On Teaching

Why Mr. Keeting is Responsible for Neil's Death

First, press play.

Mr. Keating has inspired teachers for generations, and probably always will. Whether it be his embodiment of Carpe Diem, standing on his desk to help his students "see things from a different point of view," or having his students march in court yards to stress the dangers of conformity, Mr. Keating was a master at inspiring minds and challenging the status quo. His boys learned to “think for {themselves} again, to suck the marrow out of life, and to express their own unique voice. Mr. Keating was a powerful leader, and one worth emulating. However, he is also the quintessential example of just how dangerous our words and ideas can be.

The opening scenes of Dead Poets Society are crucial to understanding the purpose and the pitfall of Mr. Keating. We are introduced to Welton Academy, one of the best preparatory schools in the United States, by witnessing the first day of school: the light of knowledge, Weltons’ four pillars (Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence), and the sense of overbearing and high-achieving parents. Especially for two of the main characters and roommates, Todd Anderson and Neil Perry. 

Todd is following in the footsteps of his older brother, the valedictorian and merit scholar, while Neil, an only child, is trying to live up to his parent’s expectations of becoming a doctor. Throughout the movie, these two boys wrestle with their relationships with their parents, Todd dealing with his parent’s absence (sending him the same desk set for the second year in a row), and Neil with his father’s overbearing presence (forcing Todd to quit the school annual because he has “decided {Neil} is taking too many extracurriculars”). They are the same different of one another. 

Then comes Keating.  

Mr. Keating also “survived Welton” and is therefore all too familiar with the difficulties and dangers of its restraints. So instead of adapting to its continued and current culture, he challenges Welton, its traditions, and its purpose, and the boys suck it up completely. For them, a starving group of young boys who are eager to live life independently and to the fullest, Mr. Keating’s words and ideas are the marrow of life. Which is often the hope and desire of every aspiring leader. 

Mr. Keating knows his audience. He knows their culture, what they need, and where he wants them to go. In this, Mr. Keating is a good leader. But he also has the personality and ability to get his eager yet often shy followers to go where he needs them to go. He encourages the boys to bring back the Dead Poets Society, inspires Knox Overstreet to woo and win over Chris Noel, and, in one of the most iconic scenes from the move, he breaks Todd Anderson from his restrictive shell. Mr. Keating does this because he, after weeks and weeks of teaching and investing, has earned the boys’ trust as a friend, as an educator, and as a philosopher. In this, Mr. Keating is a great leader, and so his influence and impact continue to grow. 

At the beginning, in one of his first classes, Mr. Keating has his boys rip out the introduction of their textbook, Understanding Poetry. “Be gone Mr. J. Evan Pritchard!” he yells, encouraging them to break through the bonds that bind their minds and actions, “I want nothing left of it.” Then, as he retreats to his office to grab a trash bin, the Latin teacher, Mr. McCallister, happens to walk by, misinterpret the chaos, and barges in. When Mr. Keating returns, they engage briefly, then depart. Later, at lunch, they discuss the minds of young men and the purpose of education. Shortly after, and throughout the movie, the two become friends, talking over tea and engaging in slight moments of friendship. Near the end, Mr. McCallister is seen waving goodbye from the window, an indication that he will miss his friend and, although not always in agreement, has grown to respect Mr. Keating and his views. A mark of any good leader.  

Mr. Keating also shows the breadth and depth of his influence over the boys when he rebukes Charlie Dalton for his “lame stunt” he pulled with the telephone call that had God calling, asking Welton to allow girls into the school. “I thought you’d like that,” Charlie argues, confused at Keating’s rebuke, “"There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for." Charlie not only hears these words, he understands and applies them. As Mr. Keating leaves, Charlie puts away his drum and stops telling his story, because he knows it no longer matters. Living life of passion does not mean “chocking on the bone.” In this, Mr. Keating, yet again, demonstrates his leadership in that he not only inspires, he corrects and directs. He isn’t afraid to rebuke his boys, and instead of hammering them for their mistakes, he uses their mistakes for teachable moments, which only builds and strengths the bond of trust between him and them.  

