Robin Williams Doesn’t Exist

Or, at least, the character he played in Dead Poet’s Society doesn’t.

“Carpe Diem. Sieze the day. Make your lives extraordinary!”

With these words, English teachers the world over fell in love with Dead Poets Society and its talismanic teacher, John Keating. Played by Robin Williams, Mr. Keating brims with the confidence, inventiveness, and genius that students think they want, and teachers think they can duplicate. In fact, English teachers are so in love with the idea of John Keating, I would wager to bet that if you have a conversation with ANY male English teacher under the age of 40 on the topic of the history of their entry into education, he will reference Dead Poets Society at least once. Up until now, I probably would have too.

One thing the film gets right: talking in funny voices is always preferable to stilted British accents.

Listen, I think Peter Weir is a fine director. Gallipoli is an excellent mediation on war and pride and Imperial disenchantment, and The Truman Show is in my top 100 films of all-time, a criminally underrated picture. And when Robin Williams puts his mind to it, he can be really good (the less manic, the better, except in Aladdin). And Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles and Kurtwood Smith all give solid to strong performances.

So what’s the problem?

Primarily, it’s that John Keating is a fiction. I don’t mean that he is a fictional character, although obviously that’s true. I mean that teachers who produce the kind of devotion and life change in students that DPS portrays does not, and probably cannot, happen. This bums me out, and it took probably twenty viewings of the movie before it struck me, but I’ve come to believe it wholeheartedly. This doesn’t mean that teachers can’t inspire students. I was inspired by some of my teachers and I hope that as a teacher, I’ve inspired at least a few individuals among the hundreds of students who’ve passed in and out of my classroom over the last four-plus years. But that inspiration is almost always very small scale, and usually occurs in tandem with so many other concurrent factors (their friends, parents, television, music, blah, blah, blah) as to render any isolated contribution to it nearly neutral. Let’s tick off a couple of the myths that DPS perpetrates, and try to shed some light on how this stuff actually plays out.

One teacher can, by sheer exuberance and force of will, alter students’ entire worldviews.

This is probably the most dangerous myth of all, because it tricks teachers into thinking that this should be what happens, and when it doesn’t, that the burden of failure rests on their shoulders. If you take that view, you won’t last very long in the classroom. DPS shows us Keating as a knight in shining armor, shaking up the drab educational existences of prep school students practically begging to be shaken up in the rigidly conformist atmosphere of a 1950s boarding school. While teachers might create an environment that invites students to ask questions that they might not have asked, or open their eyes to subjects or authors about which they knew little to nothing, it is false to imagine that in the span of a few months, one teacher can subvert an entire era’s shortcomings and “free” students from the cultural norms he sees as so unfortunate. Revelation is usually the product of long years and, as I’ve said, a  lot of factors. When teacher’s believe themselves to be the agent of change in their students’ lives, they set themselves up to fall short, and in so doing probably ignore a lot of practical stuff they should be attending to in the classroom, like keeping contact with parents to ensure motivation comes from multiple places and students are held more accountable.

The primary focus of any teenager’s life is what they talk about in English class.

Besides the “Cat sat on the mat” poem-guy and a few other nondescript class members, Weir shows us sixteen and seventeen year-olds who seem to think about little else than what their English teacher said that day. And even when they have other concerns – parental discord, other teachers’ rigidity, what the future holds for them, etc. – they examine all of those concerns through the lens of Keating’s latest lesson. Let me assure you that this doesn’t happen. That’s not to say that nothing a teacher says ever resonates with a student, only that anything a teacher says has so much competition in a given day that it’s ludicrous to expect one voice to consistently rise above all others to dominate a student’s mental landscape the way Keating’s do in DPS.

The other night, I went to a UK Women’s Soccer game. Two of my former students play for the team, and I saw a couple of other former students who were there to root them on. I talked to them for a few minutes and saw them intermittently throughout the course of the game and as we were leaving the soccer complex. As I saw them conversing and laughing with each other, I became acutely aware that these moments was where their focus lay: in actually living their lives, moment-to-moment. Whatever positive impact I had on these students was only one of a million forces pushing and pulling on them, and it was nowhere near the most powerful of them, even for the students who would call me a favorite teacher.

I’ve taught a lot of students a lot of things, but their lives are inestimably complex, just as mine was and felt at that age. It’s nothing short of arrogance to assume that what I teach them in English class is ever the most important or affecting thing they’ll hear that day.

Now, before you think about pulling your kids from public schools so that they can get away from pessimistic curmudgeons like me, let me extend a bit of an olive branch.

John Keating and the impact he has in DPS is a fiction. However, the teaching profession desperately needs people who still hold out hope that this patron saint of pop-culture education is a standard towards which to strive. Deluded? Maybe so, but the contemporary educational environment is depressing enough without incoming teachers bearing M.A.s in Defeatism. Idealism will be tempered by the realities of the system, but it can fight back. Cynicism can only be fed by those realities, and it will be content to grow fat and ultimately unmanageable. Of those -isms, I know which one I’d rather have as my default setting.

If this all sounds hypocritical, then I doubt you’ve worked in public education. We must and do simultaneously hold out hope that for brief moments, tucked into the tiniest slivers of our days, schools really can be places of epiphany and transformation. As weary as this job can and has made me, I still look for those, and when they happen, they sustain me during those long droughts where I’m not sure if I’m doing anybody (myself included) any good.

It’s true (despite my author bio page’s claims) that no student has ever stood on their desk for me or un-ironically called me “O Captain, My Captain,” but if I didn’t leave the door open for that at least a couple of centimeters, then I don’t think it would be worth showing up diem after diem.

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3 Comments on “Robin Williams Doesn’t Exist”

  1. August 31, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    First off, good article, as always. However, if people didn’t make movies like DPS, then every high school movie would end up actually looking like a typical day at West Jessamine High. And that wouldn’t be very exciting…or would it? Hmmm…..

  2. Mike
    August 31, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    Curious as to your thoughts on Jaime Escalante and the “based on a true story!” flick Stand and Deliver. Seems to be a real world example of the kind of impact you’re talking about…

  3. joshacorman
    September 4, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    I have seen STAND AND DELIVER, and obviously what those students and that teacher accomplished is amazing, but I think the title of Escalante’s book says it all: THE BEST TEACHER IN AMERICA. He is – and I kind of hate this expression – the exception that proves the rule. He had books written and movies made about him because 18 kids passed a really difficult exam. Getting those kids to believe in what he was teaching them and succeed in their academic efforts is so unusual as to warrant national attention. Plus, the kids’ growth in a single year was exaggerated, per Escalante himself. I wish we could bottle what Mr. Escalante did to inspire the kind of loyalty and dedication in those kids.

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