Dead Poets Society: The Art of Being Earnest

We see it in a dozen films about teachers every year. From Dangerous Minds to Half Nelson, maybe more from the former, but that’s not the point, teachers being earnest. Maybe we’re more looking towards the teachers who aspire to inspire more than anything else.

We see schools as institutions; we even call them that when we’re being formal. Just like Keating says in the film, “words have power,” and the words we associate with things, like calling a school an institution, gives that thing even more power than you realize. When we call it an institution it makes it seem more like a place where people go to become some sort of expected result of a human being as opposed to discovering and learning who they truly are. However, in schools – like the one in the film – thanks to uniform and all the jazz, you know that the result that they seek is a version of uniform living. Everyone enters with the knowledge that all that’s expected is that they leave on the highest accord heading to an Ivy League school to become either a doctor or a lawyer. But, the truth of the matter is that – like every child – no one knows what they want to be almost ever. So when these children finally have a teacher who tells them to rip out their books and look at the world and see what’s really around them rather than trying to view the world from the eyes of everyone else.

I don’t know what kind of educational life you lived but my high school, while not being Welton Academy, there were a lot of the same expectations placed on the students to become products that the school could use to sell themselves. We had teachers who played that line and those that didn’t quite so much. The one thing that can bring a student to his full potential is to have a teacher who’s willing to show that student that there’s something more than what is written in a silly text book. Show the student that life is out there and the only reason we’re in this room discussing Pythagoras, Christopher Columbus or the past participle is that it somehow relates to life and our own development. When we decide to stop passively accepting these facts that are dished at us and are forced to criticize and analyze them then we begin to become true thinkers and by that token, better people.

I guess with this particular film it stands out for no real reason other than Keating is the teacher no one ever wants to be anymore. More than 20 years after they’re either like François Marin (The Class) or Dewey Finn (School of Rock), where they’re trying to be too real or too over the top inspiring to the point of nausea. However, something about Keating, the dreamer who asks nothing of his students but to dream themselves is interesting regardless.

I wonder why we moved away from that archetype of the great teacher character. In all of the classic films, To Sir With Love comes to mind, that character is who we have because the writers not only wanted to show what true inspiration looked like, but also inspire its audience. Today though we are treated to films like Bad Teacher which definitely has no moral reasoning or inspiration embedded within it; or maybe it does, in the same way that Kim Kardashian is seen as a role model to young pre-teens today (dear God save us from that reality).

I feel though if you look past all of that cheese and ‘on-the-nose’ fashion that the film, as well as Keating, tries to make its points you realize that the only reason any of them resonate with the students, and us, is that they film never feels facetious.  It believes what it’s saying completely and all the writers desire is that we take these lessons to heart.

So as I say; the film remains true through the art of being earnest.

What’re Your Thoughts on Dead Poets Society