Then, at the height of his teaching, when the boys seem to be soaring, when Neil is staring in the play, when Knox has finally won over his girl, and after Todd has inspired every English teacher and want-to-be-poet with his sudden recital of “The Sweaty-toothed Madman,” all hell breaks loose. Neil is suddenly whisked away by his father who spits at Keating, “You stay away from my son.” Soon after, Todd is shaken awake in the middle of the night and told through soft whispers, “Neil’s dead”, and Mr. Keating is to blame. 

“You guys didn’t really think he could avoid responsibility, did you?” Cameron says to the boys while they hide in the attic storage.” 

“Mr. Keating responsible for Neil, is that what they’re saying?” Charlie asks. 

“Who else do you think, dumbass?” Cameron shouts, “Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn’t he?” And Todd won’t stand it. 

“That is not true, Cameron, and you know that,” he says, holding back tears, “He didn’t put us up to anything, Neil loved acting!” 

“Believe what you want,” Cameron shoots back, “But I say, let Keating fry.” 

This scene is crucial, for two reasons. One, the choice of characters and the words they use are extremely critical. Cameron has always been portrayed as the one not fully immersed in the teachings and ideas of Keating, so it isn’t a surprise that he sides with the administration. It also is not surprising that he does so with such cruelty, because there needs to be a quick and clean separation. “Let Keating fry,” is heartless and calculated, but it also creates in us, the viewers, a sense of “Us vs Them”, and there’s no way we are them – those who blame Keating for Neil’s death. We are part of the Dead Poets, those who believe in Keating, his teachings, and Carpe Diem, and we believe he is innocent! 

Great leaders, however, do not have the luxury of passing responsibility. Great leaders, at all times, must evaluate the actions and reactions of those they care for and ask, “What role did I play? Where am I responsible?” For Keating, he needs to look no further than his classroom. 

In the most watched and adored scene of the movie, Mr. Keating brings Todd Anderson up to the front of the classroom and helps him create poetry, and it’s magical.  

Todd is terrified, believing “everything inside of him is worthless, and embarrassing,” and therefore refuses to write a poem or speak in front of the class. But Mr. Keating, being the great leader that he is, refuses to let him sit comfortably in his shell. “I think you’re wrong,” he argues, “I think there is something inside of you that is worth a great deal.” Shortly after, he pulls Todd to the front of the class and asks him look at Walt Whitman and describe what you see, "Don't think, answer, go!" Mr. Keating says, "free up your mind, use your imagination, say whatever comes to mind, even if it's total gibberish." And out comes one of the most quoted poems about Walt Whitman ever uttered. 

However, what Mr. Keating fails to supply is context and an anchor for such behavior because, applying that same technique, that same way of thinking and living to other emotions in a very different scenario results in the death of Neil Perry. 

In the final scene of the movie, right before the students climb on their desks, the headmaster is teaching the class. He asks what they've been reading, and Cameron responds with, "Mostly the Romantics."  

"What about the Realists?" the headmaster asks? 

"We skipped over that part," Cameron responds. 

Mr. Keating knows his boys need a break from tradition, that they need to be free thinkers, but what he fails to understand is that he was a graduate of Welton Academy where he was encouraged/required to wrestle with and learn from a variety of minds and ideas, not just the romantics. Mr. Keating had a well-rounded perspective of life and living. However, with his boys, he provided very little balance. He didn’t have them think for themselves, evaluating which philosophies of life were more appropriate, and why. Instead, he only focused on the Romantics, and this, for young and influential minds who are used to strict structure, oppression and tradition, was extremely careless. 

Mr. Keating didn’t kill Neil Perry. Nor is he solely responsible for Neil’s death. He did, however, fail to grasp his influence upon his boys and properly assess their needs and struggles. The boys needed a break from tradition and the ability to think for themselves, just as Mr. Keating believed, but they also needed structure and balance to their rapidly changing hormones and emotions. They needed the freedom to feel and express their emotions, but they also needed to know how to evaluate them, to balance them, and to check them against other, much less ambiguous and fluctuating truths such as principles and ethics. They needed to be taught how to evaluate their emotions, not just embrace them.

In many respects, Mr. Keating was a great leader. He inspired his boys and, for the most part, brought out the best in them. However, he was incomplete. “Don’t think, just answer,” he taught them. But outside confines and safety of his classroom, this way of thinking lead to death.  

