To Be Yourself

Ironically, a class film last winter exposed a troubling problem in our educational system.


photo by Lucie Flagg

Classics are a staple in many English curricula, but often, we overlook the deeper meanings, especially when they apply to our daily lives as students.

Lucie Flagg, Staff Writer

“You must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it at all.”

This quote by Welton Academy English teacher John Keating, portrayed by the late Robin Williams, stood out to me back in February as my English class viewed the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. We’d recently finished reading the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, and we had also worked on analyzing several famous American poems, so viewing the film in class was an exciting chance for me to look at literature from a different angle. 

As we grew deeper into the week dedicated to viewing the movie, the theme of Dead Poets Society began to take shape in my mind. In particular, it was hard not to see that the film centers on how unorthodox teaching methods can challenge complacency and conformity in the lives of the youth.

As the film progressed, my thoughts strayed to the curriculum of our English class, and I reflected on the works we had read throughout the year, especially those by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who celebrated individuality. We analyzed their writing in great depth earlier in the year. 

The purpose of viewing the film, of course, was to grow a greater appreciation for such literature, but I couldn’t help but think that the plan was backfiring.

Following the movie, we were assigned a formulaic paragraph, analyzing certain points in Dead Poets Society. To be blunt — I was indignant. We’d just spent an entire week viewing a film about nonconformity and individuality but now were told to hunker down and crank out the infamous SEXEXEXI (topic sentence-example-explanation-example-explanation-example-explanation-insight) paragraph.

We were doing exactly what Dead Poets Society implored us not to.

Had the point of the film been lost on us?  We were doing exactly what Dead Poets Society implored us not to. Mr. Keating would have had been outraged, and so too would Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and the legion of other writers who challenged the status quo.

Interestingly, many of the authors we study in English class struggled to conform with the educational system in their own time. J.D. Salinger failed classes and dropped out of college before writing The Catcher in the Rye. Whitman dropped out of school when he was only 11 years old. Emerson and Thoreau were both successful students, but in their adult lives they could no longer keep up the act. Emerson’s controversial writings led to his being banned from Harvard, and Thoreau was unable to keep a steady job before turning to writing.

Of course, the educational system must set standards for curricula, but individual teachers can still take charge of their own teaching styles. When we accept rigidity and fall back on the way instruction has always been done, we risk developing a new generation of conformists, deaf to the call of their own free thinker’s spirit.

My own experience has been tellings. I’ve learned the most about myself and my strengths in classes with teachers who take to unorthodox methods to inspire their students. I doubt I’m alone. 

And I don’t mean this article as a takedown of one particular class. Thoughtless conformity infects our schooling across the grade levels.

When we follow the required formats in our classes, we’re rewarded with good grades — a hard temptation to deny. But as Dead Poets Society revealed to me, we often sacrifice what is most important, our individuality.

Writing, in particular, can be liberating. For many of us, it is how we can best express our individuality, how we can, in John Keating’s words, “contribute a verse” to the powerful play that is our lives.

I don’t doubt that structured composition will be assigned to us in college. Its usefulness is not lost on me. But there is a time for such assignments, and it’s certainly not following a film that urges us not to lose sight of far more consequential matters. 

For me, it has gotten to the point where each time I’m assigned a structured paragraph, the passion that I have for writing slowly diminishes. When a prescribed format is the intended outcome, we must muffle our creativity and follow orders. It would be naive to expect enthusiasm, unless of course it’s only the grade we’re after.

I hope for a day when more of the writing we do in school is rewarded for creativity. Until then, I’ll take stock in one of the many profound lessons from Mr. Keating’s class: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”