The Encouragement of Privilege in Dead Poets' Society
April 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm #1008
After watching Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society (1989), I cannot help but agree with Chloe’s statement, “I don’t know how to feel about this.” The film aims to achieve an air of inspiration through Mr. Keating’s (Robin Williams) quoting of powerful portions of poems, “Carpe diem, boys…seize the day,” and instilling of freedom within an otherwise strict and authoritarian Welton Academy, as seen in his allowing of the boys to stand on his desk to observe “different perspectives,” march their own marches in the school’s courtyard, and in his supporting of Neil’s passion for acting. As we discussed in class, however, Mr. Keating’s instilling of freedom can be viewed as encouragement for the boys to revel in their privilege as white males of wealthy families.
One of the film’s opening scenes, in which Mr. Keating directs the boys to tear out the introductory pages of their poetry textbooks, demonstrates an instance in which Keating’s inspirational actions may be seen as encouragement of privilege. The boys, initially reluctant to destroy their texts, ultimately rejoice in their abolishing of the presumably expensive books, spitting pages into a wastebasket after crumpling them. In my opinion, however, the film fails to convey whether the boys understood the meaning behind Keating’s order to tear apart their texts, as enjoying poetry for its quality, as opposed to a quantitative equation based on perfection, rather, the film shows the boys more excited to exert power in the destroying of their texts, thus suggesting Keaton’s encouragement of privilege as opposed to his instilling of inspiration.
Does anyone find this accurate and/or view this encouragement of privilege in the film’s other scenes?
-Emily McClemontApril 13, 2017 at 6:44 pm #1011
I completely agree with your analysis of the textbook scene. Out of the entire film I would argue that only Neil and Todd understood the main points Keating was trying to make about poets and literature. Neil, through his acting and the Dead Poets Society, concluded that Keating was correct in saying that you cannot judge poetry based on a scale written by one male quoted in a textbook. He found it freeing and enjoyable yet could not ultimately escape from the weight of his privileged society. Todd, on the other hand, is only brought out of his shell by Neil and Keating. Still in relation to your argument, to him tearing out the pages is not about poetry it is about freeing him from the same privileged society that destroyed Neil. The class is inspired by the power. Neil power over his life and Todd power over himself and reducing the shadow of his older brother and parents.
April 17, 2017 at 12:08 am #1013
- This reply was modified 1 year ago by Chloe Larosche.
I definitely agree with your analysis of privilege the film. The textbook scene is interesting to me because I find that it has another and more subtle show of the boys’ privilege that I think I noticed because of my background in education. One aspect of the classroom curriculum that many people are unaware of or don’t frequently notice is called the “hidden” curriculum, and it teaches students skill sets that are outside of the specific content area. For example, in any classroom a group project can teach students to work well with others, regardless of the subject of the class. In Dead Poet’s Society and in the textbook scene in particular, Mr. Keating teaches the students to ‘think outside of the box’ and value new perspectives, to question the world around them, and to challenge authority figures. Ultimately, when these values are a part of the hidden curriculum, the goal is for the students to excel at being innovators and leaders. The hidden curriculum in schools also has a lot to do with socioeconomic status — so these values are common for wealthy and predominately white schools, where the students are going to be innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the workforce. The hidden curriculum of schools of low socioeconomic status typically teach their low-income/minority students to be hard workers, to work well as a team, and to follow directions. These students are likely going to be workers in blue collar jobs who need these skill sets for their future jobs. So when Mr. Keating tells the wealthy white students in his class to rip text books, to stand on their desks, and to disobey authority figures, I understand that these aspects of the hidden curriculum are actually normal for that kind of school. However, what really makes me notice the boys’ privilege is that they don’t actually seem to learn anything about literature or poetry throughout this scene, or really any part of the film at all. The boys in this film are ultimately learning that they can be successful in life regardless of how much they actually learned from their prestigious education, because of their privilege.April 23, 2017 at 4:10 pm #1030
In terms of how Keating reinforces the boys’ privilege, I think it’s also worth considering the texts that he privileges in his class. Dead Poets’ Society takes place in 1959, well into the Beat movement and four years after the publication of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” poetic movements that did much to push the boundaries of what poetry could say and do, to say nothing of the movements that preceded it — Modernism, Surrealism, Dada, Postmodernism, etc. What Keating gives the boys, instead of all of these, are poems by poets who are firmly fixed within the western canon, a rigid literary tradition: Shakespeare, Herrick, Thoreau, Lord Byron, and Tennyson. While encouraging his students to free their minds, Keating gives them the literature prized by the dominant cultural faction that the wealthy, all-white male students of Welton belong to.
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