Dead Poets Society Should Trouble Any Lover of Liberal Education

The movie Dead Poets Society should trouble any lover of liberal education. In the movie Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams inspires a profound love of poetry in a group of prep school students. These students begin reading a variety of different poetry and it opens their minds, just as advocates of liberal education claim it should. Additionally, the movie includes Mr. Keating’s passionate defense of the liberal arts. He tells his students that “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.” Mr Keating also reminds his cynical colleagues that the true purpose of education is to create free thinkers. Halfway through the movie it appears that Dead Poets Society will be the story of one man spreading a love of beauty to a whole school.

The movie does not give us this happy ending, however. One student, Neil Perry, is inspired to defy his father’s wishes and pursue his interest in acting. Neil’s father responds by arranging for Neil to be sent to a military academy. Before this can happen, however, Neil kills himself, ending the movie on a tragic note. Mr. Keating is blamed for his student’s death and immediately fired.

This ending may leave the audience wondering what went wrong. Mr. Keating’s career at this school began with such promise, but quickly ended in disaster. The easy answer is to blame the oppressive administration and Neil’s overbearing father and view Mr. Keating as an innocent victim. There is some truth to this; the administration and Mr. Perry both handled the situation extremely poorly. There is, however, a serious philosophical flaw in Mr. Keating’s teaching which brought about tragedy when Neil took it to the logical conclusion.

This flaw was present in his first lecture, in which he tells his class to “carpe diem” or “seize the day.” He reminds them that they will all die one day and therefore they should find meaning by passionately pursuing the things they love. This sounds like good advice but the movie shows how such a philosophy collapses under difficult circumstances. Mr. Keating’s students embrace his teaching and, as long as their lives are going well, it enriches their lives by encouraging them to enjoy beautiful things they love. However, the philosophy of carpe diem leaves Neil Perry few options when the thing he loves is taken from him.

The movie shows the problem of loving beauty without an understanding of what makes a thing beautiful. The Christian is able to love beauty because he sees in it a reflection of God’s beauty. Additionally, the Christian knows that he lives in a fallen world and does not expect life to always be beautiful but has faith that one day he will see a world with beauty beyond our imagination. He is therefore able to maintain hope and endure days that present him with nothing worth seizing.

The atheist lover of beauty, however, has no reason for such hope. He looks at the world and can enjoy a moving piece of poetry or a beautiful mountaintop view. He will inevitably be disappointed, however, because these things make promises they cannot keep. These beautiful things tell him that the world is good and life is worth living but they offer no help in confronting the parts of life that are not beautiful. With such a worldview, it is not surprising that Neil Perry despaired and ended the movie on a tragic note.