Part of ongoing series: Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By
“Carpe Diem! Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)
by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor
Dead Poets Society, 1989 Oscar winner for best original screenplay, boasts an impressive Hollywood lineage. In addition to the best screenplay win for Tom Schulman, Dead Poets earned a best director nomination for Peter Weir, a best actor nomination for Robin Williams. It also helped launch the careers of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunset), as well as Emmy-nominated actors Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Not bad for a small budget film few imagined would grow into culture-shaping cinema.
It is also one of the best films ever made on the vocation of teaching. I rarely meet any teacher, professor, or youth minister who wasn’t deeply moved by their first encounter with Dead Poets Society. It deftly touches a nerve for anyone entrusted with the thrilling, yet delicate art of shaping young lives.
Mr. Keating’s brief sojourn at the fictional Welton Academy captures both the highest hopes and greatest fears of anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom. As it turns out, worldview formation is as dangerous as it is fulfilling. Which brings me to my real point.
Dead Poets is also a tremendous film for anyone interested in the art of worldview formation in film and in life. First, it illustrates the power of mentors, texts, and communities in shaping worldview. Second, it gives soaring testimony to the power of Existentialism in the quest to escape the gravity of Physicalism into the intoxicating heights of Idealism. Finally, it provides a troubling warning as to the power of nihilism to crush the dreams of the unsuspecting idealist. (For and explanation of Physicalism versus Idealism, see, It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece.)
The Welton Worldview
Both in movies and real life, worldview change never comes easily. Human beings are insanely committed to maintaining the societal traditions and personal strategies we’ve carefully developed for managing our lives, even and especially when those strategies are counter-productive. Dead Poets does a wonderful job of detailing how good teachers expose the counter-productive flaws in their students’ worldview. And no worldview seems quite so flawed as that of the mythical Welton academy in which Dead Poets Society is set..
As a highly traditional 1950’s college preparatory academy, Welton is rooted in what appears to be a highly Physicalist (if somewhat religiously Deistic) worldview. (For and explanation of the four levels see, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) In other words, the hard, pragmatic realities of the physical world are the only things that are “really real” at Welton.
Level 4—Story/Basis: The underlying story of Welton is success, or more specifically, the financial success and social status available to those who get into prestigious schools in order to gain entry into prestigious careers.
Todd Anderson’s (Ethan Hawke) disengaged parents may forget what they got him for his last birthday, but they know they want for his life–Valedictorian honors and a National Merit scholarship like his older brother. (Hint: The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)
Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) helicopter father may not listen to his son’s desires to write for the school newspaper (or become an actor), but he already has his son’s life planned out for him whether he likes it or not:
“You’re going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.”
Level 3—Values/Principles: Welton faculty and administration oblige their moneyed parents by creating an academy rooted in the values of “tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.” They celebrate “the light of knowledge” with religious trappings and a strong classical sense of morality, giving Welton a rather Deistic slant. All we really know about this distant God is that he doesn’t want girls at “Helton” distracting the “boys” (not men) from their studies. (The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)
Level 2 — Strategies/Culture: Accordingly, Welton’s academic culture is devoted to a highly traditional curriculum, and educational methodology. We are offered brief glimpses into the strict world of “normal” Welton classrooms marked by rote memorization of Greek, Biology, and Calculus.
These are not the kind of classrooms a creative personality would cherish, but that’s just fine with most Welton students. They are just going through the motions doing whatever is necessary in order to gain parental approval and Ivy League admission.
Level 1—Action/Behavior: By the end of Act 1, it is clear that while Welton students may not particularly like the school, enjoy belittling its values, and despise their parent’s transference of their success stories upon their lives, they still go along with the flow in overall daily decisions.
The Keating Worldview
All this changes when the students enter the classroom of Welton’s newest teacher—Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Like a character in Plato’s cave analogy, Keating has broken free of the bondage of Welton’s limited perspective, and returned to enlighten students still chained to the wall of shadows. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Keating is determined to “free the minds” of his students in order to help them enter a larger, richer world of the liberal arts.
It is a beautiful story of how great teachers foster worldview change in their students. Keating employs a dizzying teaching arsenal of texts (Walt Whitman, etc.), music (The 1812 Overture), mentorship (“O Captain, my Captain”), learning exercises (standing on desk), challenge (“A sweaty-toothed madman”), and community (The Dead Poets Society) to captivate his students’ imaginations. While at first his classroom is merely, “Weird, but different,” it gradually becomes the focal point of their universe.
The worldview Mr. Keating wants his students to address is robust form of romantic Existentialism, rooted in Physicalism, yet rejecting its pragmatic pessimism.
Level 4—Story/Basis: Walt Whitman and the other romantic poets teach us that even though Physicalism may be scientifically true in that “we are all food for worms,” we can strive to make meaning out of our own brief lives by our own choices and values. Keating’s story is a radical rebellion against both Nihilistic Physicalism that insists that life has no meaning, and the Deism of Welton that insists we live only for the morality and stories of others. Mr. Keating is not so much interested in his students’ embracing their parents’ story of financial/social success as he is that they live their own story.
Keating: We are food for worms, lads. Believe or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die… Peruse some of the faces of the past (Welton students) …Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable. Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you: (whispered) ‘Carpe Diem! …Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Level 3—Values/Principles: Beyond the walls of the physical universe Keating points his students to the Idealistic realm of beauty, love, and meaning that eludes those trapped in the Physicalist worldview. Naturalistic Physicalism would tell us that the universe is a “box” limited by space and time, and accessible only through the physical senses. Our hearts tell us a different story. There is something more to life than what we can touch, taste, hear, see, and smell. Poetry points the way to this larger world of values, that can’t be measured “scientifically” like a “length of pipe” nor explained with graphs like J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.
Keating then tells his students to rip out the entire introduction to their poetry textbook and has them “huddle up” to hear the real meaning of poetry (and life.)
Keating: 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. Now, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary for sustaining life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
This speech is a stunning description of Existential Idealism in its purest Romantic form. And it will not be the last.
Level 2—Strategies/Culture: Keating’s goal is for his students to stop mimicing and reciting the words of others, and “find your own voice,” and “Learn to think for yourselves again.”
On top of his desk, he gets them to consider life from a new perspective. In the courtyard, he gets them to fall into the trap of walking in conformity to the life of those around us. On the soccer field, he inspires them to reach their full potential.
Watch desk scene here.
Freedom from Physicalism
As I said above, it is liberal arts education at its finest. He is using the arts to liberate his students from seeing life only from their own tradition and preconceptions. (See, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts.) It is a breathtaking and soul stirring tour de force his students find nearly iresistible.
Slowly, Keating’s students begin to break free from the suffocating gravity of a Physicalist worldview, in order to embrace the broader Idealistic world he has opened up for them….
Level 1—Action/Behavioral: Of course, the movie only gets going once some of the boys actually start acting on Mr. Keating’s worldview.
And that is where the story really gets interesting!
 Perhaps an allusion to George Bailey’s objection to his father’s commitment to the Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”