The O Captain My Captain scene from Dead Poets Society flashed through my mind the minute I heard about the sad death of Robin Williams. I wasn’t only one. All over social media people were playing the above clip in tribute or even, as in the office of ITV2, recreating the scene themselves.
The film had a huge impact on me when I saw it as very unworldly 22 year old living in London. I would like to say spurred on by John Keating’s message that life was for living, that I did seize the day, but on reflection I think it took another 30 years. Still don’t they say better late than never!
So I had been eager to watch the film again as my own tribute to that funniest (and hairest) of funny men, and I did last night.
The film seems to have held up pretty well over the past 25 years (maybe a lot better than me). I was stuck by the precision of Robin Williams’ acting as the inspirational English teacher John Keating. His look, his manner, his voice, I was right back in the classroom. I was amazed how many lines from the film had stayed with me and how I could remember that O Captain My Captain came from a Walt Whitman poem. If if had come up in a Mastermind question the week before I wouldn’t have been able to answer.
Moving performances too from the then teenaged unknowns, now household names, Robert Sean Leonard or Wilson in House, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles (Will Gardner from The Good Wife). The only place I thought the film had dated (except for the very obviously late 80s synth soundtrack which jarred otherwise perfect 1959 period piece) was in our modern age of constant social media, ultra violent video games such as GTA and COD, underage binge drinking and drug taking that a bunch of boys who went to the woods at night read the poems of dead men would be celebrated by all in education not castigated and expelled. I tried to read Ode To Autumn, my very favourite poem by my favourite dead poet John Keats (the similarity to name to John Keating can not be an accident) and my, then young, son just sniggered at the perceived rude bits “close bosom’d friend of maturing sun” “Bosum, mum you said bosum”.
It made me wonder what Ofsted would make John Keating’s teaching methods. Would they see enough planning, he certainly demonstrates outstanding knowledge of his subject and it is clear he had high expectations for his class to learn from him. How though do you measure this ability in exams, and to do it fairly. For the first time I could see the point in curriculums; syllabuses to be studied and regurgitated at exam time. How else can you really do it? Especially as there provides a safely net for parents and students. Do this this way and you are pretty much guaranteed your result. Exam Fodder.
The film deals with the culture clash that was to define the 1960s as tradition and conformity made way for personal freedom and emotional expression. The Old Guard found John Keating’s teaching incendiary. The revolutionary idea to be yourself, express yourself was, to parents who had made sacrifices to send their sons to the school and therefore felt compelled to map out for their children’s lives into adulthood, to make them accepted, intolerable. To the Establishment this was treason. There was no question the Headteacher’s mind. The blood was on John Keating’s hands.
Not much so much has changed today. How to educate our children is a debate that rages on still. Tony Blair swept to power on the platform of “Education, Education, Education”. You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about another change to way we school our offspring. Just the day before I heard the head of Eton College speak of his desire to get rid of all exams up until A-level. How schools are in the thrall to the University’s desire for grades. How we fail our children if we “spoonfeed” them their education. That we have to make them think for themselves. How the exam system was so artificial. That we don’t go out into the world of work and get supplied with all the information to do a good job and work individually. No we work collaboratively and we have to teach children to be able work like this at school. But I don’t think there is an educator in this country brave enough to free things up to that extent. No matter how many times Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk asking is school killing creativity is played on You Tube.
Of course school is so much more than just getting qualifications, it is about socialising and learning about to get on with your peers. Exposure to new experiences and cultures help you take those nascent steps to building your own tastes and fashions. It’s about falling in love for the first, and usually the most painful time. If you are lucky it is about building self-confidence and resilience. It’s safe environment to learn about the world and how you fit into it, school is where we realise that we might be the centre of our parents’ universe but to the rest we but one part of it, vital and essential but just a part of it like everyone else.
But back to John Keating, despite how the old guard viewed him I think most parents would like a teacher to inspire a life-long love of learning, to impart an appreciation for knowledge for knowledge sake. Schools have changed beyond recognition from when I was at school. I am very glad to see the growth of pastoral care and it makes me wish I was going through the education now. But I had some wonderful teachers, but in particular an incredible English teacher, Mr Thurlow, and an inspirational history teacher Mr Hopkinson. With his tweed jacket and his mischievous twinkling eyes he dropped left of centre ideas like truth bombs into minds used to only hearing from the Right. He was the teacher who said there will be a nugget of information taken away by every pupil and never forgotten. Well he told me mine and only today I retold the tale of the suspicious Russians serfs feeding the revolutionaries to the pigs after mistaking them for tax inspectors. Pigs that would eat up every trace of the Moscovites, hair, skin and nails and although I am not a teacher I like to think I am continuing on the tradition in my own little way.