Updated: May 2, 2019
This Spring, between the post-Oscars lull and advent of summer blockbuster season, I decided to revisit a childhood favorite. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society (though surely you’ve viewed the famed “O Captain, My Captain” scene, or maybe the SNL parody of it), the film follows a group of prep school boys freshly captivated and emboldened by the unconventional methods of their new English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). The boys — including Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), a star academic emotionally burdened by his parents’ hefty professional wishes for him; Knox Overstreet, a bright-eyed and love-struck teen; and Todd Anderson, a painfully self-conscious boy with the buried soul of an artist — seek inspiration from Keating and recommence meetings of the alumnus’ Dead Poets Society, a sort of literary cult. Through multiple subplots, the boys take to heart Keating’s “Carpe diem!” sermons and seize the day by pursuing their passions and hearts’ desires.
We meet Keating at the end of a montage of other, older Welton teachers, including a Latin instructor who prompts students to mindlessly repeat a string of conjugations, followed by a professor who dwells heavily upon the “absolute precision” required in trigonometry. Then we cut to the boys waiting for yet another mind-numbing lesson. Enter Keating whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. His nonchalance is striking against the backdrop of the otherwise rigid teaching style of Welton. This is the kind of obvious, overplayed juxtaposition that characterizes and hinders the screenplay of Dead Poets Society. The film makes use of disappointing and unnecessary hyperbole to preach the power of a humanities education.
In the most blatant example of this hyperbole, Keating instructs a student to read the introduction to their poetry textbook. Dr. J Evans Pritchard’s scholarly essay details a methodological approach to poetry which involves graphically plotting a poem’s importance and greatness. Rewatching this scene, my eyes rolled as the essay instructed students to basically take the integral of a poem, to calculate its area in order to determine its worth. Keating, in a deliberately revolutionary turn, vehemently asks the students to rip the introduction pages out of the textbook. Clearly, this action is intended to be a demonstration of Keating’s creative wisdom. However, according to this actual poet, Pritchard’s criteria for assessing poetry is “comically mechanistic,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find any English scholar who wouldn’t laugh in the face of Pritchard’s words. Keating’s beliefs are not as novel as Dead Poets Society wants the viewer to believe.
Talking the film over with friends, I’ve been forced to confront the possibility that my own pre-professional nature has impeded my perception. At Penn, where pre-professionalism runs rampant, I’ve been faced with the prospect that perhaps I am guilty of occasionally assuming the role of Neil’s father, who frowns upon his son’s eagerness to act and instead implores him to center his every action around his future career. So now I ask myself: has my own close-mindedness prevented me from appreciating Keating’s unconventional teaching style and absorbing the purported wisdom that he passes down to his students?
Some viewers may walk away from Dead Poets Society ruminating, “Wow. I wish I had had a teacher like Keating.” I was not one of those viewers. While the majority of Welton teachers adjust their syllabi to squash any and all bits of creativity, I’ll admit that I prefer their rigid teaching style to Keating’s laissez faire approach to English. Sit back, says Keating, and beautiful, meaningful poetry will simply flow from your lips. In one scene, Keating invites shy Todd Anderson to the front of the classroom, shows him a photo of Walt Whitman, and directs him to shout out the first words that pop into his head. With a teensy bit of encouragement, Anderson closes his eyes and lets poetry pour out of him; even he seems taken aback by his own words. Keating grins smugly, as if he’s done hard work crafting the newly baptized artist that stands before him. In reality, all he’s done is tell his students that poetry is “the stuff of life,” with absolutely no explanation of what this generalization means.
Drawing from my own experiences learning from a few excellent English teachers, I can’t help but view Dead Poets Society’s portrayal of a “good teacher” as disrespectful. Even to pen an original poem requires time, criticism, a working knowledge of literary techniques, and an intense study of poetry; to inspire and teach a classroom of teenage boys calls for much more. Unfortunately for Keating, quoting one stanza of Herrick’s “To the Virgins, Make Much of Time” and reducing its complexity to a cliche — seize the day! —does not qualify as “intense study,” and it’s unlikely that his students retained much literary knowledge from hearing him whisper “Carpe diem” while staring at old photos of Welton alumni. His flippant approach to poetry undermines the validity of studying English altogether and directly counters what he seeks to bestow upon his students. Dead Poets Society is intended as a love letter to the humanities, a testament to the power of critical thought to change the world. Rather, Keating makes a caricature of the English discipline.
All of this is not to say that Dead Poets Society holds no merit. Despite his character’s flaws, Robin Williams delivers a convincing (and retrospectively devastating, considering Neil’s fate) performance that earned him a well deserved Oscar nomination. Despite his history of comedic parts, Williams demonstrates his acting versatility in a role that bears resemblance to his turn as therapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting nearly ten years later — Williams seems to shine as a wise mentor to troubled teens. Other members of the cast mirror Williams’ aptitude. In the first of many career-defining roles, Ethan Hawke finds his acting footing and lends a shy innocence to Todd, beautifully foiling Robert Sean Leonard’s poise as Neil. Josh Charles sports a boyish charm as Knox Overstreet, adding a splash of idealistic romance to the film when he woos a girl from a neighboring school. Cinematographically, Welton’s beautiful, autumnal northeastern backdrop lends itself to some stunning pans, and the viewer is bound to be drawn into this romanticized, prep school vision.
These charming elements contribute to Dead Poets Society’s “deeply seductive” misrepresentation of a humanities education. Keating brings a certain passion, invention, and spontaneity to teaching that is endearing to a general audience. Across all genres of film, including movies like October Sky or those of the Harry Potter franchise, we flock to the image of a teacher personally invested in his or her students. Viewed through a modern lens of a lackluster public education system and standardized schooling, Keating’s personalized teaching style shines.
However, a literary scholar or cynical viewer should see through this veil of cinematic grandeur: Keating’s sentiments are captivating yet baseless. In one deliberately bold scene, Keating leaps atop his desk, beckoning his students to do the same. He exclaims, “I stand upon my desk to remind yourself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” a supposed lesson in the power of perspective. Perhaps if I’d stood on a table to watch Dead Poets Society, I’d have felt differently about Keating. But probably not.