Dead Poets Society is not taking children seriously

N.B. This article contains spoilers and is quite critical of the film, Dead Poets Society, so you might want to read Arjun’s charming, inspiring, much more nuanced review instead. I’d hate to ruin the film for you! (See In praise of ignorance, by David Deutsch about this.)

The fact that Dead Poets Society seems to be beloved by young people who are still at school suggests to me that (1) the school system cannot possibly have moved on as much as teachers say it has, because there is nothing in this film that is taking children seriously; (2) young people are far stronger than I, to be able to bear being incarcerated in school for years on end.

I must admit that Keating – the ‘nice’ teacher who presumably is intended to be a contrast with the other teachers and the evil parents – reminds me of my A-Level English teacher, so perhaps my view of him is more negative than is warranted. Like my English teacher, Keating strikes me as a creepy, useless narcissist who fancies himself as a ‘hip’ teacher.

My English teacher, unlike Keating, had no interest in his subject and spent almost every lesson wasting our time just chatting inanely. He drove an E-type Jaguar that he called his “crumpet catcher” <shudder>, and he was blatantly having an affair with one of the girls in our class. Keating is not doing that at least.

But still, when Keating says he “love[s] being a teacher” my impression is that what he most loves about it is the rapt attention and hero-worship of his pupils. He is altogether too comfortable being addressed as “O Captain! My Captain!” by them. He purports to be all about the poetry, but to me the poetry feels more like a vehicle by which he inspires all the “O Captain! My Captain!” stuff. To me, it is all about him. He further draws his pupils in by acts of nonconformity like getting the boys to stand on their desks, getting them to tear out part of their textbook (because he disagrees with the theory presented in it), and holding a lesson outside while playing football. Shocking stuff!

Through these divergences from the strict conformist formality of the school as a whole, Keating creates the semblance of anti-authoritarianism whilst working in a system that is inherently authoritarian. He loves being a teacher because he loves being looked up to by a bunch of boys who are not free to leave. Not free to leave.

That the boys are enchanted by Keating because he does things like getting them to stand on their desks is really quite depressing. How horribly unfree they are, for that to be such a thrill for them. That he is able to entertain the boys by and saying things that no one free to leave would find interesting, let alone these bright boys, is an insult to children’s intelligence. He is in a fundamentally coercive, authoritarian relationship with the boys, while pretending (or deluding himself) that he is on their side. He is not on their side. He is part of the coercive system that is blighting their lives.

The fact that so many young people reviewing this film seem to like the Keating character reflects very poorly on the way children are viewed and treated by parents and schools. Though the Keating character does not glower menacingly at the children like all the other teachers and parents in the film do, he still has a pedagogical agenda, he still views children through the lens of paternalism, and he still puts people on the spot, by calling on individual students to answer questions in front of everyone else. That is coercive whether done with a glare or with Keating’s soft, self-satisfied smile.

I think we are supposed to see the Keating character as being kind and loving his students. There is a bit in the film in which he ‘kindly’ forces a boy to perform for the class despite his fear, and that is painted as a victory, as if the boy had chosen to face his fear and put himself through that; but he did not choose to, Keating insisted; so it is glorifying coercion. It is saying that coercion can help people overcome their fears, and that coercion is right if it has a seemingly good outcome, and that coercion is necessary for such a person to get over his fear. That is all false! It is conflating choosing to put yourself through something difficult that scares you but that you really want to do, with that being forced on you. There is zero similarity.

We may be supposed to find Keating a sympathetic character, yet when the chips are down, he betrays the child. He does nothing to help the boy who most needs him. He is, after all, totally part of the immoral, coercive, authoritarian system that incarcerates children and forces them to listen to him. Why would we expect any better of him?

There is one thing the film gets right. When the parents discover their dead son – the son they drove to suicide – they are distraught. The father wails something like “My son! My poor son!” Children are hurt and harmed by parents who ‘love’ them and think that their hideous, unspeakable coercion is necessary for their children’s future. The parents are grief-stricken. They have an intense feeling of love. But a feeling that requires the loved one to be other than they are, to comply come what may, to follow a required path that they hate, to change or else, to give up their own dreams, is not real love – it is a dearth of love.

In the final scene, I think we are supposed to be cheering the boys’ disobedience of the evil headmaster. In fact, it highlights Keating’s self-satisfied narcissism and the boys’ utterly unjustified and inappropriate hero-worship of him. “O Captain! My Captain!” says thanks and walks away, leaving them to their fate.

What do you think? Do you love the Dead Poets’ Society film? Do I have it all wrong? Please do set me straight! For a school-based film that I personally find more satisfying, see the 1968 film, “if…” Or for a story more similar to Dead Poets Society, but that powerfully gets the morality right, see the episode of The Simpsons I wrote about in the first post listed below.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘Dead Poets Society is not taking children seriously’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/dead-poets-society-is-not-taking-children-seriously/

Leave a comment