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A scene from the film Dead Poets Society of students outside in gym gear carrying their professor, played by Robin WilliamsBefore Mr. John Keating (played by Robin Williams) exerts his influence, Welton, the fictional private school in “Dead Poets Society,” is a place where many boys are thriving (photo: Alamy).

“Dead Poets Society” (1989) is a beautifully filmed and affecting movie that was nominated for several Academy Awards and won the award for best original screenplay. The film, which stars the late Robin Williams as an energetic and innovative English teacher named John Keating, is set in the late 1950s at an elite boys’ boarding school in New England: the fictional Welton Academy.

At Welton, boys are offered a rigorous and traditional education. They are drilled in Latin verbs; they solve advanced math problems; they memorize historical facts. In what was by 1989 a reductionist and ideological rendering of a 1950s educational setting, Welton students are never explicitly encouraged to find joy in any of their scholastic pursuits. Or, really, in anything.

Mr. Keating and his real-life counterparts now dominate secondary and post secondary education. That’s a problem.

That is, until Williams’s young Mr. Keating—himself a Welton graduate, a well-regarded English teacher and a student of romantic poetry—arrives on the scene.

At Welton, Keating’s first class consists of walking his pupils into the school’s hallway to peruse framed photographs of Welton alumni. There, Keating tells the students that they may henceforth address him not as Mr. Keating but as “O Captain, My Captain!”—a reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Then, maintaining the class’s focus on the photographs of Welton students of yore, Keating recites the first line of Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”: “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The boys must, Keating tells them, “seize the day,” because mortality looms. “We are food for worms, lads,” says Keating, so live for the moment. Carpe diem.

Keating’s second lesson for the Welton students involves literally ripping out of their poetry books an essay by a scholar named J. Evans Pritchard titled “Understanding Poetry.” This essay purports to offer a graphing formula by which one can ascertain any given poem’s so-called greatness by plotting its “artfulness” on one axis and its “importance” on the other. The exercise conveys Keating’s conviction that the pedagogical and academic theory called New Criticism, which emphasized close reading and aesthetics (and which dominated instruction in literature from the 1940s until the late 1960s), is in fact “excrement.” In his class, Keating tells his pupils, there will be no “armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry…you will learn to think for yourselves.”

Keating’s semantic brilliance make his philosophy go down like the coolest, sweetest beverage on a hot summer day.

It’s all very heady stuff. The boys begin meeting in a cave at night to read poetry to one another in an attempt to resurrect the forbidden Dead Poets Society, in which Mr. Keating participated as a Welton student. The teens are mesmerized and inspired by Keating, just as generations of viewers have been mesmerized and inspired by the film of the same name. I confess to having been so myself when I first saw the film at age 15. Especially for those of us who came early to a love of literature, Keating’s semantic brilliance and theatrical self-assurance make his philosophy go down like the coolest, sweetest beverage on a hot summer day.

The problem? The film’s fictional Keating and his real-life counterparts—who now dominate secondary and post-secondary education—mostly poison the young people whose intellectual and spiritual thirst they mean to quench.

Healthy Order and Healthy Disorder

Before Keating exerts his influence, Welton is a place where many boys are thriving. We see boys sneaking transistor radios into dorms, boys contemplating how to steal the girlfriends of public-school athletes, boys forming regular study groups and occasional cheating alliances, boys bustling with the restless physical energy that, more than any other characteristic, defines male youth.

That is, we see boys pushing against the boundaries that their parents and teachers have set—exactly as healthy teens should.

Are those boundaries overly narrow and constraining, and therefore due for reform? In some cases, absolutely—and tragically so. Animated by class anxiety and therefore deeply concerned about his son’s academic performance and professional trajectory, Mr. Perry, the father of a boy named Neil, forces his son to withdraw from a position as assistant editor of Welton’s yearbook so that he can focus exclusively on his course work. Worse, given Neil’s deep penchant for acting, Perry forbids his son from participating in a local production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Neil defies his father by participating in the play anyway and ultimately commits suicide when his parents fail to understand the depth of his commitment to the theater and continue to insist that he become a doctor.

Before Keating exerts his influence, Welton is a place where many boys are thriving.

In the wake of Neil’s death, the Welton administration dismisses Mr. Keating, blaming his unorthodox instructional methods and the Dead Poets Society for the tragedy. This is, of course, unfair to the well-intentioned Keating, who was trying to help Neil explain to his father just how much he loves acting.

Still, as anyone who has spent any time around teenagers (especially teenage boys) knows, their primary limitation is not an inability to seize the day; it is an inability to plan for the future. Indeed, teens’ impulsivity and recklessness is best met with exactly the kind of regimentation, order and authority that Welton as a whole was attempting to provide.

This is the same kind of regimentation, order and authority with which adults of every race, religion and class engaged with teenagers until the 1960s. And, of course, it sometimes had its excesses. Any claim to mathematically measure the “greatness” of poems is self-evidently asinine. More important, a father’s attempt to make significant life decisions for his healthy and self-aware teenage son, without his input, was bound to be counterproductive in every possible way.

But these excesses of the 1950s educational order, as depicted in “Dead Poets Society,” are made-up exceptions that prove the overwhelming rule: Healthy teens need order if they are to court and create developmentally healthy disorder. Being without boundaries to push and structures to push against leads to exactly the type of solipsistic, faux introspection that gives rise to the existential angst for which teens have been known ever since we accepted as a cultural rule that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “mothers and fathers throughout the land” should not “criticize what you can’t understand.”

As anyone who has spent any time around teenagers knows, their primary limitation is not an inability to seize the day; it is an inability to plan for the future.

