One of the few decent movies about education and schools, Dead Poets Society (1989) saw Robin Williams play Mr. Keating, an English teacher newly arrived at Welton Academy for Boys, a boarding school for the privileged sons of America. Mr. Keating is a rebel among conformists, a teacher dedicated to bringing poetry alive, a romantic who saw teaching as a way of transforming young lives. His presence in the school is designed to upset the prevailing orthodoxy and get under the skin of an institutional culture dedicated to the reproduction of the social and political elite.
It is this romantic aspect of the movie that captivates the viewer – the idea of an inspirational professional who rises above the mediocre and mundane to affect the dreams and ambitions of the young. The romance at the heart of the movie is enhanced by Keating’s charges, a group of pupils whose latent love of learning blossoms under his tutelage. Together they comprise the Dead Poets Society, a group that signifies the difference between what a school is and what it should be.
Romance, however, is part of the stock in trade of Hollywood movies, both Mr. Keating and his fellow Dead Poets rarely reflecting the reality of school life. The gap between the real and the ideal of schooling has always been considerable, and it would be too
much to expect complex bureaucratic institutions to bridge this gap in any meaningful way (not in publicly-funded systems anyway). Teachers, deadened by over-zealous regulation, the realities of school life and the phenomenon known as second-hand whinging, find it difficult enough to seize their own day let along encourage anyone else to do the same.
Likewise, the pupils. Just as teachers wish they and their colleagues could be as inspirational as Mr. Keating, many current and ex-school pupils wish their classmates had been as eager and enthusiastic to learn as the Dead Poets. More often than not, the reality of the classroom is one of claustrophobia and suppressed fear, a meeting place for a multitude of anxieties – popularity, belonging, identity, embarrassment and shame. The presence of other peers inevitably affects the potential and opportunity to learn, a fact that no amount of curriculum change or budget massaging can overcome.
This aspect of school is rarely taken seriously, as illustrated in the often casual and fatalistic approach to bullying. But classmates do impact on people’s level of success and failure in education (which impacts greatly on other aspects of life). Education policy and practice will have turned a corner (so many false dawns) when it stops fetishising the hero teacher and instead embraces the reality of classroom life. Better that than pretending it doesn’t exist.