Apple’s Your Verse ad campaign poses an odd and maybe cynical offer to us. Don’t pay attention to the call of law, business, or medicine. Be a poet. Be a creator. Contribute your verse. What are we on American Idol? Or as Monty Python put it maybe all we want to do is sing. Apple panders to the look at me right now world. The film is about free thinkers. Maybe that is the same as being a poet. And as Kevin J.H Dettmar argues at The Atlantic, the film is “a terrible defense of the humanities.” He points out that the film celebrates enthusiasm over any critical thought” “Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.”
Having gone to a prep school, I am less upset by the film than Dettmar. But then I may project my experience onto the film’s gaps. Even before prep school I went to a grade school where the boring “Latin — Agricolam, Agricola, Agricolae, Agricolarum, Agricolis, Agricolas, Agrilcolis” was part of the curriculum in eighth grade. That teacher happened to have done his own translation of Caesar’s Road to Gaul. He’d re-enact charges of legions and evoke swords. In high school we had many inspiring teachers. They kicked our butts for fake enthusiasm. Larry McMillin once asked me a question about Shaw’s Man and Superman. I came up with some ramble. He said “That’s not Shaw. That’s just Desai,” in his Southern gentlemen’s voice that somehow had scorn yet support. Support. For what? He called me out but made me see that I could do more. How?
Rigor. To the waste bin with brownie points for showing up. Be gone empty claims of it’s good, because I said it. Learn the fundamentals. Master the material. As Phillipe Nonet said to my class in college when someone started a sentence with “I think”, “That you think it, does not matter. It matters what it says.”
It turns out that free thinking is much more difficult than Keating realizes. The rigor of learning the fundamentals allows us to be liberated. Liberal arts are about freedom and how we are unmoored from habit. But knowing the foundations is how you might see where they may not operate anymore. So sure contribute your verse. But if you want it to be a good one, let alone a great one, let alone one that might allow you to eat, put in the work. Grab everything you can from college and post-graduate schools. Contrary to recent pushes from big law (note that with 30-505 margins the big firms can absorb training costs), law schools training people to think in sharp and critical ways are providing an education that connects to the law and much more. But that requires diligence, drudgery, and didactic moments. Those happen to turn into gifts of knowledge, skill, and the ability to learn on your own. At that point, your verse might be worth something.