“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love?

I don’t know—maybe it was the London exhaustion, or the freshness of Robin Williams’ suicide, or the British sun just setting at 9pm. But Dead Poets Society wasn’t quite the fluff I remembered.

It unfolds at a posh northeastern prep school, where the sons of wealthy families ready themselves for prestigious, preordained careers. The lily-white students—all boys, naturally—seem to enjoy every privilege life can offer, except for one: decent teachers. Early on, we see a montage of their instructors, and it might as well be a parade of grandfather clocks. Every lesson is dry as dust. They tick-tock through Latin declensions and trig formulas, chiming hourly with vague and urgent warnings against fun.

Enter Robin Williams, as the colorful Mr. Keating.

His classes make for great cinema, if dubious pedagogy. (I’ve submitted some suspect lesson plans in my day, but his appear to be little more than “CARPE DIEM” scrawled on a napkin.) Still, you can see why the boys love him, why they believe so fervently in his romantic worldview. These aristocratic kids feel stuck in safe, scripted lives, and he’s offering them something else. Rebellion. Poetry. Homoerotic bonding caves.

It’s all pretty compelling.

But if Keating is truly preaching a radical rejection of society’s demands—if he’s indeed a stick of dynamite, and not just a harmless sparkler—then there’s a price that must be paid. “Society” isn’t some faceless monolith. It’s your parents, your school, your classmates. To steer the boys in a new direction, he must oppose the old one. And he’s got to ask the boys to oppose it, too—to turn against the safe, well-worn path, and against the people urging them down it.

Halfway through the movie, I remembered: Oh, right. They go there.

A student approaches Keating, torn between his love of acting and his father’s insistence that he give it up. “You have to show him who you are, what your heart is,” Keating urges. “You are not an indentured servant!” All year, he’s framed life as a struggle between beauty and cowardice. Here, that ideology means pushing the boy straight into a confrontation with his father.

And the next day, in the aftermath, the boy kills himself.

The teacher’s power to inspire is like any power—which is to say, dangerous. It means tangling yourself in the threads of family and friendship, enmeshing yourself in the complications of a young person’s life. It leaves you vulnerable to conflict, to heartbreak, and to doing inadvertent harm. Changing a kid’s life means making yourself a part of it.

And sometimes that leads to a godawful mess.

Sitting in front of the TV, watching Williams’ performance, I realized how different I am as a teacher. Yeah, I love my students. But I’m cautious by nature, wary of contradicting a parent. I’ve been soaking in the PC bath too long to ever say to a student, “Just tell your father how you feel!” I’d ask questions, explore options, and try to help the kid find his own framing for the situation. I’m not about to grab the reins and try to steer.

I don’t aim to “change lives” in that way. Not really.

The film ended, more touchingly than I remembered. We climbed upstairs, tired as you can only be in a town two millennia old.

“I expected more screen time for Robin Williams,” my wife said as we brushed our teeth. “The kids are really the center of the movie.”

It’s true. And it works, because the magic of Dead Poets Society is the chemistry of its young cast. The inexperienced, teenaged actors manage to gel beautifully, the way a good class does. Even more than Williams, they’re the soul of the film.

That’s when I realized. It’s not hard to picture Williams—by every account, a man of exceptional generosity—taking those kids under his wing and helping them. To find joy and purpose in the script. To carve meaning from their work. To follow their instincts onscreen. To achieve spontaneity and warmth and a sort of living poetry.

It’s not hard, in other words, to picture Williams as the Keating in their lives.

In a few weeks I’ll be starting work at a posh secondary school for boys, where I’m sure I’ll remain my cautious self, a sort of well-meaning anti-Keating. But as I fell asleep that night, my last thought was this: though every inspirational figure risks creating snarls and messes that he can’t fix—Keating, Williams, and any teacher out there striving to make that over-hyped but undeniably spectacular thing we call “a difference”—it’s easy to see the beauty in the way those lives get tangled up together.

