The Original Disruptor: A Cautionary Reflection on DEAD POETS SOCIETY

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The tragic death of Robin Williams has moved us all, no matter what our special memories of his oeuvre might be: Mork, Adrian Cronauer, Peter Pan, or even John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt in one of my favorite films, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.

For many teachers, of course, Williams’s iconic role was the iconoclastic Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. Here is the teacher many of us Baby Boomers wanted to be, a no-bullshit smart-ass who cut to the chase in his dealings with students, parents, and administrators and who seemed to prevail (until vocational martyrdom) in the face of hidebound tradition and the disapproval of his peers. Who among us has not stood upon at least a chair, if not a desk, at some early point in our careers, calling down the fire and brimstone of Truth upon the platitudes and perceived acquiescence of the past, trying to bring our students to enlightenment with shock and awe?

I find myself wondering whether the fascination of many educators (including yours truly) with “disruptive innovation” wasn’t first inspired by Williams’s bravura performance. Even the film’s title tweaks the nose of the canon of “dead white males” that we eagerly pushed aside to make way for new voices representing previously suppressed experiences and perspectives.

I suspect that every teacher, deep down, wants to represent the future, wants to be the teacher who gets through to his or students as no one has before, who brings them to that enlightenment. Those of us who have brought new and occasionally unusual methods into our practice—even methods from handed down from the halls of academe (places like Project Zero, its very name forged on the anvil of disruptive innovation: “starting from zero”)—have felt ourselves to be iconoclasts, and all too often administrators, colleagues, parents, and sometimes even students have happily played the role of resisting traditionalists, fueling our narrative of heroic (or at least admirably necessary) disruption. And if Williams as John Keating wasn’t our sole inspiration, we can look to earlier models like Glenn Ford’s character in The Blackboard Jungle and Sidney Poitier’s in To Sir, With Love. We learned early that effective teaching requires special insights and a willingness to push students out of their comfort zones.

The question is whether moving students our of their comfort zones is sometimes just a way of pulling them into ours. As any elementary or middle school teacher knows, disruptors can also be displaying a need for attention, and most of us are aware that too much charisma, too much clever poking at student complacency, can sometimes be a dangerous quality in a teacher, disruption feeding personal need that sometimes crosses boundaries not of tradition but of personal trust.

My father, for the record, found Dead Poets Society profoundly disturbing, not because of Mr. Keating’s courageous stand against apathy but because in Keating’s methods, in his obvious needs, my father saw danger. Keating transformed his many of his students’ perspectives, yes, but the price was high, paid in a student’s life, a fact we have tended to forget as we celebrate the extraordinary scenes like “food for worms” and “O Captain”. My father refused to see Keating as a hero, nor even an antihero.

But as we continue our love affair with disruptive innovation, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what lies behind some of our own urges to make change happen, to upset the apple cart. We believe we are right, believe we are onto something important, and from Noah to Jesus in the Temple to John Keating we have worthy models of what it means to march proudly and loudly to the beat of one’s own drummer in the face of implacable opposition.

Sometimes, though, there’s an element of melodrama to the narrative we create as we push new, unfamiliar, and sometimes unpopular educational ideas forward, and we have to remember that we cannot be the stars of some kind of “disruption theater.” To push a metaphor, we may fancy ourselves to be the captains of the educational ship, secretly even want to be “my captain” to our students, but they are neither the passengers nor the cargo but in fact the shipowners and navigators. Our job is to serve students’ needs and to let these needs be master of our fates, not the other way around.

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1 Comment
  1. Williams did create an image of teaching that I believe for many of us from the proverbial 60″s, naively presented an explosive performance of how our generation would “revolutionize” the classroom. If I have learned anything during my years of teaching it is that however much I might admire or be amused by the charisma or genius of another educators (or even in Williams’s presentation of a teacher) the best teachers I have known have quietly sometimes over many years interwoven their teaching methods with an extension of their personality. Every “great” teacher I have known was a great personality that infused his passion and knowledge for his subjects and his desire to communicate and touch his students with a personal “style” as recognizable to at least other teachers as Van Gogh’s brushstrokes are to another artist. Your father’s criticism of William’s portrayal of a teacher was well founded in many years in the classroom. He had lived his life in a classroom and knew the difference between Hollywood and South Wales. From my earliest days as a teacher I admired your father as well as number of our father’s generation of teachers, I listened intently whenever I thought I could hear something about their experiences and their successes, but I also knew that it would be impossible to imitate what they did. However much we may admire our chosen mentors, we must all start on our path alone. It is not an easy thing to leave the campfire of another’s success, gather my own wood, enter my own classroom and just hope that eventually at least a few will recognize my campfire and come to learn what I have to give. It just begins with standing on tables. After that we usually leave Hollywood behind. I am now the white-haired man on the faculty with more stories than time to tell. Your father, I, and so many others I have known have poured out our lives for the benefit of our students, sometimes in a furious blast of the dramatic, sometimes in a quiet caring moment where almost nothing is said but everything is resolved. Have we changed lives for the better, I do not believe any teacher can really answer that for himself, but I can speak as a witness to your father. He certainly did, and I have tried my best to walk along side his footprints. Hollywood isn’t really prepared to tell this type of story, but if even a few young people were inspired to become good teachers after watching Robin Williams performance well then I guess Hollywood is doing its job. I am not sure whether Hollywood ever really gets it right (They missed plenty of marks in Jurassic Park), but I do know your father did, and I hope that we can continue in that tradition in South Wales.

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