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Humanities serve an important purpose

“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.”-Dead Poets Society (1989)

‘O Captain! My Captain!’ Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, most people have come to connect this line with Robin Williams’s iconic portrayal of John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.

Originally, the famous line served as title of Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of President Lincoln. Williams’s character, an English teacher at a prestigious preparatory school, loves Walt Whitman to an arguably somewhat insane degree, even going so far as to call him Uncle Walt.

He puts Whitman’s photo above the classroom’s blackboard and asks his students to refer to himself as, “Either Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O captain, my captain.”

It’s practically a requirement of English majors to view (and love) this film.

Dead Poets is a coming of age story that reminds us that feeling is a blessing to be explored, rather than a curse to be ignored, because it is what makes us human.

It is a film designed to trigger emotion and spur a desire for creativity that is all too easy for us to lose as we get older and ‘more practical.’

Now you may find that I’m being a little effusive. It is just a movie after all. A movie made almost 30 years ago and set 30 years before that (the film takes place in 1959). Therefore, the film is arguably disconnected from the everyday lives of people, especially students, today.

I very well may be effusive. It is in my character to be such; I’m a writer. I have deep emotions that I wish to express, and I believe that there is nothing more beautiful than sharing what you have in your soul and in your mind with those around you. That’s who I am.

But Dead Poets Society teaches us all something very important, artists and scientists alike (as well as everyone in between).

As human beings, we are filled with passion. And we produce and delight in art because we need to find an outlet for that passion.

The humanities are not a hobby that we indulge in when we have time; they are our life. Without them we have nothing inside us.

Every discipline has something to offer, but just as math and science are important to the function of life, so too are the humanities: literature, visual art, music, drama, poetry.

These matter. And not just as the cherries on top of an already successful society. The humanities are the foundation.

They are the cornerstones.

What remains of the world’s greatest societies is their culture; art, literature, drama, architecture.

Although we appreciate past scientific achievements, we have surpassed them. We use these discoveries as jumping off points from which to build further progress.

But culture we appreciate for itself. That remains. Because it exists as the pure outpouring of human emotion.

We, as human beings, relate to that and always will.

I do not, by any means, discount the importance of math and science in our world. I merely advocate for the humanities to receive equal credit.

As human beings, we must express ourselves. We need to feel like we matter. As small and insignificant as we are, we still need to know that our thoughts and our voices matter.

Because when we lose that, when we lose that desire to express and to be heard, we lose what makes us human.

And then, what are we? And why are we here?

In the words of John Keating (and Walt Whitman):

“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…

“O me! O life!

… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish…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.’

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

What will your verse be?”

Lindsay Zelvin, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at

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