"An older, more experienced teacher questions whether 15- to 17-year-old kids are really ready yet to handle Keating's brand of freedom. 'Gee, I never pegged you for a cynic,' says Keating. 'I'm not,' says the other teacher. 'I'm a realist.'… Although there's a carefully placed scene in which Keating tries to make the distinction between unfettered self-expression and self-destructive behavior, the principles behind the re-formation of the Dead Poets Society eventually lead to catastrophe. It becomes clear that at least some of the boys really aren't emotionally equipped to incorporate into their own lives the kind of freedom and nonconformism that Keating is selling" (Emerson 2010). The extremity of Neil's reaction shows the vulnerability of his unformed adolescent emotions and his inability to deal with his resistance to his father in a rational fashion.
However, for all of his faults, by the end of the film, Keating's students have clearly been transformed. Despite their fears of what the administration might do, when the boys stand on their desks and salute him as the 'Captain,' they show that although they may be prep school students, they will resolve to make their lives extraordinary, and not cease to question society. The headmaster has won the battle, but not the war for these boy's hearts and minds.
However, as inspirational as Keating's leadership style may be, his stance is not without profound ethical concerns: is it right for a school to encourage students to defy their parents? Keating would respond that he does not want his students to embrace a particular ideology; rather he is training them to be critical thinkers. The 'realistic' teacher who chastises him would say that it is cruel and unrealistic to...
At best, this sense of rebellion will last a few years, and have no real effects -- Keating will threaten his job status, but not really change the world. What is really likely to happen to the boys after they stand on their desks -- would such individuals, in real life, carry this spirit with them for the rest of their lives, as Weir implies?
However, the ethics of an authoritarian style of leadership in a school environment are far more troubling than the rebellion encouraged by Keating. A school is a community, and even if students are not equal in authority to their teachers and administrators, to refuse to treat student views with respect and to hand down harsh punishments disproportionate to the students' 'crimes' will inevitably produce extreme reactions in the most complacent of adolescents.
Keating's use of transformational leadership strategies continues to prove inspirational to all teachers who do not merely want to instruct, but also want to excite their students. So long as transformational leadership in the classroom encourages dialogue and debate, it seems like a valid style, rather than a 'cult of personality.' Within other organizations, a self-sacrificing leader can be highly motivational, and although there is always a danger that the leader may be more appealing than his cause, in the case of Dead Poet's Society, Keating's sacrifice seems worthwhile, even if only a small percentage of the students keep alive the spirit of their "Captain" after they graduate.
Dead Poet's Society. (1989). Directed by Peter Weir.
Emerson, Jim. (2010). Dead Poets Society. Retrieved February 13, 2010 at Screening room. http://cinepad.com/reviews/deadpoets.htm
Straker, David. (2010). Charismatic leadership. Changing Minds. Retrieved February 13, 2010 at http://changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/styles/charismatic_leadership.htm
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