Updated: Jul 22, 2022
We celebrate the inspirational 1989 Robin Williams classic, Dead Poets Society, in Part 2 of our series about teachers in famous movies.
Trailer included below, for the uninitiated!
"Carpe Diem — seize the day, boys!". As a Latin tutor, it was inevitable that I would fall instantly in love with Dead Poets Society, a film peppered with references to Classics and Latin teaching.
Of course, the glimpse we get of Mr McAllister's Latin class does leave a lot to be desired: "agricolae, agricolarum, agricolis, agricolas, agricolis. Again please: agricola...". This type of endless chanting was always seen as a big no-no on my PGCE, boring students rigid and giving Classics a bad rep. It's an approach which was treated with extreme suspicion not only by our subject leader but also by most members of my Classics PGCE cohort. We would routinely get together for "Teacher Pizza Nights" to socialise and watch films about teaching, and when this scene from Dead Poets Society made an appearance, there was uproarious laughter.
The film is, however, perfectly aware of the shortcomings of such a teaching approach. The Latin chanting scene serves to establish a striking contrast between the outdated and tiresome methods of the school's more traditional teachers and the breath of air brought by Mr John Keating, the fresh-faced English teacher played by a young and energetic Robin Williams. And what an entrance he makes — well, more of an exit, really. Check it out:
It certainly takes confidence to whistle your way into your first lesson with a new class of students, only to wander straight out of the room and to expect your students to follow you! This simple act instantly positions Mr Keating as a teacher who pays no heed to the norms and knows how to grab his students' attention.
Mr Keating goes on to encourage his class to refer to him as "Oh Captain, My Captain" (a quote from Walt Whitman, about Abraham Lincoln), a name which ingeniously manages to achieve a perfect balance between informality and respect — informal in the sense that Keating is the only teacher who doesn't expect to be called Mr So-And-So, but respectful in the sense that Whitman clearly admired Lincoln. As teachers we know that our students are bound to come up with cheeky nicknames for us sooner or later, so why not leverage that fact to one's own advantage and take ownership of one's own nickname?
As the famous scene progresses, Keating introduces the class to Robert Herrick's famous "Gather ye rosebuds" poem and connects it to Horace, a Roman author who had the same thought as Herrick over a millenium earlier when he wrote "carpe diem" ("seize the day"). This exposes us to Keating's fundamental belief which underpins his teaching and (more importantly) his pastoral responsibility to inspire the boys who have become disconnected with their education.
The cynics amongst you may well find this film cheesy, and you won't be short of arguments to put forward that view. The film certainly presents an idealised view of how education should be — and, perhaps, an overly-simplified dismissal of traditional methods, some of which have obviously become tradition for good reasons. To take the Latin example alone (since it's the subject closest to my heart), a lesson centred around the chanting of endings would of course be a snoozefest, but it can sometimes have a place in small doses, if it's incorporated in a fun way.
It all comes down to a question of balance, and balance isn't really on the film's agenda. Dead Poets Society only goes so far as to dismiss the boring and to embrace the inspirational — but those of you who read my blog post on Aristotle will know that I share a view that's been around since ancient times that, when it comes to effective learning, sometimes the hard truth is 'no pain, no gain'. It can't all be exciting marches around the school, standing on desks, and late night gatherings in caves to read poems, make music and lark around! After all, in practical terms, how could society function and how would schools work if there were no rules and no traditions? The film acknowledges the need to observe certain boundaries (e.g. when Keating reprimands one of the boys for publicly humiliating the headmaster) but only in a token way.
My response to the cynics would simply be that we need to see the film as a product of its time. It's not exactly an ancient film (release date: 1989), but it's a lot closer in time than now to the old school teaching methods of 1959 which it depicts and criticises. There have been some positive strides forward in educational thinking since the film was made, and if you were making a movie nowadays championing these particular views you might not need to shout so loudly. However, when you're trying to advocate seismic changes to long-established systems or beliefs, subtlety isn't always going to cut the mustard: there are times you need to wear your heart on your sleeve and pull out the big guns. This is exactly what Dead Poets Society does: it's not a perfect film, but it makes a big, bold case for how not to educate people (whilst also dropping in some nifty tips for how you should go about it) — and it does all this with great flair.
The key to appreciating it is to understand that it's a 'concept film': it grapples well with the large-scale, broader ideas, without attempting to concern itself with all of the details. It is for generations of teachers, tutors, educators and even governments to figure out the exact application for the film's ideas, and to worry about that big question of how to inspire children without abandoning all infrastructure and without sacrificing the positive aspects of traditional teaching methods. A 2 hour film (actually, any film) couldn't possibly do that. What it does very successfully, though, is to show what school children do and don't respond to, through Keating's humour, inspiration, compassion, creativity and originality, and by contrasting this with the other teaching the pupils are accustomed to receiving. Some questions may be left unanswered, but the film's heart is undoubtedly in the right place, and there are still plenty of useful and even practical ideas that teachers and private tutors can easily implement in their own lessons.
So relax, enjoy, and be prepared to be moved by the wisdom of Mr John Keating! I leave you with two videos — firstly, another iconic scene from the film where Keating gets the students to rip out the pages of a textbook which claims that the greatness of poems can be measured numerically. Robin Williams expertly milks the humour from the scene as his character scrawls diagrams on the chalkboard which appear to agree with the numerical approach, and his students struggle to keep up in copying the diagrams down. Only at the very last minute, after his dutiful students have been completely taken in, does he break cover and declare his true feelings about "measuring poetry":
Secondly, I leave you with a recent video of world famous children's author Philip Pullman giving his views on the need to "rip up the whole attitude to education" obsessed with measuring things:
This goes to show that whilst a lot of time has passed since 1959 (when the film was set) and indeed 1989 (when the film was released), Mr Keating's point still stands today. Not only that, but there is a lot of work still to be done — and as the world gets more and more competitive, we will need to work even harder to ensure we aren't neglecting our students' more holistic educational needs and that we continue to inspire as well as to educate. In fact, at Titanium Tutors, we don't see how the latter can happen without the former. So I encourage all of you to "suck the marrow out of life" and to "dare to strike out and find new ground" — make your lives extraordinary!
If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy the previous post in this series, Teachers In Talkies — Matilda.
Blog Post Crafted by Joe
Subjects Taught: Latin, Ancient Greek
Background: Joe Hytner owns and runs Titanium Tutors, managing our assessors and staff. Joe graduated from King’s College, Cambridge in 2009 with a degree in Classics and then trained as a teacher at Queens’ College, Cambridge, graduating in 2010. Whilst setting up Titanium Tutors he taught Latin on a part-time basis in three schools — Parkside Federation, Impington Village College and South Lee School (where he started up the Latin department from scratch). Joe has also taught Latin and Ancient Greek to numerous Cambridge University undergraduates.
Fun Fact: Joe has read Harry Potter in Latin from cover to cover.