One year ago yesterday, Robin Williams died by his own hand after a bout of severe depression. Williams was best known for his comedic skills, but there are a handful of films which showcase his versatile acting abilities. Dead Poets Society (1989) is one of them.
What is important in life? and what are we wiling to risk in order to be what we were meant to be? These are two of the questions which Dead Poets Society suggest.
The movie is set in the late 1950s at “the best preparatory school in the United States.” It is the type of stuffed-shirt, traditional school which C S Lewis spoke against in many of his writings—one which taught what to think instead of how to think. When former student John Keating (Robin Willians) comes to teach English there, he is like a breath of fresh air to the students. But the administration is opposed to his unorthodox approach. The contrasting ways of viewing teaching are expressed in a brief conversation between Keating and Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd):
MR. NOLAN: What was going on in the courtyard the other day?
MR. NOLAN: Yeah. Boys marching, clapping in unison.
KEATING: Oh, that. That was an exercise to prove a point. Dangers of conformity.
MR. NOLAN: Well, John, the curriculum here is set. It’s proven it works. If you question, what’s to prevent them from doing the same?
KEATING: I always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.
MR. NOLAN: At these boys’ ages? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.
There is nothing wrong with teaching Tradition and Discipline. But every generation needs to struggle with the traditions of past and the expectations of the previous generation. Traditions which are not able to stand the test of time may not be worthy of being held on to. On the other hand, we need to beware of discarding traditions merely for the fact they are “old” ideas.
The bulk of the movie centers around one of Keating’s students. Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) has ideas of what he wants his life to be, but his father has other plans for him. He believes Neil is spending too much time on frivolous things instead on concentrating on what will “make him a success.” Neil has learned from Keating to take risks in order to be what he was meant to be, but his father does not understand.
We’re trying very hard to understand why it is that you insist on defying us. Whatever the reason, we’re not gonna let you ruin your life.
There is a difference between refusing to be conformed and being defiant just for the sake of being defiant. But Neil’s father is unable to see that, and the rift between them only becomes worse. The final crisis does seem to be a bit contrived, but the point is made. Parents (and educators) need to let their children grow up and make their own decisions—for better or worse. If only the film could have ended with a meeting of the minds—or at least an attempt to understand one another—instead of leaving us with an impenetrable divide between generations. Or is that too much to ever hope for?