Everyone on planet Earth needs to be in a Dead Poets Society

~ short essay on the film Dead Poets Society (1989) and its most imperative message.

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life! To put to rout all that was not life… And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…
~ H.D.T.

These are the excerpted words from one Henry David Thoreau onto the opening page of a dusty and cracking tome, Five Centuries of Verse, once carried by the teacher Mr. John Keating and now passed on to the next generation of students at Welton, a prestigious Christian preparatory school — passed on to the next generation of humans eager to suck out all of the marrow of life, if they may.

I recently rewatched the Peter Weir / Tom Schulman film Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams and a young Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke. ~ “Maverick teacher John Keating uses poetry to embolden his boarding school students to new heights of self-expression.” In it, taking place in 1959 and backdropped by the prep school’s distinguished standing within the realm of higher education {many of the students go on to attend Ivy League schools} and with elite industries {all the kids are on track to become future doctors, lawyers, bankers}, the tenets of tradition with regard to pedagogy are challenged. Free-spirited teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) {a play on the name John Keats, a legendary English Romantic poet} presents his classes with a subversive new way of thinking — not just about his literary material, but about their own lives, their learnings, their souls.

~ “Big shoes to fill…” / “I expect great things from you this year!” / “After you are through medical school and you are a doctor out on your own, then you can do as you damn well please… You know how much this means to your mother.” / “Tradition. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.” / “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neil. And you will not let me down.”

The film lays out clearly the implications of an inviolate tradition — that of the wealthy elite creating an institutional runway of higher education for the children of their brethren to reproduce their personae into the next generation, ready to replace them within their topflight industries of medicine, law and business. Of course, what is willfully or ignorantly overlooked by the parents of these kids is what they might want for themselves. Not to mention the tremendous pressures they are constantly under from said parents, teachers, and each other. And what about the natural psychological aversion that develops upon the realization that something is being forced upon one against any ounce of their will? Under such conditions, and depending on the student’s disposition, tradition can become something like enslavement.

Robin Williams as John Keating

John Keating {in a GOAT’ed performance by Robin Williams, maybe my favorite of all his many legendary roles}, offers them a fresh perspective on how they should be considering their paths in life; Keating, as an insider {he also attended Welton as a boy, and is presumably why he has chosen to return there to teach after being in London} rigorously offers an outsider perspective unto his students, unconsciously challenging the paradigm of the school’s core offering — to make drones, replacements for parents, intellectual clones of the previous generation. ~ “Carpe diem… Make your lives extraordinary.”

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

~ Robert Herrick

Through poetry and literature from the legends — Whitman, Thoreau, Shelley, Tennyson — Keating stresses to these kids, at the cusp of the rest of their lives, to seek out “their own voice”, to realize that “words and ideas can change the world”, and to wholeheartedly understand that while medicine, law, business, and engineering are noble pursuits, necessary to sustain life — “poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”

A fellow professor, in sighting Keating’s strange teaching style {having the students all rip out the introduction pages of their poetry textbook, wherein a ‘Dr. Pritchard’ describes a mathematical way of critiquing poetry}, offers him his thoughts on what he assumes Keating’s objective is:

“A misguided thing. You take a big risk by encouraging them to become artists, John. When they realize that they’re not Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.”

“Not artists. Free thinkers.”

This is the core of the film’s message, Keating’s purpose in returning to Welton, and my own reason for wanting to write something about this film. The objective with gaining a critically appreciative eye for the arts, for literature and poetry, and more idealistically for “beauty, romance, love”, is to widen one’s consciousness to the whole of life. For that is ultimately the philosophy within any art. Within fictions and poems, stories or accounts, writings from the past — from the dead. They are transmissions unto this world, from perspectives and experiences and imaginations that we cannot take ourselves. They must be faced and understood, if one is to ever fully actualize as a person.

And more concretely within the film, it is not Keating’s purpose to turn kids away from their parent’s careerist intentions for them, or from their own now well-built, rigorous academic habits. Keating is not deigning to inspire a legion of mediocre artists so much as he is allowing the kids to finally urge some self-awareness about their own dispositions on their studies and projected careers. By reading the restlessly hopeful and dramatic and romantic words of these mythic poets, one is compelled to ask themselves questions: What do I really want? How would I live *deliberately*? Why should I make my life “extraordinary”?

