuable, but being able to analyze a piece of literature allows you to decipher the author’s true meaning. When playing a piece of classical music, the performer’s interpretations give life to the music, yet the composer’s writings cannot be ignored, else the performer risks playing an entirely different piece than the one attempted. Likewise, to truly appreciate the “art” of English poetry, an attempt must be made to grasp the author’s original thoughts alongside one’s own.

    Your argument in this article is a little self-defeating. You claim that English is misunderstood because it “requires a person to really think” while other arts “delight our senses of sight and sound”. Yet you essentially argue against being taught to think about English and instead to simply “feel” it. You have a qualm with the career prospects of excellent artists that struggle academically, yet your solution is to alter English classes to the point that they have no substance at all? Enjoying literature, and discussing it with your peers, is an activity that can be done on one’s personal time. For our generation, the onus is truly on ourselves to take the time to put down our phones/computers/televisions once in a while and to pick up a book. This is where the true disconnect between English literature and education lies today: in our culture, and in our upbringings.

    It saddens me that your first-year class may have ironically turned you off from the joys of English literature. But your argument would have more merit had you not skipped classes and lacked interest in the reading materials. I encourage you to keep reading widely and to continue writing!

  • broomgrass

    *facepalm*
    Definitely read the article suggested below (Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities: The beloved film’s portrayal of studying literature is both misleading and deeply seductive. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/-em-dead-poets-society-em-is-a-terrible-defense-of-the-humanities/283853/).

    Jeez.

  • lmy

    If you care about something, you take the time to think about how it works.

    For example, a mechanic doesn’t look at an engine and say, “oh the shiny quality of that engine just makes me feel happy and inspired.” He/she knows the terminology and the subtleties and can appreciate the differences between, and mechanisms, in engines, their cylinders, alternators, pistons, and so on.

    The details fuel the passion.

    Another example: if you love knitting, you aren’t interested in talking about, “oh this is a piece of wool!” As knitter, you are interested in the different stitches, materials, techniques, and how your sweater fits on your friend.

    When something made is a work of beauty, it’s not by fluke, but by design.

    When you say, “Let us be free in our classrooms to openly discuss how a piece of literature makes us feel or to write our own heartfelt poetry.” No offence, but think about whether anyone would read your heartfelt poetry and enjoy it or find meaning in it if it’s not made by design, by someone who has had practice in the art.

    Do you think that great writers simply “let it flow”? Do you think your professors’ scholarly articles were written off the corners of their desks, whenever they felt like it, maybe after a muffin break? No, because they’re to care about their readers, and the work they’re analyzing, enough to put time into reading and writing that article. This is how they hope you will write your papers. With care.

    I think you should consider how you’ve set up your credibility in this article. Why should anyone trust what you say when the following is how you characterize your experience: “In a first-year university English class I received a grade of 50 per cent because I was not interested in what I was reading or how it was being taught to me. I frequently skipped class because I found the whole year-long engagement to be a waste of hundreds of my hard earned dollars.” (emphasis mine)

    I have to wonder whether your interest level was the only reason why you passed with a 50. Did you talk to the professor? Did you ask questions about what you read, and about what he/she said? Did you engage with the material instead of letting it wash over you? Did you push yourself a little? You write that the class “did not teach me to become a better writer,” but you didn’t attend. Others in the class did, I’m sure, and many of your readers have. Professors have a duty to give on their end, but paying “hard earned dollars” is not your only responsibility as a student.

    I urge you to read the Learning Charter to imagine the student/professor/institutional dynamic as a more positive one. http://www.usask.ca/secretariat/documents/LearningCharter.pdf

    You note that “Mr. Keating had his students rip out the introductory pages of their poetry textbooks because they displayed a mathematical equation designed to rate the ‘success’ of a poem.” Don’t misrepresent the discipline, especially via Hollywood or via your own absence from class. I teach English Lit. and I’ve never seen a textbook, at least a modern one, show a mathematical equation for a poem’s success.

    It’s one thing to dislike a class, or even an entire field of study, but the approach to learning you describe is hostile. Why are you here?

    Not every professor will be played by someone like Robin Williams, but most are trying to teach and do the right thing. Not all, but most. If you had one bad professor, that doesn’t mean that the whole discipline is a write-off.

    Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society also said, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” You are taking a stand here, which is great, but think clearly about what you’re arguing, out of respect for your readers. As you say, you want professors to “teach us how to think, not what to think.” I recommend you take a run at this book to improve your logic and reasoning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Thinking_Clearly

  • lmy

    p.s. Leave Robin Williams out of it. He’s not the character in the movie.

  • livingthemyth

    @NDawg I totally agree with you about attention span, and think that the critical thinking aspect is the only way that the digital generation will be able to not fall into its own bellybutton.

    The “real world” so called is actually continually engaged with poetry. My problem is that the scope of the texts so prevalent (song lyrics, rap, graffitti, slogans) is too shallow to merit the artistry of language I associate with Literature as opposed to reading material.

    I would argue that sitting down and typing is easier than buying paint, easels, brushes, etc. Finding something important to say is not the issue: finding a way to say it well is at the root of every “boring” literature class.