Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say.
His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem.
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.
I believe, in particular, that there are two fundamental problems with allowing this sentimentalized version of the humanities to serve as our model for what it means to be deeply and passionately engaged in the study of music, art, language and literature, history, philosophy, religion—of human culture. Though few will say so publicly, there are those with a stake in the debate that resist granting a greater role in contemporary higher-ed curricula to the humanities.
Keating’s classroom—or outside of it, because so many of his poetry-derived “life lessons” are taught outside the classroom, after all—had anything to do with literary study, or why I was pursuing a graduate degree in English. It takes Emily Dickinson’s playful remark to her mentor Thomas Higginson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” and turns it into a critical principle. as the title for an essay about teaching: “What we have loved, / Others will love….” That second line concludes, “and we will teach them how.” That’s how I teach, or hope to teach: with my heart on my sleeve, perhaps, but with my brain always fully engaged. Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples?
I think I hate : because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive. I’m fortunate to do what I love for a living, and I know it. For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it.
The most alarming version—one, I’m arguing, that has been propagated by —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.
(In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? [Notice how he’s just been stripped of his professional credential.] Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)The film’s anti-intellectualism is both quite visceral and quite violent. This style of working with poetry—what’s sometimes termed poetry “appreciation,” as distinct from poetry criticism—is the m.o.