I saw Dead Poets’ Society at the age of twelve, and it’s taken me a long time to recover from the experience.
It was enthralling. Here was a teacher liberating his pupils, offering them life in abundance and encouraging them to express themselves. Who could forget the scene where John Keating, played by Robin Williams, takes them to look at photos of old boys dead and gone, and whispers in their ears, ‘Seize the day boys, seize the day!’ Another similar moment which was engraved in my young memory was that of the boys lining up to kick a football as far as they could, while declaiming a line of poetry. One of them shouts ‘to truly be a god!’
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been at least partly inspired to become an English teacher by this film. But what kind of English teacher? What kind of message does the film give about the purpose of education?
Our hero John Keating, as his name makes very obvious, has come to bring Romanticism writ large to a traditional fifties boarding school which insists on dutiful obedience and hard work. In contrast to the charismatic and sensitive Keating, the school’s headmaster is portrayed as tyrannical and sadistic. It’s a tale which continues to be told over and over again by Hollywood: following the rules and doing your duty is oppressive. Throw off the shackles and discover yourself!
The people who are among the most exposed to the consequences if this popular Romanticism are those who struggle to work and study in our state schools. Devotion to self-expression at any cost is the philosophy which underlies the barely contained chaos which is often to be found there.
At least the film makes the darker side of this message visible too, in the suicide of one of Keating’s disciples. He kills himself when it becomes clear that his father is firmly opposed to his plan to become an actor.
We don’t have to look too hard to find the darker underside of Hollywood’s sunny world of self-expression, including, of course, in the life and death of Robin Williams himself.