John Keatings and the prep school in Dead Poet's Society: Where do they fit in the philosophies of education?
John Keatings is, if not anything else, an original thinker and teacher in Dead Poet's Society. The film does not at all bother to hide this fact even in the opening sequences: Keatings is shown as different from the other teachers even by virtue of his grimaces and squeamishness.
John Locke wrote of education, "Virtue is harder to be got than knowledge of the world; and, if lost in a young man, is seldom recovered." John Keatings believes in this Lockian principle, but only to a certain degree. In his classroom, Keatings stressed virtue: He taught his students how to live and feel and treat one another as much as he taught them to classics. In fact, he deliberately skips the theoretical works in the class -- even having his students dramatically rip out the pages of a methodical, unfeeling treatise on how to understand and appreciate poetry -- in favor of poetry that makes his students feel and interact with one another.
The goal in Keatings' lessons is virtue: He wants to teach his students the virtue of education and the virtue of learning. Before his arrival on the campus, the students only studied for grades, as evidenced by their elaborate study groups on every subject. After Keatings' arrival, they begin to study for the virtue of education.
Of course, Keatings strays from Locke's path in one deliberate and critical manner: He believes that knowledge of the world is just as valuable as the virtue of education. Both in his classroom and in his office hours, he encourages, for instance, one student to stand up to his tyrannical father, and another student, indirectly, to go after the girl of his dreams. Keatings believes that the virtues of education survive and thrive only alongside the knowledge of the world.
The school in which Keatings teaches, however, is not at all Lockian in its belief structure. The school only values book-learning and not at all virtue. They espouse texts that draw the excitement out of learning, and replace primary texts with secondary criticism. The school stresses memorization and not a feeling for literature or the virtues associated with learning for learning's sake.
One of Locke's prominent themes in his writing, of course, was freedom, and the school looks askance at freedom. It makes a very serious point out of putting Keatings in his place for his unorthodox -- free -- teaching styles, and continues to place a large importance on memorization and rote learning.
Freedom in curriculum and syllabus is obviously missing, as when Keatings is replaced, the substitute teachers goes immediately back to the rote secondary criticism book that "tells" students how to appreciate poetry.
Freedom is not present in one student's relationship with is father, and that is a microcosm of the school structure. The students who attend the school are treated as privileged and blessed by the school itself; it is their boon to be in this school, and as a consequence, they must sacrifice their Lockian freedoms. In fact, the students do not even know the meanings of freedom and virtue until their first day in Keatings' class: They are completely skeptical when he leads them outside for class rather than keeping them in the fascist confines of the freedomless school.
John Dewey had extremely innovative philosophies of education as indicated by the readings in our text. He believed that learning was an active and collaborate process, and that schooling is a wastefully long and confining and counterproductive endeavor. Dewey's theory was that students come to school to do things and live in a community which give them real, guided experiences which foster their ability to return their contributions to society. For example, Dewey believed that students should be involved in real-life tasks and challenges and not just simple book learning.
Accordingly, Keatings is a purely Deweyan teacher: He believes that students should, for instance, each invent their own innovative and unique walk; he does not believe that long years spent memorizing poetry or memorizing criticism are productive in any way, shape or form.
Keatings wants his students to write on their own, and even embarrasses one of his students until he comes up with a "felt" piece of poetry. He wants the student to learn the process of creating, not just learn how the greats created in long and dreary textbooks that, in his opinion, do not structure the students' lives in a positive way.
Keatings encourages the Dead Poets Society which is the ultimate venue for and example of learning by "doing" as opposed to "absorbing." Via leading subtly his students on a path towards creating the society, he teaches them to feel literature and infuse their own emotions into it. He also encourages them to draw from poetry to situations in their own lives; Keatings truly believes, as Dewey did, that this sort of collaborative and less conventional education encourages students to learn more from a practical, life-perspective, and also encourages them to give this knowledge back to their communities via their own actions and interactions with that community.
The opposite of the Deweyan belief structure is espoused by Keatings' school. The school believes firmly in the long, conventional process of schooling, with measurable yardsticks along the path. The school eschews learning by "doing" with rote memorization and a belief that discipline and strong self-motivated captivity of a sorts results in the best education.
That is why the students wear uniforms; that is why they are so hyper-motivated so uneducated in the ways of women; that is why it takes them so long to adjust to Keatings' Deweyan style of teaching.
The school demands that competition and disciple rule all: A certain process is necessary for education, and it would scoff at Dewey's idea that education, in general, is too regimented and too hands-off. The students and the school -- pre-Keatings, of course -- are given absolutely no exposure to hands-on learning; their only purpose to memorize the precise combination of texts that will get them into a prestigious Ivy League university.
That is why there is such a conflict even in the days after Keatings joins the school: He loves to teach, but he does not love to teach the way the school seeks to force him to. He wants to give his students autonomy and Deweyan hands-on learning by knocking down the restrictive four walls of the classroom, and the school has built its reputation by adhering to those four walls, and those four walls alone.
In fact, the backlash from Keatings' influence seems to be a bolstering of those four walls, as evidenced by his replacement teacher in the English literature class who brings the students back to the rote critical texts, and away from the Deweyan hands-on learning experiences.
For Greene, finally, what are the goals of education? Simply put: to help students to realize their deep relation to and responsibility for not only their own individual experience but also for other human beings' experiences who share this world. For Greene, students must be able to express themselves in a number of different "languages" -- including imagery, music, dance.
Students must also should explore the meaning of the text, share insights with others and reevaluate their own thought processes in reflection of other ideas.
For Greene, students must come to understand that the reason for learning is to nurture their intellectual talents for the construction of our society and our communities into increasingly democratic, just and caring places to live. Citizens -- who, of course, draw their background from their lives as students -- must be well informed and have the educational abilities and sensitivities needed to closely examine the world…