Mr. Keating doesn’t deserve to fry, as Cameron suggests, but he does deserve a healthy dose of responsibility for the role he played. “In my class, you will learn to savor words and language,” Mr. Keating encourages his boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” However, placed in the minds of young men who are unable to grasp their severity and consequence, who cannot align and judge them to strict and grounded principles and ethical standards, those words and ideas can also destroy.  

And for that, Mr. Keating is responsible.  

 

Humility: The Why of teaching, leadership, life

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I’m in Missoula this weekend, attending a principal’s conference, enjoying the mountains, and writing papers. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

I’ve written various chapters for a possible book on education but have been struggling with how to tie them all together, “What’s the overall purpose?” I keep asking.

At a recent teacher’s conference, I asked those in my workshop, “Why do kids need an education? Why do they have to go to college?” then they discussed. Their answers weren’t shocking.

But then I asked, “Why does a student need your subject? And why do they need you as their teacher?” They had a more difficult time answering this question.

Later the following night, while watching the sun set behind the Missoula mountains, an to my question, “What is the purpose of my book” surfaced, “To discuss why we teach.” So often, at conference or in literature, we as educators discuss What to teach and How best to teach it, but how often do we consider Why we teach?

I asked the group that question too, “Why do we spend so much time on the What and How and not on the Why?” For an almost awkward long while, they were quiet. Then, a middle-aged lady leaned over and whispered to her friend.

“What was that?” I asked, “Can you say that again?”

“Because it’s easier,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

This weekend’s writing is based almost entirely off the book, Humilitas: The Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. It’s a simple read, but it is also one of the most profound because it hits to the core of why we teach, lead, and live.

Summary: 

The thesis of Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership is that most “influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility” (pg 19). But this wasn’t always so. For many years, men and women would never have considered humility a lost key to life, an honorable character trait, or something worth emulating. It wasn’t until just a few thousand years ago that humility was introduced into the Western world, forever changing the way we think, and the way we lead. 

According to John Dickson, a historian and senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, the ancient Greek and Roman world was built up on an honor/shame culture. In this time, a father would not have been concerned with whether his son was happy (in the modern sense) “or made money or lived morally, but whether the boy would bring honor to the family, especially to his father, and to himself” (pg 86). Honor could come through participating in a military victory, advancing through the ranks of official society, or by inventing/creating something that would greatly benefit the village – where his name and his family’ name could be pointed to and remembered. “In all of these things,” Dickson writes, “the thought was not so much the importance of conquering evildoers, making a difference to civic life or benefiting others; the chief good was the respect and praise that comes through these activities and the way they confirm the merit of the one so honored” (pg 86). Life was about being honored, remembered, and revered. Humility was rarely, if ever, considered virtuous because it was for the lowly, not the honorable. 

Humility towards the gods was appropriate because the gods could kill you. Humility was advisable to emperors too, because they too could kill you. Humility towards an equal or lesser was completely out of the question because “merit demanded honor, thus honor was proof of the merit (pg. 87)”.  

It was in this context that ancient Greeks and Romans thought nothing of praising themselves in public or, better still, getting others to praise them because it was proof of their merit. 

Then, from seemingly nowhere, came the teacher from Nazareth.

“Unfortunately, after two thousand years of Christian history,” Dickson writes, “it is difficult for people in the modern West to think of Jesus of Nazareth in a non-theological way” (pg 101). Historians however, have very little difficulty in laying “out the sources of his life, describ{ing} the methods historians use for testing claims about him, plac{ing} him in the context of Roman and Jewish history and outlin{ing} what most scholars agree are the facts about Jesus’ life, teaching, execution, and immediate impact” (pg 102). And according to historian scholars, Jesus’ immediate impact upon the Western world was introducing humility as a virtue. Because of Jesus, humility is no longer scoffed at or looked down upon, it is a badge of honor and pride and the mark of any great leader.  

Humility is “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself”, it is the “willingness to hold power in service of others” (pg 24). It is therefore impossible to be humble, in the real sense of the word, without a healthy understanding of one’s own worth and abilities (pg 25). Great leaders are not humble because they are sheepish, think lowly of themselves, or because they are “down to earth.” They are humble because when they look in the mirror, what they see is their gifts and talents and resources. They know fully well how good they are, strong they are, or powerful they are. And they must. In order to be humble they must be fully aware of what they have/are, so they can be equally aware on how best to give it away.

