that the powerful play goes on

I've mentioned Dead Poets Society in this blog before (I'm pretty sure). Despite some arguments to the contrary--I will get to one in particular in just a moment--I think John Keating is a great teacher. Somewhere between the way he teaches and the way Tripper in Meatballs... counsels? is how I want to be when I teach. I want to inspire students to want to know more. I want to offer them more than is on the syllabus or in the textbook.

For context, I'm watching the movie in a classroom tonight. Asked to sub a class in which a movie I love was already on the schedule--that was a no-brainer. A short lecture about the four organizational frames--structural, human resource, political and symbolic--and we're into the film. Ostensibly, we're going to discuss the organizations within the film afterward in light of the four frames, but since I'm here, typing away at the back of the room in the meantime, I'm interested in how different people see certain films differently. Kevin J.H. Dettmar, at The Atlantic, for example, right in his headline makes his opinion clear: "Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities." If that didn't make it clear, his opening:

I've never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society.

He follows that with a fundamental truth:

I expect that them's fighting words...

Yep, those are fighting words. Just like when one of the students asked if they had to watch a movie. I told her, that question offends me because I love movies. "Do you get to watch a movie, is the question," I told her. "Yes, you do."

See, we take things personally when they are our things. Dettmar was in his last year of a PhD in English Literature when Dead Poets Society; of course, he's going to have a problem with the simplistic way the film deals with literature and poetry. I think the the display of collegiate debate in The Great Debaters is just awful--and convenient in how the black students get to always be on the "right" side of the debate--but that doesn't mean the film is bad. Nary a film about teachers really deals well in the actual content of teaching. Sure, Edward James Olmos gives a nice lesson in fractions in Stand and Deliver but when your movie is about an inspirational math teacher (Jaime Escalante) and we get a single math lesson, should we rise up and revolt? No, worry about such details later and enjoy the content you do have. A teacher who cares about his students, a teacher offering life lessons rather than bullshit from the syllabus. This is stuff we want in film. Sure, it would be nice if you learned some math from Stand and Deliver or Good Will Hunting, or learned how debate actually works in The Great Debaters (which is really structured like a sports film). But, a good story and characters worth caring about--this is more important.

(I think the debate in Rocket Science was probably more realistic (though a style of debate I never got into during my debate career), but if you want real debate, watch a documentary.)

Dettmar complains:

For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn't literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it's not even good, careful reading. Rather it's the literary equivalent of fandom. Worse, it's anti-intellectual.

These are not literature majors. These are high school students. These are boys who can be convinced overnight that they know what they want to do with their lives. Boys who still jump on their beds when excited. Boys. There is room for criticism and analysis, but hormonal boys don't need that sort of depth; they need inspiration, so they can find something worth analyzing later. When Keating calls out Todd (Ethan Hawke) for thinking everything inside him is worthless, and he gets him to speak, that is a lesson worth teaching.

They're playing soccer now (not the read-a-line-of-poetry-and-kick-a-ball scene but an actual game of soccer. When I was tutoring a boy once when I was in college the first time (right after high school), we would have our tutoring sessions on the empty playground at his school. When he would finish a lesson, he would want to play basketball to fill the time. I started mixing the two, part of a lesson, shoot some hoops, part of a lesson, shoot some more hoops. He remembered the lessons better when they were surrounded by something he loved. And really, he just need some one-on-one attention that he wasn't getting from his public school teacher.

And then I sit and watch for a while. Get caught up.

It occurs to me that Neil's (Robert Sean Leonard) love for acting could have been conveyed a little better, but often in film we must accept a character at his word. Plus, again, he's a boy. His passion may be temporary, may be forever; the difference at his age is negligible.

There's a reason we take Romeo and Juliet as a great love story. As adults, we wish we could love like teenagers can. We wish we could rebel like the Dead Poets do. We live vicariously through these boys who live in a world where consequences are (mostly) inconsequential.

Until the tragic end.


  1. This is interesting to me because, while I like the movie and I see the point you're making-- that it's much easier to dramatize life lessons than to dramatize good solid teaching-- I've always found Keating more than a little creepy. I know that, when I was in school and college, I very much reacted against such 'charismatic' teachers. I didn't want to be told how to think for myself; I was doing that already, thank you very much. I found such would-be inspirational teachers rather manipulative and patronising.

    On the other hand, as someone who loves poetry, the basic idea of the Dead Poets' Society-- that is, an ENCOUNTER with poetry rather than just a study of it-- is very close to my heart. I think that careful analysis of poetry is all to the good, but it is pointless if the passion and joy and simplicity of poetry is lost. I do think poetry is very often over-intellectualized and a film that links it with the inherent excitement of life is doing it a service.

    1. i don't think the point is that a teacher like keating tells his students to think for themselves. the point is more about how the head master or neil's father are so horrified by that idea. sure, you don't need someone to tell you think for yourself. but, to LET you think for yourself

  2. I mean, how many films ARE there are with poetry as one of their major themes?

    1. my impulse was to say Total Eclipse, but that's more a love story than ABOUT the poetry... i think. it's been a while since i saw it. Slam is definitely about the poetry at least in part, but much in the way that Dead Poets Society is (or how Good Will Hunting is about math)--"poetry" is more of an idea evoked by stuff like love stories, stuff like personal struggles. I think parts of Into the Wild are quite "poetic" as ar many films. but not about poems or (no quotes) poetry.

      similarly, pretty much any film about a writer is not really about writing. Finding Forrester seemed to think it was about writing, but really it doesn't get into the process, or even the feeling very well. Adaptation. does it pretty well but (appropriately) drifts away from it as the film continues.

      maybe we're just too entertained by destructive processes to really be that into detailed explorations of creative processes. even biopics about musicians (Amadeus) or painters (Pollock) are more character studies than studies of the process or the art.


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