Dead Poets Society (1989)


I was sent to a military academy in 1952 in Hays, Kansas, and to a prep school in Gates Mills, Ohio, outside Cleveland, in 1954. Yes, I talked my way out of Kansas and into Gates Mills, tony neighbor to posh Shaker Heights, happily just far enough from raw and sprawling and shabby Cleveland and deathly cold Lake Erie to make Cleveland seldom thought about. At Gilmour Academy, in the magnificence of Tudor styles and wood-paneled interiors and modernistic sports facilities and sculpted gardens and Edenic groves on tended grounds, the occasional visiting lecturers from prestigious universities awakened in you that vital sense of wonder, excitement and longing to make you at least aware of something beyond you and even sometimes to enter into that process known as education. One well-published scholar from one of the great Ivied universities–try as I might, I’ve not been able to recall his name–engrossed us teens, quiet and attentive in our natty blue school blazers and striped ties and grey trousers, in the marvelous cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece, teaching us how to see whole and sharply differing cultures showing forth in a few angles and circles in buildings and statues, Alexandria against Athens, the arresting otherworldly straight lines of Egypt against the beautiful curved and worldly lines of Greece.

Kansas versus Gates Mills? Using movies, I’ll say that the movie for my two school years in Kansas was The Last Picture Show (1971) and reviewed as such elsewhere in this blog. That movie gets it all just right. The realism of 1950s Kansas–somewhere in the vicinity of the End of the World–the Plains isolation, beaten down dreams, boarded up towns, daily regret, the end of the idyll that not too many decades before had brought exploited farmers from the Old World to a promising golden life and land of their own–days of hard but self-determining work capped by picnic weekends.

The movie for 1950s Gilmour Academy (and doubtless for Andover, Exeter, Woodberry Forest, et al.) is Dead Poets Society (1989). Visiting professors brighten prep schools because the school faculties, as you learn directly and also by comparing notes with friends attending other prep schools, often are dreamless, without ambition, resentful, embittered mockers of schoolboy and schoolgirl dreams, and, above all, Resigned To It All. The administrators–the graying dictatorial ones in charge–are obsessed with form. Form? The right form is a system designed to get the student into a prestigious university. That is Step One. Step Two (Step One is almost meaningless without Step Two) is to position that student in a field that will bring him or her money and bestow lasting approval on the parents.

Tom Schulman’s screenplay and Peter Weir’s directing and Robin Williams’s controlled acting as John Keating, English teacher at Welton Academy, and especially Robert Sean Leonard’s performance as schoolboy Neil Perry, together with the wonderfully characteristic sets, make Dead Poets Society valuable as a preservation of the experience and the look and feel of American prep schools in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

In his idea of education, Mr. Keating takes to heart the sentiment in these words from Robert F. Kennedy:

“The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Dead Poets Society, a latter day version of the story of Socrates, is among the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspirational Films of All-Time. Schulman’s screenplay won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  We don’t find a drama of the Socratic Method in Schulman’s fine screenplay, but we do find an attack on life that is perhaps more important: the art of inspired persuasion.

Keating, in the storyline introducing seven students to the power of passionate, poetic persuasion as seen in the great dead poets, a persuasion that must live on, begins with the assumption that all his students (i.e., all people) have unique and interesting selves and must find ways to persuade their fellow adventurers in some or other line of endeavor if the students are to make the most of their vision and to help in the polity. Keating uses wonderful “unorthodox” teaching methods that inspire his students. And more power to him!

The classic drama emerges in a deadly conflict between Keating’s student, Neil Perry, who wants to become an actor, and his dictatorial father who wants him to become a physician. Perhaps in its writing, rendering and staging, this drama in Dead Poets Society isn’t as forceful and lacerating as the similar one Out There in Kansas in William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass between Bud Stamper and his father, Ace Stamper, but there is little to choose between them. Bud Stamper loses the love of his life, Deanie Loomis. Neil Perry takes his life.

Of course, Keating/Socrates is fired as a scapegoat over the suicide of his student. Corruption of the youth.

There were two Keatings at Gilmour. I hope they weren’t dismissed one of those years past my time there. Their chances didn’t seem very good.

Schulman’s depiction of prep school headmasters and the politics between the school administration and parents is bracingly realistic. When I was a senior at Gilmour, one of my best friends, a senior at Andover, sent me an invitation to form a secret society at Gilmour that had recently started at Andover. It wasn’t a society quite as estimable as one for dead poets, but it had an interesting, eye-catching symbol. In Dead Poets Society, one of Keating’s students, Charlie Dalton, an editor of the Welton Academy student paper, publishes an unauthorized piece and, when called-out about it by the Headmaster in a General Assembly, stands up in a distant row, lifts up a telephone he has disconnected and brought along as a prop, and tells the Headmaster the permission came in a telephone call from God. Dalton is summarily expelled. (I’m hoping he’s amassed great wealth as a captain of industry and refuses to share any of it with Welton Academy.)

Well, I placed the Andover symbol in the Gilmour student paper. I was called forth and expelled. I told the Headmaster that my mom would probably never recover. I assured him that I wasn’t thinking of myself but of her. She was very sensitive, I explained. Into my mind then came the image of my mom’s physician, Dr Claude –. He was one of the most worldly and generally ornery people I knew; he also could display what in those days was called “a soft side.” I wondered aloud in that Awful Office whether the Headmaster might give Dr. Claude a call. The Headmaster said he would. I could tell the Headmaster didn’t believe a word of this but didn’t want to take a chance, however improbable my claim.

Well, at the time I was in Beginning Persuasion.

I didn’t dare call Dr. Claude. Probably, I feared, all I’d done by involving him blindly was to turn the event into a farce.

A couple of long days passed. Then I was told to report back to the Headmaster. As I walked down a long path to the Administration Building I noticed the school chaplain, a Catholic priest, watching me from a window near the Headmaster’s Office. Not religious, I made an exaggerated sign of the cross and endeavored to look prayerful.

What happened?

Dr. Claude had given an Oscar-worthy performance. He figured out everything in a flash and covered for me, probably in his intimidating and sometimes even menacing way. He never told anyone. The acknowledgment between us was a certain look a few months later, after I’d graduated in the Class of 1956.

Prep schools are good for Beginning Persuasion.

And in case you’ve forgotten: Dead Poet’s Society ends on a high note, a small but happy victory.