What Do Movies Get Right and Wrong about Teaching?

It was the fall of 1993, and I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary. One night I answered a knock at our dorm room door to find a group of three very attractive women, looking through their facebook (note to readers younger than 30: I mean that they were holding a booklet with photos of the freshman class, not a tablet opened to this appand giggling. One of them asked me, “Are you the guy from Dead Poets Society?”

“Yes, yes I am” — is what I really wanted to say. Instead, the truth blurted itself out: “What’s Dead Poets Society?”

Now, to be fair, my senior photo from high school was very preppy, down to the navy blue blazer with brass buttons. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy to show you, but just trust me that I did bear a passing resemblance to at least a couple of the guys in Dead Poets Society — e.g., Josh Charles (“Knox Overstreet”), now keeping himself busy Sunday nights on CBS — as I realized later that year when I finally watched one of the most popular movies of 1989.

And I hated it.

Dead Poets Society poster

No, that’s too strong. At that point, I only disliked it. But because I was so prepared — as someone who had been inspired to love history by one teacher and was now preparing to become a history professor myself — to love the movie, “dislike” felt like “despise.”

But as the years have passed and I’ve learn more about my own vocation as a teacher, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve come to hate Dead Poets Society — at least, as it exists (imperfectly) in my memory. It is celebrating a quarter-century this year. Perhaps if I watched it again I’d be struck by its charms. But more likely, I’d come away thinking something very much like what English professor Kevin Detmar thought of it on second viewing:

I think I hate Dead Poets Society for the same reason that [my wife] Robyn, a physician assistant, hates House: because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive. 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. It takes Emily Dickinson’s playful remark to her mentor Thomas Higginson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” and turns it into a critical principle. It’s not.

What does Dead Poets Society get so wrong about teaching?

First, it celebrates passion unbridled by even a hint of complexity. To be sure, a good teacher is a passionate teacher (though this can take lots of forms, not all of which can be understood and appreciated by high school or even college students), but as Dettmar puts it:

…passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong.

Dettmar’s example here is Keating’s lazy misreading of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” whose ending (“Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference”) Keating invokes, to Dettmar’s horror:

The title page of Frost's 1916 collection, Mountain Interval, with the poem in italicsWha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.

The best teachers help their students to ask hard questions to which there are never-quite-satisfactory answers, to hold ideas in tension. And they model not only critical thought, but the humility that comes from knowing that our understanding is always incomplete.

Dead Poets Society would have you believe that Keating is encouraging his students to think for themselves, to dare to know, but as Dettmar points out, he “actually allows his students very little opportunity for original thought. It’s a freedom that’s often preached but never realized…. Smarmy to the end, Keating, when interrogated about his teaching antics by the school’s headmaster, quips, ‘I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.’ The film gives us no evidence that he’s done this for Neil, Todd, Knox, and Charlie.”

To Sir, With Love poster

Indeed, one of the most troubling things about the film is that its hero is a profoundly unhumble teacher who seems to have given no thought to his own power — a problem with which every student I’ve ever interviewed for our Education program has at least begun to wrestle. While he gleefully tears down any authority in sight — whether the editor of the students’ textbook (whose introduction Keating tears out, in a speech that strips the man of his academic title) or the school’s older teachers and administrators — Keating is, at best, unaware of his command over the hearts and minds of his adolescent charges. Yet in helping them to rebel, he produces some of the most obedient disciples seen on film.

Perhaps this is why two of my favorite movies about teachers are British films that subvert the teacher-as-messiah myth: To Sir, With Love, which isn’t really a great or good movie, but has fun with expectations of race and class in the midst of decolonization; and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which Maggie Smith’s character is a fascist-sympathizing anti-heroine who manipulates her students, knowing that if you “Give me a girl at an impressionable age… she is mine for life.”

What do you think? Am I all wet about Dead Poets Society? (If I watched it again, would I change my mind?) What do you think is the best cinematic depicting of teaching?

3 thoughts on “What Do Movies Get Right and Wrong about Teaching?

  1. Hey Chris: I don’t think you’re all wet about this at all. I enjoyed the movie when it came out, and appreciate the theme of the necessity of creativity in a world where expediency tends to rule (which didn’t feel as weepily overdone when I was an undergraduate as it does now), but I’ve seen it do real damage to both students and teachers. It does damage to developing teachers of literature who sometimes see the “John Keating” model as something to strive toward–and it’s awfully hard to be heroically inspiring all the time. It does damage to students when they mistake “feeling inspired” for learning (which keeps having this inconvenient quality of feeling like work a lot of the time), and to others for whom the movie creates an entirely wrong impression of what students and teachers of literature actually do.

  2. Chris, the movie that comes to mind is “The Paper Chase” with John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield. Or would you say that this is in the same camp as DPS? Regardless, I pull it out now and again when feeling I have a brain full of mush. I’d be interested in your take on Houseman/Kingsfield.

    1. I hate to admit this, Tim, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen The Paper Chase… I’ll have to see if I can get it through NetFlix, or Bethel’s library. (Thanks for the Lenten links in your most recent newsletter, by the way!)

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