The importance of Dead Poets Society

The death of Robin Williams brought tears to my eyes as I watched these scenes from Dead Poets Society showing him playing the English teacher, John Keating. He inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he says.

Yes, Keating was right. It is poetry, love and romance that lift our lives.

Next, with the boys gathered around him, he says: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Yes, we want love and romance; a life without passion is only half a life.

Is poetry indispensable too? Maybe not Shakespeare’s sonnets, the odes of Keats, the lyrics of Wordsworth – lovers of English literature have not cornered the market on happiness – but who has never loved a love song? And what is song but poetry?

Terribly dashing and romantic, here in this video he then throws another challenge to his students: “O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, ‘O Captain my Captain.”

(Read the full poem, O Captain! My Captain at the bottom of this post.)

Young and impressionable, the boys, of course, are wowed. Who wouldn’t, by so much charisma?

Williams had it in spades – or he wouldn’t have been a star – and he was irresistible as Keating.

The film had such a profound influence that the BBC News website ran a story following his death about “The real teachers inspired by Dead Poets Society.”

I myself saw tweets from English teachers inspired by the movie.

What the teachers didn’t mention was their own experience in the classroom, if they could be as unorthodox, as passionate, in their teaching. Dead Poets Society played like a dream when it first hit the screens in 1989 — but education has become more hard-nosed since then. Educators and students alike are more concerned with results and payoffs.

Humanities has taken a beating. Language, especially. “At Yale, English was the most popular major in 1972-73. It did not make the top five in 2012-13,”said a recent article in the New York Times.

The writer of the article, David Lehman, a poet, lamented: “Technology has routed the humanities. Everyone wants the latest app, the best device, the slickest new gadget.”

Poetry does not render very well on computer screens, he noted: “The Internet is hell on lining, spacing, italics; line breaks and indentation are often obscured in electronic transmission. The integrity of the poetic line can be a serious casualty.”

“Still, it is fruitless to quarrel with the actuality of change,” he added.

Besides, there’s always hope.

The poet drew consolation with the words: “One thing you can count on is that people will keep writing as they adjust from one medium to another, analogue to digital, paper to screen.”

Yes, people will write. The medium may change, but words and ideas will continue to flow. And, as Robin Williams as Keating said, “words and ideas can change the world”.

The Hollywood screenwriter who put those words in his mouth was right. But it was the genius of Williams that made them memorable because he spoke with such conviction, such charisma.

Thank heavens for the stars that light up our world – and the poetry and passion that make life eloquent.

O Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.