“Humility,” Dickson writes, “is more about how I treat others than how I think I think about myself” (pg 25). Although they have a healthy perspective of themselves, it is not their focus.  

Men and women who understand this concept and embrace it as a principle virtue, they become the most influential and inspiring people in our schools, companies, communities, and world. By living and leading through humility, they not only gain the trust and admiration of those they lead, they inspire and encourage everyone around them to live to their fullest and greatest potential, fully embracing their gifts and talents yet deploying them for the good of the community, not just themselves.  

 

Analysis:  

Several years ago, when I first married and was still considering my possible profession, a friend offered me a leadership book, “How to Make Your First Million, By the Age of Thirty,” or something like that. I believe that individual meant well by the gift because I truly do believe that individual wants to help make the world a better place. Sadly, that cannot be said about many leaders in any work force, which is why, sometimes, the greatest leaders refuse to take on leadership responsibilities. Because the stigma of those in leadership is often selfishness and materialism. They become leaders so they can make millions, have more benefits, or gain more power; it’s about them, not others.  

Leaders such as these care deeply about What they do and How they do it because they compliance from their staff; their concern is efficiency, productivity, and numbers. 

“If we're going to say, I'm not a success unless I'm on that best-seller list or this best-seller list, or I get that thing in advance or I have these sorts of ratings,” Seth Godin states, then “you are playing the game of the industrialist,” and therefore missing the point. “The point is,” he concludes, “will someone come up to {you}and say, based on what I learned from you I taught 10 other people to do this, and we made something that mattered” (Godin, 2018). 

The point of leadership is the same, to help others become the best version of themselves so they can, in turn, help 10 other people do the same.  

If, as a leader, the purpose is to be liked, popular, or successful (according to numbers, money, or achievements), then their foundation – their Why – becomes subject to personal gains and losses, not the community’s best interest. And when their personal purpose motive becomes unmoored from the people motive, bad things, scary things, and destructive things begin to happen.  They begin to deploy their resources or use their influence for the good of themselves rather than for the benefit of others. They begin to abuse their authority. 

According to Dickson, a principal, CEO, and president, have structural power that has been handed to them by an organization. They have “the power to hire and fire, set directions, approve budgets and overrule colleagues where there is disagreement” (pg 39). Leaders who wield this power selfishly, who’s aim is to serve and bring honor to themselves and their position, do so because relying on their authority is proof of their status and authority, which in turn creates a culture of fear, mistrust, and survival.  

In contrast, if a leader’s purpose is to help, to honor those they lead, and to employ their resources for the betterment of the community, if a leader sees their position of power not as a right but as a privilege and responsibility to serve rather than be served, they will create a thriving culture of curiosity, trust, and innovation. 

This is why John Dickson’s book is so crucial, because it addresses the Why of leadership and emboldens good leaders to be great leaders. It allows leaders to fully acknowledge who they are and the gifts they’ve been given, to pursue and strengthen those gifts, and to step into positions where those gifts and talents are most needed. Dickson’s redefining of humility gives talented, gifted, yet selfless individuals the push they need to step into spotlight roles because they know, by stepping into a leadership position, their focus will not be themselves, but those they serve. 

Just like Jesus. 

John Dickson, like many non-Christian historians, believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the defining example of humility. And whether or not one believes him to be the savior of the world or not, his example (in relation to humility) is one worth emulating.  

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! 

Christ did not consider his authority as God’s son as something to be used for his own advantage, it was something He needed to give away! His power, his ability to provide eternal life, his authority over death meant He had something nobody else did, and He understood this. He had to in order to properly and fully serve the world. Christ embraced his Godship, his authority, and chose to humble Himself by becoming obedient to death (allowing Himself to die) so that others may live. He didn’t use His kingship to be honored and served (to make millions), but to serve. That is the true definition of leadership.  

It is also the perfect recipe for creating a culture of trust. 

Plato once believed, “that all of us tend to believe in views of people we already trust . . . even a brilliantly argued case from someone we dislike or whose motives we think dubious will fail to carry the same force as the case put forward by someone we regard as transparently good and trustworthy” (pg 42). Leaders who assume leadership positions with a faulty and selfish Why are not trustworthy. They are the exact opposite, which is why they resort to tricks and gimmicks. In contrast, leaders who spend their time and energy thinking about and serving, who care more about the wellbeing of others than themselves are easily trusted. “Leadership is not about popularity,” Dickson writes, “It is about gaining people’s trust and moving them forward” (pg 43). It’s about their advancement, not our own.  

