Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chesterton, the Dead Poet

The average man, even the modern man, has a great deal to teach us. But the nuisance is that he won't teach it; he will only repeat what he has been taught. We have almost to torture him till he says what he does think, just as men once tortured a heretic till he said what he did think.
- G.K. Chesterton, Illistrated London News, Mar 6, 1909.

A hundred years ago he said that. Almost prophetic. Couldn't be more true today. It immediately made me think of the "barbaric yawp" scene from Dead Poet's Society, which, whether you've seen it before or not, I'm sure you'll want to see today:

A teacher might be sued nowadays for trying a stunt like that. I had some students in the college classes I've taught who could have used it, but I was unable to coax it out of them by my wordsmithing, or even by my mere passion for the subject. Not sure every situation calls for what Mr. Keating did for Mr. Anderson. But we've all known the need for someone to do that to us, in one way or another, or at one time or another. Or is it just me?

This film did it to me, actually. I remember choking back tears as it ripped apart my apathetic and fearful high school soul. But there was no overnight coming of age. Names like Abby and Jesse come to mind of people who, not as violently, but gradually like a slow drip, "tortured" my yawp out of me by their unsolicited but relentless authentic engagement.

Their investment in me brought me out of my shell; made me a contributing part of my community; made me believe that my thoughts, in their humble way, were worthwhile adding to the discussion too. I am forever indebted to those guys, and others.

What about you? Have you, like me, needed to be tortured out of the tip-toeing, lethargic, lemming race of our modern media age? Who or what have been the Mr. Keatings to your Mr. Anderson?


Trev said...

Just watched this movie for the first time a few months ago. Can't believe what I was missing! I love the scene near the end when all the boys stand up on their desks, quite moving.

What's the significance of your pic in the top right?

jon said...

see comments on last post

Tony Tanti said...

great scene, great movie, thanks for bringing that lesson back to my attention.

Jinny and Colin said...

Jon, I loved this movie when I was in high school too, and not because Ethan Hawke was in it. It stirred my soul and helped me believe in myself (something I was lacking). I'd honestly have to say that Colin has been my Mr. Keating. He challenges me and makes me a better person.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

For me when I think back to old teachers I usually end up realizing they were unbearable and pretentious, and all their personal prodding for us to expand our minds was a subtle way of getting their students to say, "wow, Mr/Mrs_____ is so cool/smart/whatever." The teaching was more for them than for us. We were just their means of acquiring admiration.

That's my cynical side.

But I can think back to a few moments of great teaching, when there was a genuine humility, and I was really pushed to think outside of what I'd known.

My favourite teachers are mostly dead white guys who I never met.

Tony Tanti said...

Wow Matt, that's a lot more cynical than I'd expect from you.

I've had bad teachers in my life too but not the majority of them thankfully.

My guess is that most of your teachers probably didn't care whether you thought they were cool/smart but were interested in teaching you something. In my opinion it's the student who is far more often pretentious.

My Mr. Keating was Mike Wiebe.

jon said...

i've heard stories of teachers trying stunts to get the students on their side, teachers trying to pull a "keating". to me if it is a put-on thing it is going to be crap. but the genuine engagement and investment....

i think most teachers are there because they care a lot too, or at least once did. but i think a lot comes down to teacher/student "click", and student attitude or perception.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Tanti said, "it's the student who is far more often pretentious."

Oh yeah. Unquestionably.

My cynicism is borne out of personal experience mostly, I think. I've found myself in moments where I was "teaching" in one way or another and I caught myself enjoying the feeling I was getting from bestowing.

I realized I was in a position of power, and that I was taking pleasure in that. It kinda horrified me. And then I thought back to the faces of the teachers I'd loved, and I recognized in their faces (at least in my memory) a similar pleasure. That scared me.

I have had some great teachers though. Forgive my cynicism.

The best teacher I've had was Eric de Bruyn at CBC in Regina.

jon said...

Matt said: "I caught myself enjoying the feeling I was getting from bestowing. I realized I was in a position of power, and that I was taking pleasure in that. It kinda horrified me."

This hits at something. Certainly there must be a legitimate pleasure to be had in "bestowing"? Certainly the teacher must be allowed to enjoy his/her "craft"? But there is a (horrifying) pleasure in ones power and a (good?) pleasure to be had in the topic, the productive discussion, the sight of light-bulbs going on above student's heads, etc.

I think anyone who has taught or presented knows that simultaneously good and horrifying feeling you refer to Matthew. I cringe at it myself, though I paradoxically seek it. For good reasons or bad do I seek it? And can I be sure when I'm seeing it in others? How do I tell the passion for the subject or the pupil or the discussion from a passion for one's own power or esteem or position? I think we get a sense of it, and it turns us off, but we aren't always right in our sense.

I stood up awhile back at a preaching conference and asked the main presenter (a famous preacher) about this. Certainly he must know the power in his own rhetorical skill. None of us could deny it. I told him that he had the power over us as an audience that if he wanted to he could persuade all 400of us in the crowd down to the kitchen to sing happy birthday to the cook, even if it wasn't the cook's birthday. I told him that many in my generation are suspicious of such wielded power, that such power is a dangerous thing, even when used for good intentions. I asked if he would ever consider "dialing down" his rhetoric for the sake of something greater, something more genuine, something which engaged people less potentially manipulatively? (I was not this articulate in my question, but that was the jist).

He said he couldn't imagine "dialing it down" when he believed so passionately in the cause for which he spoke. If his best efforts with his talents won people over, he was gonna keep doing his best. It was his conviction. He was passionate about it. Why dial it down?

This didn't sit well with me. But I was convinced that for him it was not necessarily the thrill of pride so much as the passion for the topic. Enjoyment of bestowing, you might say. But there is a danger in it.

And isn't that the subtext of Dead Poets Society? After all, for all we take from it, the movie is a Tragedy. Mr. Keating wins Mr. Perry over to his ROmanticism for life, sees him careening to a conflict with parents, tries to steer him to deal with it well, but can't keep him from the suicidal edge of that conflict. Mr. Keating's power of persuasion and his passion for the topic (depicted without a hint of pride, thouch certainly it would be there) do great damage, or at least have a big part in the damage. The film ends with us wondering what he (and others) would do different if they had to do it all over.

It is a frightening thing to have that power, even more frightening to enjoy it. It seems for me whenever I get caught up in it as a preacher I get humbled. I hate that, but am deeply thankful for it too.

This is huge for pedagogy (the philosophy of teaching). At the end of the day our passion has to be for our topic, we must be allowed to enjoy our trade, and even a productive discussion, and yet we need a deeper motive, a driving motive that grounds us in humble perspective and causes us to do all to benefit the other. I think when this is in place we can have a cautious, but pure, enjoyment of the teaching practice.

Tanti and Matthew you triggered a real ramble there! Any thoughts from anyone?