Dead Poets Society – A Reflection

“That the powerful play goes on,
and you may contribute a verse.” – Robin Williams as Mr. Keating

Caiti and I recently watched the movie Dead Poet Society (1989) together. I had seen this movie once or twice before when I was younger because it was a favorite of my father’s. Caiti had never seen it so I was glad she added it to our Netflix (old school DVD’s in the mail version!) que.

This movie is filled with great themes. This movie strikes a similar feel to another classic drama starring Robin Williams, Goodwill Hunting. I thought I would reflect on an element that really stuck me. I wish more movies of this nature were made today.

Premise & Plot – A Quick Introduction

This movie is about a group of High School boys that attend an elite boarding school called Welton Academy. Their experience of school and life itself will be dramatically changed by new English Teacher Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). This new teacher has unorthodox teaching methods as well as a unique message.

Along the way the boys re-form a secret club that Mr. Keating started when he attended Welton. This club becomes the context for brotherly fellowship, adolescent fun, and growth. Neil Perry, one the students in Keating’s class, in seeking to pursue his true love of acting is thwarted by an oppressive father and commits suicide. The boys and Mr. Keating have to face this challenge. This situation leads to the unfair firing of Mr. Keating.

Humanism – One of the Main Characters

Humanism is a main player in this film. Humanism had its rise during the renaissance and has dominated Western thought since. Robin Williams’ character believes humanism to be the best worldview available.

What is humanism? It is the idea that humans have unlimited potential, and that through education, hard work, and inspiration we as individuals and a society can achieve anything. We can conquer the demons within us and around us, if only we try hard enough. It is the lifting up and deification of humanity. This quote from Shakespeare is helpful…

“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god.” – Shakespeare

SIDE NOTE: This very quote was quoted by Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain in one of my favorite movies of all time Gettysburg (1993). He was speaking to the fact that black men, are men, and therefore have great value. Interestingly his friend in the film discussed how wicked and worthless men are regardless of skin color. He had come from the Ireland and had seen terrible atrocities. A similar tension is seen in this movie’s narrative. This is more evidence that secular humanism may not be the best explanation for the world we live in.

This message is refreshing and freeing to these high school boys in the context they live. One where there is no place for inspiration, creative problem-solving, and where failure is not an option. They live in a hopeless and oppressive context. This primes them for the message Mr. Keating hopes they will hear.

Why does Mr. Keating’s message appeal? In my mind that is not a simple answer. But, I do know there is some truth in the message of humanism. The Bible tells us we are given innate value as image-bearers of God. This fact means that we have unique and incredible qualities as the crown of God’s creation. (Genesis 1:26-27).

Humanity has been created with a myriad of qualities that reflect who God is. We do have truly great potential. But this is not the whole story. It takes a part of the truth and makes it supreme. The other part is that sin has broken each and every one of us. This movie, interestingly highlights that reality too, as it shows oppressive fathers and depressed students. Sin has broken our relationship with our Creator God. It is only in right relationship with God, and in obedience to Him, that He can make us into the people He has intended. That is the greatest aspect of human potential. But we are limited. We are not God. We do not have unlimited potential.

Humanism: a worldview of hopelessness because everything rises and falls on us. I will end there as this is not a treatise on humanism. (thank goodness!)

The Father They Always Wanted – The Heart of It

In one of the most heart-wrenching moments in film something crystalized for me. A student, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) who is at the center of the film, commits suicide. He does this because his father (Kurtwood Smith), after a lifetime of suffocating control and an unhealthy authoritarian dynamic, tells him he cannot act and is going to military school and then medical school. Mr. Perry manipulates, rages against, and challenges his son to speak his mind. Neil, trained by his father for years, does not speak his mind but with tears in his eyes says “nothing Dad, of course.”

Later that night Neil kills himself with his father’s gun. Mr. Perry wakes up and asks his wife “Did you hear that?”. He starts walking around the house looking for his son but is only greeted with silence. He finally reaches his study. Entering, he sees a hand on the floor and walks around the desk only to find his son dead. Falling on his son he yells in terror, “No! Oh my son, my son! My poor son!” The pain reaches into your very core.

This is a devastating scene. Mr. Perry is ripped apart in the deepest part of himself seeing his son dead in his own study. Seeing what he did not see the whole time-his son. We feel for the first time in the film that Mr. Perry does love his son. He does truly love him. The problem is that Mr. Perry is severely broken.

The rest of the movie details how Mr. Perry blames everyone but himself for the death of his son. He cannot and will not face that terrible truth. But we all know why it happened. We all know what the gun represented.

Mr. Perry is contrasted with Mr. Keating throughout the film. Mr. Perry is demanding, oppressive, manipulative, angry, unable to see his son as a person, and dictates what his son will do and when. All Mr. Perry wants, and demands is respect. Something he does not ever receive.

Mr. Keating is different. Mr. Keating inspires. Mr. Keating wants the boys to find their verse in this great play that is the world. Mr. Keating speaks softly but powerfully. He seeks to relate and care for them as people. Mr. Keating is strong, but in a different way. He courageously lives out what he believes is right, no matter the cost. Mr. Keating is all that Mr. Perry is not. Mr. Keating loves those boys, for their sake. That is why Neil loves and respects Mr. Keating, in a way he never could his own father. It is not that Neil wanted to replace his father with Mr. Keating. It is only that he would have done anything for his father to have been more like Mr. Keating. When this was clear that it would not ever happen he was led deep into despair. A despair that killed him.

At the end of the movie Mr. Keating unfairly loses his job because he is an easy scapegoat for a broken father and school looking to save face. His boys make a final gesture on his way out. This gesture speaks louder than words ever could. They stand up on their desks mimicking one of his cornerstone lessons in the film. In this final act they are saying: we are sorry, we are for you, we love you, and thank you.

We all all long for good fathers. Fathers that are strong, brave and good. We long for our fathers to be people that guide and direct us, but also allow us to flourish and grow. Those that inspire us. Fathers that help us know when we need their wisdom or the wisdom of others. We long for fathers that know and love us. They will love us as we are and love us enough to help us move to where we will go. They will protect us from ourselves but not allow us to hate ourselves. We long for fathers to mimic our Heavenly Father.

Humanism is not what spoke to Neil and the other boys. Something else did that was much more powerful. Mr. Keating did. Mr. Keating spoke to those boys. More than his message, it was Mr. Keating himself that was everything they longed for in their own fathers but didn’t have.

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