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No one in my family quite understood what I wanted to do for a living or, having finished my bachelor’s degree, why I’d spend seven , Scott believed he finally had an idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and more importantly, why.

We went to the movie and watched, often swept up in the autumnal New England beauty of Welton Academy (the real-life St. But I walked out horrified that anyone would think that what happens in Mr.

For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. That’s how I was taught, in high school especially. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”Wha—?

Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples?

Keating with his “unorthodox” teaching methods suddenly leaps up onto his desk. “I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” he helpfully declaims.

(Though generic-sounding, the essay’s title, “Understanding Poetry,” mischievously nods to the most influential poetry text of the 20th century, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s This is a battle. A few would gather at the old Indian cave and read from Thoreau, Whitman, Shelley, the biggies—even some of our own verse—and in the enchantment of the moment we’d let poetry work its magic…. We didn’t just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey. Keating is leading his students astray, Pied Piper-like, there is at least something to that charge. Lindsay knows little of the Negro, and that little is dangerous.” Whatever the poem’s real or intended politics, the spectacle of an all-white clique of prep-school boys capering out of a cave into the night while chanting the poem’s refrain (“THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, / CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A GOLDEN TRACK”)—well, For all his talk about students “finding their own voice,” however, Keating actually allows his students very little opportunity for original thought.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. But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous.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. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton.For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it.And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself.He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.


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