Academic Opinion: On Dead Poets’ Society, Robin Williams and teaching

Posted by pt91 at Aug 13, 2014 05:17 PM |
Lecturer in Creative Writing Dr Jonathan Taylor reflects on the Robin Williams character that inspired him to take up teaching

Please note: The views expressed below are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

When the film Dead Poets’ Society was released in 1989, I rushed to see it at the cinema. At sixteen years old, I was the film’s perfect target audience: I’d just come out of high school, I loved English Literature, and was idealistic about life, education and poetry in ways not dissimilar to John Keating, the movie’s inspirational and maverick teacher, played by the late Robin Williams.

I was the film’s perfect audience in another sense too: in the last two years of high school, I’d also been taught English by an inspirational and maverick teacher. This teacher was enthusiastic, energetic, imaginative. Like Keating, he loved his subject; like Keating, he communicated that love to his students; like Keating, he made us believe that poetry wasn’t just a matter of rules and graphs, of G.C.S.E. grades, of ‘tradition, honor, discipline and excellence’ – to use the words of the headmaster in Dead Poets’ Society. Most of all, my English teacher made us feel that poetry wasn’t separate from life – a matter of academic study for an educated élite – but was fundamental to it. As Keating puts it: ‘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.’

Such sentiments are as subversive now as they were at the time the film is set, which is why Keating is ultimately sacked. Inspirational teachers are often too individualistic to thrive in any education system, old or new, based on ‘tradition, honor , discipline and excellence.’ My own English teacher certainly didn’t obtain ‘excellent’ G.C.S.E. results for his students, and, given that one of his methods of eliciting answers from students in the classroom was tickling, probably wouldn’t have a job at all if he were alive now. Such physical contact between teachers and students has, quite rightly, been consigned to the past.

The wider point, though, is that inspirational teachers are often morally ambiguous by conventional standards – and, in a general sense, stand partly outside the education system, which finds it hard to accommodate them. By definition, a maverick is someone whose individuality makes it difficult for them to fit into any system. Still, I believe that the education system should always do its best to find a place for mavericks, eccentrics, individuals if possible – because, after all, it is only the Keatings of the world who change lives, who we remember long afterwards, for whom we will willingly stand on desks, declaring ‘Captain, my Captain.’

Jonathan Taylor is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and author of the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012). His website is

The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

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