How to Ruin a Favourite Film: Dead Poets Society Reconsidered

During our socially isolated Easter, I decided to introduce my boys to a favourite film of my adolescence, Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989). As a piece of cinema, it has aged well. Tight storytelling, disciplined editing, beautiful cinematography, and excellent performances. It makes poetry exciting, and teaching romantic, and that’s all for the good. However, as an actual philosophy of education, it’s a train-wreck. Keating is a terrible teacher, by almost any measurement.

As a piece of cinema, it has aged well … as an actual philosophy of education, it’s a train-wreck. Keating is a terrible teacher, by almost any measurement.

In case you’re new to the film, Dead Poets Society is set in a New England boarding school, where waspy students are indoctrinated with the school’s values of discipline, honour, tradition, and excellence. Into this stuffy environment comes John Keating, the English teacher who inspires a generation of students with a love of poetry and free expression. The ensuing plot (spoilers follow) includes a secret club (the “Dead Poets Society”), new ideas, romance, overbearing fathers, a tragedy, and the eventual expulsion of Keating from the faculty.

Coming back to the film as an adult and a parent, I naturally have some quibbles with Keating’s overall educational vision. But what is most noticeable to me is that, even by his own criteria, he fails.

Keating says to the students that in his class, “you will learn to think for yourselves.” Fair enough. Good, even. But, wait– Keating declared this purpose to his students after having just insisted the entire class rip the introductory essay out of their poetry textbooks! Why? Because Keating did not agree with it. Their first lesson with Keating is a lesson in pre-judgement, or prejudice.

Burning or ripping up books ought to strike terror into the heart of anyone who remembers the darker moments of the twentieth century. The whole scene is vaguely terrifying. The use of peer pressure, the blind submission to authority (he doesn’t mount an argument for why Pritchard’s take on poetry is wrong, they just have to trust Keating that it is), the mockery of students who are resisting the command. The whole thing is a study in the manipulative power of a charismatic leader.

Educationally and philosophically, Keating’s perspective on teaching English is troubling. His objective is that the boys “find their own voice;” that they express themselves; that they follow the inner call of authenticity. To get there, the western canon, the study of the form and history of poetry, and basically anything earlier than Walt Whitman has to be jettisoned.

The film’s moral compass is badly dated. Knox (one of the students and a leader in the “Dead Poets Society”) pursues a relationship in ways which, from the perspective of 2020, look badgering and, well, very insistent. The film’s tragic climax centres on the suicide of Neil, who, under Keating’s influence, goes against his parent’s wishes, to pursue acting. In the moral logic of the film, Keating’s vision (and, in a strange way, Neil’s suicide) are vindicated. The school’s inquiry into the incident is portrayed as meddlesome and heavy-handed. From today’s perspective, Keating’s potential role in the whole sage would at least be worth investigating. And the very fact that an inquiry happened at all positions the school as more progressive than most institutions of the time.

The film’s philosophical vision of the good life, however, feels as contemporary as ever. It is a quintessential expression of what Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism”. For Taylor, this is the post 1960s vision of life in which the highest good is to find your unique self (“individualism”) and then obey the moral obligation to express that unique self to the world (“expressive”). This vision has antecedents in the romantic movement of the eighteenth century, and the Bloomsbury Group of the early twentieth. The significance of the 1960s is not that these ideas are new, but rather (under conditions of post-war prosperity) they become almost universally available. What had once been the avant garde option for a small group of wealthy artists became (and has continued to be) the default of a whole society.

Importantly, Keating is an English teacher. The film wouldn’t work if Keating were teaching maths, science, or even sport (the “rules of the game” being stubbornly resistant to an individual’s desire to express his unique self on the field). As such, the film buys into another truism of contemporary thought: the notion of a fixed “wall of separation” between facts and feelings, truth and values, faith and reason, the private and the public. In this western taxonomy, English literature is placed firmly on the subjective and private side of the equation—a space it shares with religion.

Dead Poets Society is set in 1959. This date sets Keating up as an early adopter of a set of values and preferences that were, over the next few years, to become the default position of our culture. Ironically, Keating’s students were being prepared, not for independence, but for lock-step conformity to that emerging culture. If your intention was to keep your head down and live a life more ordinary, Keating’s classes in 1959 would have prepared you well.

Ironically, Keating’s students were being prepared, not for independence, but for lock-step conformity to an emerging culture. If your intention was to keep your head down and live a life more ordinary, Keating’s classes in 1959 would have prepared you well.

Education is for formation. It is about forming a person who can think, feel, act, and participate effectively and confidently in the world. The aim is that you learn how to think, not what to think. Students should be on a track toward thinking for themselves. But that is the long game—a right earned at the end of a difficult journey, not at its beginning. It comes through humble and earnest submission to a tradition. The right to stand in judgement of the western canon should be granted to those who have first understood and loved it, not to those who were taught, ahead of any serious encounter with it, to condemn it.  Karl Barth, a fierce critic of Schleiermacher, once said that those who have not loved him (Schleiermacher) have not earned the right to hate him.[1] That seems to me a good principle for all serious criticism.

The aim of education, in short, should be to so form a person that they would refuse to rip pages out of a book unless a serious case against it could be mounted—a case based on argument and reason, not authority and prejudice. (Even then, a well-educated person would probably still refuse the act of page-ripping because their education will have alerted them to the unfortunate connections between destroying books and, well, fascism).

Stanley Hauerwas compares Christian formation to learning a new language. The end game of language acquisition is confident, effective, and creative expression within that language. But the path to rhetorical proficiency comes via a disciplined submission to the grammar and logic of the language in question. Christian formation is the same. The end game of “finding your voice” is a worthy one. But the pathway there is through the discipline of learning the common language of faith. Creeds, catechism, memorised scripture, and participation in church attendance and the sacraments are to Christian formation what grammar is to language, scales are to music, and time practicing your bowling is to the actual game of cricket. We must enter humbly into words and rules not our own, and learn them from others before we make them our own.

Hauerwas says to his theology students, “My classes aren’t so you can ‘make up your own mind’. You haven’t got minds worth making up yet.” I wouldn’t put it like that. But only because I’m not from Texas, so I am less inclined than Hauerwas to say what I think. But it is what I think.

I am thankful—very thankful—for those teachers who inspired me with a vision of where education could lead. If there is any redemption to Keating’s teaching model, it’s here. At best, he provided a picture for students of where it’s all going. But I am also thankful—even more thankful—for those teachers who moved from that initial inspiration to the hard, long, and not always inspiring work of embedding me in a tradition which, after time and effort, I could begin, however feebly, to call my own.


[1] Or something like that. The source of the quote now escapes me. But see his generous account of Schleiermacher in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century for an example of that attitude in action.

 


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