But, of course, mothers and fathers can understand just fine. The only thing more anti-intellectual than some self-important college professor presuming to quantify the greatness of Shakespeare is some self-important English teacher presuming to teach impressionable boys to think for themselves by using them to unquestioningly validate his own credulous and oversimplified relationship to romantic verse. Keating demanded, remember, that his students rip out “Understanding Poetry” by the fictional foil, Pritchard—not that they develop arguments for refuting it or, forbid the thought, for agreeing with it. Keating does not want the boys to think for themselves—not really. He does not want them to think at all, in fact. He wants them to feel as he does.

When Keating is confronted by Welton’s headmaster, Mr. Nolan, and questioned about his unorthodox teaching methods, he replies that he “always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.” What Nolan says in response includes what are meant to be the most villainous and regressive lines of the film: “At these boys’ ages! Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.”

All reductions to absurdity and excesses notwithstanding, the fictional Nolan has it right.

‘Lean on Me’

If only all the real-life Keatings had listened to voices like the fictional Nolan’s for the past several decades instead of—with some notable exceptions, many of them Catholic—systematically eradicating schools’ embrace of tradition and discipline, which once served as the necessary counterweight to teens’ natural drive to embrace the idea of carpe diem.

Morgan Freeman playing Joe Clarke, a principail, talking to teenaage students in the hallway
When Joe Clark (played by Morgan Freeman) arrives at “Lean on Me”’s Eastside High, he finds rampant violence, chaos and underachievement (photo: Warner Brothers/ Alamy/ AJ Pics)

If they had, then another 1989 film about education, “Lean on Me,” would not remain so sadly relevant. Released just three months before “Dead Poets Society,”“Lean on Me” chronicles the drastic measures taken in 1987 by a real-life principal, represented in the film by the character Joe Clark (played by Morgan Freeman), to rescue an inner-city New Jersey high school. His task: to transform a “cauldron of violence” in which about one-third of the students could pass the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills test into a safe, positive environment in which more than three-quarters of students demonstrated basic skills.

By the mid-1970s, the educational philosophy espoused by Mr. Keating in “Dead Poets Society”—that is, the hegemonic rejection of tradition and the emphasis on enthusiasm over discipline—had become normative in schools of education in American universities. Hence, ideologically motivated educational philosophies from out-of-touch academics had trickled down into the nation’s primary and secondary schools, particularly those serving the neediest urban students.

When Clark arrives at Eastside High, he finds rampant violence, chaos and underachievement. He recognizes instantly that these elements of disorder have one common cause: the Eastside High teachers’ unwillingness to claim discipline and order as values, and to enforce those values through legitimate authority.

When Clark arrives at Eastside High, he finds rampant violence, chaos and underachievement.

By the 1980s, too many such educators had been influenced by real-life Mr. Keatings. So when Clark yells that “discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm,” his colleagues are deeply skeptical. When he assumes total authority, in deference not to the niceties of an abysmally failing status quo but to the demands of a reality he hopes to create in which “the minds of the young are set free,” his colleagues find this unilateral wielding of (legitimate) power jarring.

This is unsurprising, since by the time Clark gets to Eastside, the chaos has become so intractable that he must expel 300 “incorrigible” students to protect the other 2,700. He chains school doors (in violation of the fire code) to keep drug dealers out; and, despite the overwhelming popularity of his approach among the mostly minority parents in the Eastside community, he is under constant threat from a politicized school board and a self-interested mayor.

Leading up to 1989 and through the years that followed, when it would have been difficult (but not impossible) for us as a nation to do the hard work of heeding Mr. Clark and reforming our public schools accordingly, we chose to adopt Mr. Keating’s self-reverential, feel-good style instead—and to do so where we could least afford it.

We have little desire to break with conventional unwisdom. Like the boys of “Dead Poets Society,” we are too busy feeling to think.

Absent strict boundaries and consistent discipline, privileged teens like those in “Dead Poets Society” might develop the kind of sophomoric self-importance that causes themselves angst and others annoyance. More urgently, though, for underprivileged teens like those in “Lean on Me,” the consequences of discarding time-tested rigor in favor of misguided tolerance have been truly dire.

Today, about one-third of American fourth graders overall are proficient in reading. In 2019 (before Covid-19 measures took an even further toll), in one of the poorest large cities in the nation, my native Philadelphia, exactly 20 percent of high school students proved proficient in algebra. Meanwhile, the school superintendent in a socioeconomically depressed Philadelphia suburb that has been experiencing a rise in student-perpetrated violence and bullying pleaded with district parents to “please speak to your children about appropriate conduct on their way to and from school and in school.” The district, he said, is “putting our staff, our emergency responders, and other students in potentially unsafe situations.”

The fictional Clark, by contrast, after expelling 300 troublemakers, tells the remaining students, “You will not be bothered in Joe Clark’s school” and upbraids his fellow faculty members: “This is an institution of learning, ladies and gentlemen. If you can’t control it, how can you teach?”

This kind of swift, certain and consistent discipline—this insistence that socioeconomically disadvantaged students will not be subjected to victimization in their own schools—turned the real-life Eastside High around in the 1980s. With teachers rather than students in charge, Eastside was able to offer its students both academic rigor and supportive community. Similar reforms could yield similar results—even today.

But we have little desire to work that hard or to break with conventional unwisdom. Like the boys of “Dead Poets Society,” we are too busy feeling to think—for ourselves or at all.

So across the country, we as a society do tragically little that would require authoritative, honest and unsparing action over a sustained period of time to improve the lives and prospects of the students and families who need it most. Because that would be unpleasant, plodding work and would not feel good—and who wants that, what with each of our self-serving days on earth numbered?

Carpe diem, indeed.

 

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly referred to the boarding school in the film as Dalton Academy. The school is called Welton Academy.

More: Education / Film

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