In Search of a Better World

In Search of a Better World
Soul Searcher

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dead Poet's Society-Do we teach our kids not to think

Recently I had the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of my old school friends with whom I had lost touch for years. It was wonderful to learn how well they were doing as well as to share the academic progress their children were making. One of the things which however stuck me was how the careers chosen by some of my classmates was so different from the memories I had of them.
The past and the present were so difficult to reconcile and a touch of regret was discernible when we talked of the good old days. Coincidentally, a movie I watched on my flight home had the same theme. I picked it because of the unusual title. It was called “DEAD POET’s SOCIETY”(released in 1989)The film raises important questions on what is good for our Children and as to whether we give them the right education.
It is set in Welton, an orthodox school in the 1950s.The school is proud of the increasing number of students who make it to the Ivy League each year. The boys goaded by their parents and teachers, each have ambitions of Harvard, Stanford and other such institutions. Into this conventional set up comes an English Teacher (an ex-student of the school) John Keating played by Robin Williams who is all set to change their world.
Williams believes in the poetry he teaches. As he teaches Frost

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
He teaches the boys to think for themselves and make considered choices. Through simple examples of making the boys walk together he explains how easy it is to fall in step and walk in the same way together. Life he teaches is about doing your own thing and making one’s own choices. In a school where the traditional teaching method is by rote and the sole purpose of teaching is admission to the Ivy League, Williams unconventional style sets the cat among the pigeons.
Williams throws traditional teaching methods to the winds. He lectures by standing on top of his desk to illustrate to his students on how the view changes when you have a different perspective. He physically tears the pages of introduction to the traditional poetry book and disagrees that poetry can be measured in a scientific fashion or cold bloodedly analyzed in terms of rhyme. meter and content. He goads his students into tearing the introduction from their books as well and will not let them rest till he hears the paper rip!
He is passionate about his poetry and is on a mission to instill in his students a love not only of Literature but also of Free Thought. “Carpe Diem Lads. Seize the day! Make your lives extraordinary!” He exhorts his students.
Noel is a student who comes from a lower middle class family and is different from the majority of students who come from affluent backgrounds. His parents want him to be a doctor and dream that one day their son will graduate from Harvard; an ambition they have nursed from his infancy. His father has put his all into his son’s education so that Noel can have all the opportunities which he never had. Noel however yearns to be an actor, an ambition which is buried deep beneath his excellent grades. His room mate Todd has secret ambitions of being a writer.
Charlie has secret passions for a local girl which he could never express until he hears Wiiliam's take on Romeo and Juliet. These boys and their friends revive the dead poet’s society, an old school group founded by Williams in his school days to recite poetry in dark caves and try to implement the literature they read and learn and make it a part of their Lives.
Noel gets to play the part of Puck in the Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the boys writes an article in the school magazine on how girls should be admitted. Charlie wooes and gets his girl. The irreverent thumbing of noses against authority continues under Williams silent patronage, until suddenly tragedy strikes. Noel has a serious argument with his father about his acting ambitions and Dad makes it clear that acting has no place in the carefully drawn out plans he has for his son. He announces his decision to withdraw him from Welton and the evil influence of Williams. Torn between his authoritarian father and his recently awakened passion for acting, the boy commits suicide. The ideas of free thought propagated by Williams are no longer a joke. An inquiry is constituted and Williams removed.

Robin Williams plays his part well (a pleasant surprise) as do the rest of the cast. The film has its moments but falls a little short of greatness in my book. The characters of the boys and other teachers are all stereo types. There is a hint of a debate between free thought and realism between Williams and one of his senior colleagues which is nipped in the bud. There is an excess of cliched and contrived situations.
When compared to classics of the genre like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “To Sir with Love”, it falls short. Despite the flaws however, it is sincerely made and still definitely worth a watch because it still miles ahead of the trash which Hollywood churns out so regularly. The film raises serious questions on whether the purpose of education is to encourage or stifle free thought and creativity and the theme alone makes it a must watch for today's Parents and Children
The immortal words of Henri Thoreau which are used as a leitmotif through the film stay in your mind long after the credits have faded away

“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 had come to die,
Discover that I had not lived.”
I wonder if and when I can really be moved enough by what I have seen and read to ensure that
When my turn comes to die , I will not regret that I have not lived.......
Soul Searcher