SSDL Dead Poets Society

The problem with Dead Poets Society

A note to “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed,” by Gerald Grow.

The wonderful movie, Dead Poets Society, with Robin Williams’ brilliant performance, suffers from an excess of polarization in the plotting. Williams is not left alone to show what his kind of teaching can bring to a school. Instead, he is given opponents in the headmaster and in the father of Neil, perhaps his best student.

Neil’s father, Tom, is caricatured as a pathologically rigid man whose only function is to serve as a foil to Keating (the teacher played by Robin Williams). The headmaster is given a similar grim polarization.

The result of this plot polarization is to take a perfectly good film and force it into a thematic opposition between Old and New, as if Keating were some kind of revolutionary, instead of an S2 teacher in an S1 school.

Worse of all, the polarization in the plot then requires the suicide of the student, Neil. The suicide scenes receive so much cinematic attention that they are practically the high point of the film. Which is too bad. Nobody needs to die to make the point that different teachers have different approaches and that some work better for some students.

What I am presenting as a continuum of teaching and learning styles appears in that movie as a mortal opposition between two philosophies of life. Sigh.

There is a kernel of truth here. It is easy for an S1 teacher to look upon S2-S4 teachers as soft and humanistic. It is easy for S3-S4 teachers to look on S1 teachers as authoritarian. That’s a pity. All types of teachers are important in their proper place.

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