Before you say anything, yes, I am aware that Dead Poets Society came out over twenty years ago, and yes, I am aware that it stars Robert Sean Leonard, who does not appear to have aged a day as Dr. James Wilson on House. (This made for some confusing cross-signals watching the film. All Ethan Hawke needed was some stubble and a limp.) I’m driven to write a review of this old movie because of the film’s reputation, especially as an inspiring story about teaching, and because of my growing view over the course of the film that something in Robin Williams‘ classroom had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Williams plays Mr. John Keating, an alumnus of an elite New England prep school who has been hired as the school’s English teacher and whose class includes Neil Perry (Leonard) and Todd Anderson (Hawke). Perry aspires to be an actor but his over-bearing father is determined that he attend Harvard and go on to medical school, while Anderson is a new student with a phobia of public speaking. Inspired by Keating to delve deeper into the joys of poetry, Perry, Anderson, and their friends find a copy of Keating’s old poetry reader in the school library, marked up with his name and an inscription from the Dead Poets Society. Finding that the DPS was a secret society devoted to underground poetry, led by Keating during his prep school days, the friends re-establish the DPS and are soon embarked on individual missions of self-discovery. These missions soon go awry – Perry commits suicide after his father threatens to send him to military school, and another boy is expelled for defying the school administration after Keating is sacked for his role in the suicide. The film ends on a triumphant note, with Anderson and others staging a protest in support of Keating in the final scene. But I could not watch the scene with anything approaching a positive emotion. I was horrified at the glorification of Keating’s irresponsibility as a teacher.
Dead Poets Society is often touted as a film about self-empowerment and the positive role a good teacher can have in our lives. A worthy sentiment, but that is not the film I saw. I saw a film in which a reckless teacher admonishes his students to “seize the day!” without any regard for the consequences. What begins as innovative learning in the classroom soon spirals out of control, with one student, unable to tell the difference between class and real life, publishing an incendiary article in the school newspaper that nearly leads to his expulsion. Keating’s response? A clap on the shoulder and a reminder not to push things too far.
That in and of itself would be acceptable as a “teachable moment” were it not for what follows. Perry, forbidden by his father to take part in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after having faked dad’s signature on the consent form), goes to Keating for advice on what to do. Keating, moved by the boy’s emotional turmoil, advises him to confront his father about his own desires versus his father’s desire to send him to medical school. Perry agrees with some trepidation, but by the end of the play performance it is clear that no such conversation took place, and that the boy had continued in his deception and defiance. The story climaxes in a confrontation at the Perry home, in which Mr. Perry informs his son that he will be sent to military school. In despair, young Perry shoots himself while his parents sleep.
This is where the movie loses me. As viewers, we are supposed to believe that Keating is a victim of the ensuing witch hunt as the school administrators look for a scapegoat. The administrators end up extorting signed statements out of the other members of the DPS, under threat of expulsion, that exonerates themselves while placing all the blame on Keating as the instigator of events. Despite the bad faith of the administrators, I could not view the search for responsibility as discreditable. While Keating had not directly encouraged any other of the boys’ behavior, he had encouraged them to seize the day without any sort of limits on their behavior, and had gone even further with Perry by directly inserting himself into the family’s affairs.
Keating failed as a teacher on two fronts. He led his enthusiastic and credulous students to believe that behaving with license was a good and desirable thing to do. Yes, it had some positive outcomes, but it had many negative ones as well as the students pushed boundaries further and further with little or no pushback. Keating’s enthusiasm in pushing his students to break boundaries is far more evident than any importance he places on teaching them the acceptable limits of their behavior. Indeed, his entire pedagogical style, from defacing textbooks to standing on desks, seems entirely destructive in nature. He can tear down rules but is not capable of raising up new ones. The predictable result is what we see – students expelled, homes broken, a life lost. A teacher worthy of praise would teach his students to be better human beings, not lead them down the path of self-destruction.
But lead them down that path Keating does. With one student dead and another expelled, Keating commits his final outrage in the closing scene of the film. Dismissed from his teaching post, Keating shows up at his classroom to collect his things at the same time that the headmaster is convening the poetry class. Anderson, finally overcoming his phobia, jumps to the top of his desk in salute to his former teacher. While the headmaster threatens them with expulsion, the surviving DPS members follow Anderson while Keating looks on with an enigmatic smile. The movie ends.
This scene is supposed to be inspiring, but I just found it sad to watch Keating wreak his final act of damage on his impressionable students. Given that the character is evidently able to tell time, I can only assume that he showed up in the classroom with the intent of seeing his students and provoking an incident. He clearly makes no effort to get Anderson and the others to sit down, and in fact tacitly encourages them by lingering and not leaving the room. The students, in turn, demonstrate blind loyalty but no ability to actually think about the consequences of what they are doing. Ironically, it was the students who did not participate in DPS who wisely keep their heads down, avoid eye contact, and presumably avoid expulsion. It is the non-participants who show the greatest ability to think for themselves in this scene.
Keating’s track record of one student dead and another half dozen or more expelled does not seem like the legacy of a successful teacher. It seems like the legacy of a libertine who encourages students to do what they want, regardless of consequences, and of a megalomaniac who inserts himself into family quarrels and is willing to see his students suffer in exchange for emotional gratification. This is the first time I have seen this movie as an adult, having first seen it when I myself was in high school, and as an adult I am surprised that this film is taken seriously as an example of how we would want teachers to lead their students.