The questions we dread are the same ones everyone else dreads. They’re better asked and contemplated in community.
This is a terrifying sentence: among the forces that inspired me to become a teacher is Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. Readers unfamiliar with the film will be treated to a summary in a moment. For now, let me keep you in by saying that the movie deals with an English teacher who inspires his students, all of them boys, to intense emotional flights and an intellectual rebellion. The teacher, John Keating, played by Robin Williams, is much more concerned with having the students consider the meaning of life than achieving something petty like a high grade.
When the film came out in 1989, I was a teen attending a private Catholic school for boys. I saw a single trailer on television and immediately knew I wanted to see the movie.
While I was quite excited, I didn’t share my excitement with anyone. I didn’t think it was strange to keep it secret—I was, after all, a bookworm and nerd; why would I share my interest in a film about poets and English teachers? I realize today exactly how isolating it is to feel there’s no community for your interests. And I also understand much more clearly why I wanted to see the film in the first place. Someone’s making a film about a society of poets? That means a community must exist somewhere. Where? How can I find it?
I left the cinema burning with energy. I also discovered a new kind of confidence, the freedom to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. I started talking about the film with people, asking if they’re interested in seeing the greatest film ever made. I encouraged other boys to see it. Most people thought I was annoying, and a few got angry or made fun of me.
However, at camp that summer, two friends and I would stash away in the woods very late at night to read aloud from old books.
The boys in the film do this. They resurrect the Dead Poets Society that had existed when Keating, a previous member, had been a student at their school, Welton Academy, an antiseptic and tight Ivy League recruitment center for sons of the über-class. By reading from old books, the boys find history and unity with all those poets and thinkers who came before them, those now dead in the flesh but alive in language.
As the young men explore romantic ideas, one surges with love for a forbidden girl, another accesses his primal sensualist, a third battles with shyness and a fourth wakes up to a dream of wanting to be an actor. Like any story of lasting value, the film ends in tragedy and epiphany. It’s a warning about the fragility of youth, but also a powerful critique of our hypocritical, horribly confusing demand that boys be independent so long as they follow the designs of their masters.
I’m writing about this film because it offered the most important lesson of my youth, one central to my education, a lesson neither my schools nor any elders had the courage to communicate. Dead Poets Society was the first text to bring me face to face with my mortality.
The film does it virtually at the beginning. On the first day of class, Mr. Keating takes his students out into a corridor to show them photographs of boys who had attended Welton. They’re represented in fading, blurry pictures, young men wearing athletic uniforms that seem ancient.
Keating reads the boys a poem about gathering rosebuds and tells them to seize the day. He whispers as if the boys in the photographs are talking. Those young men in the pictures once sat in the desks at Welton and walked its halls. And now they’re all dead, just as their wealthy parents are dead. Just as Keating’s class will soon be dead. Just as everyone in the cinema will die.
We fear bringing young people face to face with their mortality. Quite obviously, it’s because we fear coming face to face with our own mortality, and our society looks at death as something to push away, ignore or contrive.
We have constructed entire systems of thought—Catholicism, for example—that transform death from an absolute certainty to the epilogue of a children’s story. Adults spend their entire lives in suburbs where “strange events” equal a neighbor who refuses to treat her lawn for dandelions or a local valedictorian who majors in something other than finance. But interview the neighborhood to find people who see phantasms, angels and demons existing alongside cats and birds. Incensed at episodes of Cosmos, these neighbors see no problem with government leaders who loathe science but still take their heart medication. They get their history from Dan Brown and Oliver Stone but will have never heard of Paul Johnson or David McCullough.
I’m not against religion, not by a long shot. The universe is mysterious, and our position in it makes for a curious situation. But most of us deal with religion in the least healthy way. Instead of realizing our mortality and investigating religion, we are handed religion and use it to ignore our mortality. The god or gods that accompany our spiritual selves add up, not to a mystery demanding wisdom, but to a convenient cartoon. The story of our gods takes a function only vaguely different from the story of Santa.
Of course, the argument goes, we must do this. We must contrive death, especially for the little ones. They’re too tender, too sensitive. If they face the reality of their demise, they’ll be shocked to stasis.
I disagree very strongly with this. Whatever fear or terror we face when we realize, point blank, that the cradle rocks above the abyss is far more valuable and a much more potent catalyst than any narrative we construct to soften our demise. Death immediately makes everything inexplicable. And when you realize you will never know what the hell you’re talking about, you find yourself in a position to witness, live and create. Today. Right now. In its mystery, the universe becomes fascinating. A human fascinated with the abyss gets on with the business of being oneself.
This lesson is particularly valuable for young men, the vast majority taught to be independent mountains of invincibility capable of following orders and completing tasks. Young men are handed a myth so perverted that it cuts their legs off before they can set them on firm ground. Being a young man is like the insult of owning a car. The car is a shiny symbol of independence and responsibility tied to a fuel system that renders one utterly dependent on bastards and forced to irresponsible consumption of damaging and limited resources.
You know it but drive onward. You pay attention to how shiny you look on the road, how conveniently you get around. Because what alternative is there?
Of course, as an educator, I face stiff resistance to my philosophies. Only a handful of my colleagues share my point of view. The boy keeping a secret about his interest in Dead Poets Society has become the teacher keeping secrets about his interest in the history of ideas. In the end, my capacity to teach someone to think and reflect, and to expand the context in which they can see themselves is limited by a simple reality. The students did not register for my community college class in order to think and reflect. They signed up to get a C, and the college has provided them with an environment that will hand them a C. In such a factory, the bearded man contemplating Socrates, Buddha and one’s relationship to energy is an unfortunate loon.
People will criticize my methods by pointing to the tragedy in Dead Poets Society. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it features a suicide. The argument goes this way, “You see, if Keating had never taught these boys to believe romantics, had he given them a strict dose of reality then none of this would have happened. The boy would have graduated and gone on to Harvard.”
That argument depends on whom we blame for the tragedy (and why we fetishize Harvard). The boy who kills himself has an abusive, authoritarian father who has stripped his son of any capacity to determine his future for himself. He’ll do as he’s told and that’s final, his interests or desires be damned.
When you find yourself wondering why you exist and realize it’s to satisfy authoritarian whims, you feel dehumanized and might dehumanize yourself. Boys are much more likely to kill themselves than are girls, partially because boys are much more likely to feel alone.
Dead Poets Society is a terrifying film. It asks big questions, the ones most of us fear. But they are the questions all of us ask. When I was sixteen, I was asking them. Alone.
Until I found myself in a cinema.
Photo by Theirry Ehrmann
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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