“When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what *you* think! … Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. For the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Don’t be resigned to that. Break out. Don’t just walk off the edge like lemmings. Look around you!”
~ Keating

The secret, paradoxical truth at the heart of Keating’s consciousness-expanding pedagogy is that it is impossible to ‘turn’ anyone — these kids have their dreams within them from the beginning. Whether they are repressed now, out of forceful conditions from their parents and environment more generally, or still being developed {curbed} at every stage, the potential for that “life of quiet desperation” is baked in from the start. It is inherent to our existence; it is a timeless truth that conventional success {wealth & status} within any age cannot guarantee happiness. “Happiness”, fulfillment, human flourishing, must be borne out from a complex array of personal desires and intrinsic meanings, from the roots of our very souls. Money, stature within the community, making our parents proud — these are all components to life and its endgame satisfactions. But they have never been the core. The flagship of any soul’s content lies within the heart.

“How can you stand being here? You can go anywhere, do anything. / Because I love teaching.” ~ Neil and Keating

I suspect that within the fiction of the story, Mr. Keating understands this himself from his own experience. And it is his goal to bring this hidden wisdom back with him in his return to Welton as a teacher of the arts. He wishes to accelerate these kids’ evolution into realizations about what it is they’d really want to do with their lives {if they had the choice}.

“I’m gonna be an actor! For the first time in my whole life, I know what I wanna do! And for the first time, I’m gonna do it! Whether my father wants me to or not. CARPE DIEM!!”
~ Neil

True to the spirit of Keating’s free-flowing teachings, it is not just in the classroom that the group of protagonist boys make their transcendent personal journeys throughout this film — but in the formation of their very own “Dead Poets Society.” In a continuation of Keatings own past tradition, they start to meet in a cave just off campus, with books of poetry in hand — the dead’s along with some of their own verses — to better capture their own nascent sprites of inspiry and inner Romance. Neil, the extraverted superstar, takes to the idea of acting / Todd, the introverted loner, gains the courage to make friends, to finally speak his voice aloud / Knox pursues young love / Charlie creates poems of his own, relearns the sax, constantly flashes his own comedic style {maybe my favorite performance of all the young actors} / Meeks and Pitts, the nerdy engineers, gain an appreciation for arts they never before conceived. In sum, the poetry they read, the lessons from Keating, changes their lives in the commensurate gradations. It need not drastically alter their entire life path like Neil’s — for it may only give them a reason to hang out, allow them better ways to communicate, empower a lifelong habit of learning, enrich their lives’ meaningfulness in every other way beyond their chosen career’s arc, etc.

Needless to say, their collective coming of age story is beautiful to watch.

I will not spoil the remainder of the film, as it should be watched by all. Beautiful, tragic, moving, an artfully constructed narrative with a simple and effective cinematography. An incredible performance from Robin Williams {RIP}. A perfect film, in my opinion.

~

The truer purpose of this writing is to posit what was originally offered in the title: that everyone right now on planet Earth should absolutely organize and cooperatively practice and self-express within their very own Dead Poets Society. That is, everyone should be gathering in night caves of their own, flashlights glaring, leather bound tomes of verses gathered up, voices shaking with excitement or nerves.

Our ‘quiet desperations’ to be negated in such dreamy intimations of arts remembered and reterritorialized for our souls mired in terrifying Today,
if only we made fast for cogent, intrinsic deliberations upon life’s mountain in this way,
We might finally wield our souls to convey,

It is the undying philosophy of a Dead Poets Society member to canonize their Romances into tomes,
or personal creeds,
or from out of long-forgotten declarations born and died near childhood;

In venerating the dead poets of our world,
In letting their art continuously “drip from our lips, like honey”,
In amplifying our consciousness along these impassioned lines,
In the whole human community gathering up in little groups of self-empowered, free-thinking, everyday poets…

We may begin to sing a better world into tomorrow. ~