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13 thoughts on ““Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

  1. Every school needs one Mr Keating. He perhaps was a bit over the top, but without one the kids will surely die of boredom, while at school or later. It is not that the results of encouraging a nonconformist outlook need to be here and now, all that can be expected is that at some later stage in their lives at least some of the kids will have the power to say “I’ve had enough of this, I am now going to do what I always wanted to do”. Look at the not uncommon move from a business career into teaching.
    Do you know the film “If”. Different but worth searching for.

    • I’ll check out “If” – thanks for the tip!

      I see your point about the noconformist outlook being a necessary part of any education. I’d say every school needs a Mr. Keating more for his energy and genuine caring about the kids’ lives than for his particular outlook, but you’re probably right that a school (by design, a status-quo-promoting institution) has some obligation to convey parts of his nonconformist message.

  2. Oh, come on. Don’t you talk about the beauty of mathematics, et cetera to your students?Surely, time and again, you succumb to the temptation of trying to make your students see what you see?

    With literature classes (or at least modern literature classes), the effort is usually to introduce new perspectives and break accepted notions about the world – to rethink everything from scratch. Pretty much like how a lecture on Cauchy completeness makes you rethink something you know so well – real numbers. (I’m not sure if that analogy will continue to work at all levels, but I’ll use it anyway)

    Of course, Hollywood films overdo stuff. Dead Poets’ Society is a dream – a class everyone wants to go to, just like so many of us would love to go to Hogwarts. But even Mr. Keating makes his students write one poem each and present it for analysis to the class. Everything aside, please don’t stop the bad drawings. They make everything so much more right. 🙂

    • Ooh, a worthy critique!

      First, I think there’s a line between “trying to make your students see what you see” within the confines of your discipline, and espousing a worldview that entails action beyond the classroom. “What is Thoreau’s purpose in writing Walden? What do you think of that purpose?” vs. “Hey guys, let’s all be like Thoreau.” One of them clearly falls within your duties as a teacher; the other takes a step further. It’s that second step that I’m thinking about, the step beyond the strictly academic realm.

      There’s a lot I like about Keating, and traits I hope to share–energy, enthusiasm, creativity, passion for his subject, caring about the kids, etc.

      But he really DOES go places I wouldn’t go. His inspirational lessons aren’t entirely innocuous or unobjectionable. He’s not just asking for “barbaric yawps” and silly walks. He’s telling the kids how they should live: carpe diem, follow your heart, etc. We may like his vision of life, or dislike it, but either way, he’s stepping beyond the teacher’s academic role into something much more intimate and potentially dangerous.

      Anyway, sorry for the lack of bad drawings! They’ll be back next week. (In fact, this post has neither math NOR bad drawings, making it a pretty unfitting contribution to the blog, I suppose.)

  3. Have you watch the film “Detachment” by any chance? The teacher is sort-of an anti-Keating, where he brings some sembalance of order to a chaotic highschool class.

  4. Great lesson plan analysis. Our favourite part of this movie was Peter Weir’s cinematography, especially the running-through-the-forest-at-night scene, but we’re a family of bushwalkers! The teachers in our midst always had the same view of it as you. I note the lack of really bad drawings in this post.

    • Yes – sorry for the lack of drawings! They’ll return next week, as bad as ever.

      You’re right, the cinematography is quite nice. I didn’t quite come out and say it in the post, but I really did like the movie – for all its silliness, I think it gets at some real dilemmas in the work of the teacher, and doesn’t settle for easy escape routes.

  5. I think a little enthusiasm and excitement for the subject go a long way in the class room. If the teacher is not excited by the subject, that sets the tone for the students’ attitude. You are the leader in the class room. Lead by example.
    Cheers – Andy

  6. When kids do it, it gives them a different pleasure.
    It does not make use oof anti-aging supplements
    or drugs and is totally natural iin various aspects.
    It iis rather a violation of tthe principle of the freedom of religion.

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