Dead Poets Society

I was reading something online this past week, and I saw a reference to Dead Poets Society, which led me to watch the trailer.  I was a year away from becoming an English major when that movie came out, and it had a rather large impact on me, as I’m sure it did for most people remotely interested in teaching or English.  It still does, given the way my students talk about the movie, even though it’s 26 years old now.

Now that I’m around the middle of my career and the middle of life, I view the movie differently.  I still enjoy it as a movie, certainly, but, as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers, it bothers me greatly.  Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away very important plot points, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie.  And, if you haven’t seen the movie, why not?  Go do so now.

The movie is held up as an example of the impact teachers can have on students’ lives.  The final scene with many of the boys’ standing on their desks as Mr. Keating thanks them makes almost anyone tear up, especially if they want to be a teacher.  However, there are serious problems with reading the movie as inspirational.

The obvious problem is that Neil is dead.  There’s no way I’m going to blame Mr. Keating for his death, but he has to share some of the responsibility, it seems to me.  He encouraged high school students to suck the marrow out of life, but didn’t teach them how to live in a world where parents (and other people) will stand in the way of their dreams.  As soon as Neil is confronted with someone who doesn’t share Mr. Keating’s view of the world, he commits suicide rather than finding a way around the roadblock that is his father.

Similarly, Charlie has already been expelled, changing the course of his life forever, probably not in a positive way (though, given that his parents could afford to send him to such a school, he might turn out just fine).  Given the administration’s feelings, my guess is that the several of the other boys are going to be expelled as soon as Mr. Keating walks out the door, as well.

But we don’t want to see beyond the credits.  We want to simply see those boys’ standing on those desks and celebrate them for standing up to the closed-minded administration.  And I agree that they should.  Granted, the administration is a straw man argument against Mr. Keating’s romanticized view of the world, but they also don’t provide a compelling worldview for the boys.  They could present a solid argument for why the students need to know certain things to live fulfilling lives.  The realists have something to teach us, too.

What I walk away from this film with now is that Mr. Keating had serious influence on those boys’ lives, not just their education.  We come into contact with students whose lives we help shape, as well, not just in terms of what they learn about our subjects, but what they learn about the world.  Thus, we have to use that influence carefully and well.  While I would love to see a group of students form a Dead Poets Society and try to find a way to suck the marrow out of life, I’d rather have living poets seizing many more days.

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2 thoughts on “Dead Poets Society

  1. Thank you for this. I re-watched Dead Poets after I started teaching and had similar thoughts. As much as I want to see my students live passionately and meaningfully, I know that there are so many things that teenagers just aren’t ready for, and I don’t want to stir things up in them that they aren’t able to handle. I had a student attempt suicide at the beginning of the year, and another student in the school hung himself last year; no one saw it coming. Students put up such a good front that it’s hard to tell who’s angsty and who’s truly depressed and anxious.

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    • I think there are ways of inspiring and encouraging that don’t lead students down paths we don’t want. Mr. Keating certainly would have agreed, I’m sure, but I don’t think we need a movie that ends the way this one does. However, movies need more conflict than real life.

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