“Oh Captain, My Captain”
Professor Keating surely pushed the boundaries at Welton Academy, didn’t he? We all know this story, don’t we? It’s fictional, found in the movie The Dead Poet’s Society, but in it we see the courage of teachers who will simply not be confined to soul-sucking constraints, mustn’t we? Welton is conservative, it’s a school for the rich folks, and things are done a certain way. Keating, played by Robin Williams, soon has his students standing on their desks, ripping pages out of a textbook, and generally making noise in class, for godssake.
Keating creates quite a ruckus while he stirs the imaginations and the hopes of his young followers. Carpe diem, seize the day, becomes their watchword, as Keating encourages them to live their own lives and not the lives others impose upon them. Professor Keating becomes “Oh Captain, my Captain”, following the poetry Walt Whitman dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. They discover that Keating, a former Welton student himself, belonged in his day to a secret group, the Dead Poet’s Society, which met in the dead of night, in a cave out in the forest, and where the members read poetry and literature. The students restart the club. This being a movie, we know that breaking the rules, living life on one’s own terms, blasting away convention, and yes, acting irreverently, will never last. These must, inexorably, move toward a tragic ending (unless, of course, you happen to be The Dude).
The Dead Poet’s Society is discovered. Keating is told to discourage his students from questioning authority. One student, told by his father that he could not pursue acting and that he is instead being sent to military school, commits suicide. An inquisitorial process makes the students sign a paper falsely fingering Keating as the cause of the death, and he is fired. The witch hunt found its prey. The non-conformist, the one-who-would-inspire-people-to-pursue-their-dreams-no-matter-what, is raised onto his own metaphorical pyre and burned.
The non-conformist, the one-who-would-inspire-people-to-pursue-their-dreams-no-matter-what, is raised onto his own metaphorical pyre and burned.
The movie ends on an upbeat, though I would say a hollow, note when the boys stand on their desks as Keating leaves, shouting “Oh Captain, My Captain”. These innocents, no differently than accused sinners in The Real Inquisition, have been made into liars to save their own lives. They are redeemed in the end, too late to matter to Keating but perhaps soon enough to save their own individual and unique souls.
Would we be brave enough to do any differently? It’s a fair question. A brilliant, caring teacher has been destroyed for asking young people not to be unquestioningly bound by the rules of society or, in this case, an educational institution. All with the purpose of teaching a healthy reverence for poetry to young men, and open-minded thinking about what it means in their lives in an irreverent, curious, idealist, romantic way.
Would we be brave enough to do any differently?
It’s a fair question.
We hope our elected officials will act on conscience and deep values and character rather than for mere (political) survival, don’t we?
Or…will they stand on desks and clap one day, for their own too-late, hollow victories?
But would WE be brave enough to stand up for Keating, when it was risky?
Would WE be brave enough to stand up for Mother Earth, when it meant everything?
For the values we espouse? Decency, respect, care for others?
When it was risky?
Could WE make the hard choices?
It’s a fair question.
Which at certain points in our own Welton-lives, when facing our own Rubicons, we must answer.
How will we answer?