Another outcome of a life lived in humility is that one will “learn, grow, and thrive in a way the proud have no hope of doing” because “people who imagine that they know most of what is important to know are hermetically sealed from learning new things and receiving constructive criticism” (pg 116). This is a radically important concept for a leader. If a leader is not living with true humility, they are unable to learn and grow because in order to do so, they must admit – either privately or publicly – that their skills and gifts and talents are insufficient. And if they’re insufficient, the spotlight will move and shine upon someone else, which could be devastating. However, if a leader is marked by humility, they and their spotlight are already focused elsewhere, leaving them free and open to new thoughts and new ideas, allowing them to grow and learn and better serve those they are leading. “In his battle against early twentieth-century rationalism and self-reliance,” Dickson writes, “G. K. Chesterton argued that human pride is in fact the engine of mediocrity. It fools us into believing that we have ‘arrived’, that we are complete, and that there is little else to learn” (pg 120). Such is the trademark of a selfish leader. 

Being a leader marked by humility does not mean, however, that he or she is soft, easily tossed around, or meek and mild. Nor does it mean being loud and pushy. “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance,” Dickson argues, “the solution to ideological discord is not ‘tolerance’,” he writes, “but an ability to profoundly disagree with others and deeply honor them at the same time” (pg 23). Having strong opinions and deeply held convictions is not a hindrance to humility. In fact, in many cases, it is the mark of it. As long as we are willing and able to use or withhold those convictions for the good of others before ourselves. 

 

Closing

Living a life and leading with humility not only signals security, it fosters a healthy sense of self-worth that is rooted in service rather than achievement, in giving and not taking. The more leaders rely on achievement or popularity for a sense of worth, the more crushing every small failure or simple criticism will seem.  

In contrast, knowing, living, and leading with a purpose beyond myself that is rooted in the principle of humility provides an impenetrable fortress of security and freedom, for leaders as well as for their staff. If a staff understands that their leaders decisions and purpose is to serve and honor them, if they believe that their leader’s hope is for them to succeed, to reach their utmost potential, and to be the very best version of themselves, a community that supports and trusts one another, that grows and learns from another other, and that defends and protects one another will be established. A type of culture where everyone is embracing their gifts and talents and using them for the benefit of the community, not just themselves, because they know and trust their neighbors are doing the same. “When people trust us, they tend to believe what we say, and few are considered more trustworthy than those who choose to use their power for the good of others above themselves” (pg 147). 

A leader marked by humility is also not afraid to admit mistakes because they are not concerned about their perfect shine. They’re fully aware of their faults, and the faults of others, and therefore choose to freely admit their flaws and mistakes because they know it is what’s best for the progress and strength of those they lead. “Mistakes of execution are rarely as damaging to an organization, whether corporate, ecclesiastical or academic, as a refusal to concede mistakes,” Dickson states. If a leader is unwilling to admit his or her mistakes, if they are insecure and unable to fail in front of those they lead, they can never expect their school or community to try new things, make amends for mistakes made, or seek reconciliation from those they’ve offended. The culture will be stale and shallow, with each person operating out of safety and survival rather than curiosity and trust.  “Apologize to those affected,” Dickson argues, “and redress the issue with generosity and haste” (pg 130).  

Leaders want their staff to believe that they are not only competent in their job, they also want their staff to be proud of them as their boss, to brag about them, and to consider them a superstar, like players do who have been coached by some of the greats. “I played under Coach K,” or, “I was one of Coach Ditka's players.” Athletes who talk this way are proud of their journey and the coach that inspired them, because those great coaches understood humility.

Dickson writes, an "inspiring leader must control his ego and throw his energies into maximizing other people’s potential.” But also, they must ensure that “{the players} get the credit” (pg 156). Coaches who brag about their play calling, their clock management, or whatever instantly lose the respect of their players. Great coaches brag about their players, lift them up and celebrate them; they shift the spotlight, fully and completely, on others and their accomplishments, not their own.

The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility. They willingly forgo their status, deploy their resources, or use their influence for the good of others before themselves. They consider others as more important than themselves, and in so doing, they change the world.  

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  If school was like rock climbing