Dead Poet’s Society ( 1989), directed by Peter Weir

One of my children once ran away from home. My late wife and I were distraught. We were about to call the police when I discovered our missing son in the backyard. My son and I had a disagreement of some kind and he had disappeared. But he did not go very far. He just wanted to get my attention, and so he hid in the backyard. This unsettling and frightening experience was a watershed event in my parenting life. Until then, I assumed that the tool box of parenting skills that I had used with my other children would work with all my children. But now I received a wake-up call reminding me that every child is different and I would have to modify my parenting techniques to reflect the idiosyncrasies of each child. I finally understood profoundly King Solomon’s statement in Proverbs that we should “train a child in the way he will go.” When it comes to parenting, one size does not fit all.

Dead Poet’s Society is primarily about a charismatic teacher who profoundly influences his students, but it is also a film about the dynamic between parents and children, about parental expectations on the one hand, and the aspirations of children on the other. Are the two in sync? When Proverbs exhorts us to “train a child in the way that he will go,” it means that parents need to understand the natural inclinations of a child and encourage him to use those natural abilities and interests to develop his own adult identity. When Jewish tradition instructs a parent to teach his child a trade, the choice of trade is not written in stone. The presumption is that the child will choose what suits him with parental input, but not parental control.

When a parent wants control, not mere input, there is conflict, especially during the teenage years. Neil Perry, an outstanding high school student, wants to be an actor. He is passionate about it and, without his father’s knowledge, tries out and wins the part of Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When his father discovers his son’s deception, he decides to remove his son from the school which he loves in order to end to his son’s acting ambitions. The emotional strain of this parent-child conflict ultimately has a tragic end, reinforcing the notion that children should be allowed to listen to their own inner voices when it comes to choosing one’s life work.

This parent-child struggle contrasts with the positive relationship between a teacher, John Keating played by Robin Williams, and his students. The teacher encourages the students to think for themselves, to do something extraordinary with their lives. He tells them to seize the day and enjoy poetry, beauty, and love, all things which make life worthwhile. Thoreau is Keating’s literary icon, a writer who listens to the sound of a different drummer, who desires to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Thoreau did not want to die and discover that he had not lived. Keating wants his students to share that robust perspective on life. He invites them to stand on their desks and see things from on high, anticipating that the exercise will embed in their minds the value of seeing things from the balcony. From this vantage point, one can see new approaches to solving problems, new ways to approach the givens of life.

Dead Poet’s Society has much to say about teaching, parenting, and life. Viewing it reaffirms the complexity of the never-ending task of both teacher and parent, who, in their own contradictory and loving ways, want to give children roots to plant and wings to fly.


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4 responses »

  1. What a lovely insight into the movie. I will have to see the movie again looking at it from a new angle.

  2. Daniel Katsman

    Although it’s been 27 years since I saw the movie, at the time two things about it rubbed me the wrong way.

    One is that when the students apply “carpe diem” to their own lives, it seems to involve a lot of getting drunk. If this is what Keating wanted, then it is problematic from a “kosher” perspective; if not, he is not teaching effectively.

    The other is (spoiler alert) NIck’s suicide after being removed from the school. I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a really extreme reaction, in that there was no previous indication in the movie that he was suicidal (conflicted is not the same thing). I saw it more as a teenage fantasy being played out in film, rather flippantly. Such a serious matter requires more measured treatment in a movie.


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