Robin Williams reciting his “Your Verse” line in the 2014 Apple iPad Air commercial
“But only in their dreams can men be truly free,
‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
I do not believe that John Keating (played by Robin Williams) is a main character in this movie. His character is always romantic, and therefore, he is a static character. (See Romanticism and DPS) Again, let me stress: he is a romantic overall, meaning he was romantic at the start of the movie, and at the end, he is still romantic, regardless of whether all his actions may or may not have been romantic in and of themselves.
Keating’s romanticism was what led to his downfall. When Neil asks him about what the DPS was, he replies that they were romantics – that during the meetings “gods were created, women swooned, and spirits soared.” He also mentions that he wishes to forget those times. Keating apparently took precautions to follow a different path of his younger days by pursuing his career over the woman in London, whose picture still sat on his desk. However, in doing so, teaching became his new passion. In his attempt to teach others what he had learned in life about romanticism and how it needed to be controlled, he watched Neil, Nwanda, and Knox enter into extreme romanticism, and that not only led to their downfall, but his as well.
Make Your Lives Extraordinary
Keating begins his unorthodox teaching methods by showing his students pictures of previous Welton graduates. He says:
“Now I’d like you to step forward over here. They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? … Carpe… hear it? …carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
Each of those people had graduated from Welton and had “made their lives extraordinary.” The
pictures were the “legends” of the school – those who had died, but had contributed a verse that would not be forgotten. Those who had “seized the day” by contributing something special to life and whose memory would not be easily forgotten. Here, Keating explained his core philosophy to his students – to contribute a meaningful verse, so that when it came time for them to die, they would not “discover that [they] had not lived.” He explains that they are all going to die eventually, so it is up to them to make the most of their lives – to seize the day before it is too late. In other words, live now so when you look back upon your life near its end, you won’t regret the choices you made and what you’ve achieved in your lifetime.
O Captain My Captain
Keating tells his students that they should call him “O Captain! My Captain“. This poem is about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and foreshadows Keating’s symbolic death at the end of the movie (his removal from teaching, which is his passion).
I believe this poem is significant in that it shows how one of the greatest leaders died before he could see what difference he actually had made in many people’s lives. Whitman’s poem, itself, is about someone who opened up a new way of thinking, but never lived to see how fruitful it would become. As Lincoln died for what he preached, Keating symbolically “died” a similar death through the process of his being fired from his teaching position at Welton for going against standard teaching methods.
While Whitman himself may have seen Lincoln’s death as futile, history points to numerous cases where great leaders were assassinated for preaching their message to unaccepting people. Many times, those deaths fueled the flames of change as their mission was taken up by followers. In that sense, Keating’s symbolic death was not in vain, as his message continued to live on in Todd.
J. Evans Pritchard
Keating begins another lecture by having the students rip out an introduction by J. Evans Pritchard because he thinks it is an excrement. He says, “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion.” You can’t measure the greatness of poetry by measuring its importance and its perfection in rhyme and meter.
This demonstrates his inability to teach a realistic style which conflicted with his overall romantic outlook on life. By ignoring the contrast between realism and romanticism, his teaching was biased and aided his students in their indulgence into romanticism. From Keating’s students’ perspective, romanticism allowed far more freedom than realism, and once they were confronted with an option of which to embrace, romanticism became the compelling choice. It was the rebel movement away from the strict rules of the school and presented a fresh outlook on life. After all, they had known only of doing well in school so they could get into an ivy league college. Everything revolved around what they should achieve to succeed in life. Romanticism was the way out. It opened up a new way to express themselves and provided the means to break from tradition.
Reason to Live
Keating claims that occupations are noble pursuits to sustain life, but passion is the reason to live, showing his romantic side. This is in direct contrast to what the school teaches. In the initiation ceremony, it is made quite clear that goal of Welton is to prepare students for college – most likely the Ivy League.
Keating’s Main Teachings
“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
“Words and ideas can change the world.”
You must constantly look at things in a different way. “You don’t believe me, come see for yourself. Come on. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way even though it may seem silly, or wrong, you must try.”
There is a definite emphasis on individuality over groupthink. “Now, when you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think. Strive to find your own voice, the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.”
The lesson on individual walking also emphasizes this. The walks are just a way of expressing individuality, showing that although sometimes you have to work together with others, your way of doing things is important, and that the verse you contribute is from only you – nobody else can say it for you.
But he also stresses that sometimes you have to work together to excel. “Sports are a chance for us to make other human beings push us to excel.” Sports are comparable to life because they emphasize how you have to work together with others and consider what others are doing in order to play your part in the game. You, yourself, can excel in the game and make your own performance extraordinary, but you still can’t forget the rest of your teammates, whose performance enhanced yours. What I mean is, you can’t be selfish in a
game – you have to be aware of how your performance affects others, just as in life, although you may have your own style for doing things, you can’t forget that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
He also stresses the importance of passion. He says, “The human race is filled with passion” and also that passion is the reason to stay alive.
From Extra Scene 7 – “Words can never contain as music does, the unsayable grace that cannot be defined. It leaps like light from mind to mind.”
Because of these teachings, Keating’s students idolized him – they made him their “Captain.” (Take note to the song “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” during the game.)
Keating does try to elaborate on his message. The DPS inspired the poets to become romantics who had no leader, no discipline, and no direction other than that of their passions. Keating knew where that would lead them, and once he realized his students were following a similar path, he tried in vain to warn them of the consequences.
For example, when Nwanda pulls his “phone call from God” stunt, Keating makes it very clear that he doesn’t approve. He says, “There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man knows which is called for.” He claims, “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.”
Keating also attempts to clarify his teachings to Neil by encouraging him to talk to his father about his passion for acting. If his father still couldn’t understand, then it wasn’t long until Neil graduated and had the freedom to make decisions on his own.
These acts in themselves are not romantic acts. I think he did this because although he was a romantic, he had learned that discipline and tradition were essential to maintaining a well balanced life. It was the school’s strong academic tradition and discipline that molded Keating into the scholar and teacher he was. I do think Keating tried to be the anti-romantic romanticist that he preached, but at times, his passion clouded his ability to judge the outcome. His flaw in teaching the message was that he only portrayed the good points of following one’s passion and he downplayed the consequences of following one’s passion to extreme until he absolutely had to. For example, in the case of Nwanda’s phone call, while Nwanda may have wished to stand up against authority at that point, getting kicked out of school as the consequence would have been something he would have regretted looking back on his life. With the romantic philosophy the students saw in Keating’s teachings, only the moment mattered.
Keating’s Downfall and Martyrdom
Keating’s downfall begins with Neil. He is blamed for Neil’s disobedience to his father, and when Mr. Perry tells him to stay away from Neil, Keating realizes he is staring directly into the face of the madman at his window. At that moment, he realizes he is about to be persecuted.
In this movie, if one were to designate a martyr or a “Christ-like” figure (as many literary critics do), Keating would be that character.
Webster’s Definition of Martyr:
- “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and
refusing to renounce a religion”
- “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for
the sake of principle”
Definition 1 – Keating voluntarily underwent his own symbolic death (his removal from teaching which meant everything to him) in order to promote his “religion.” Keating’s religion was a bit more complex than Neil’s. Whereas Neil sacrificed everything for his own romantic tendencies, Keating sacrificed everything for the benefit of his students. His message was to find a middle ground between following your emotions and following your own logic. That to truly live was to have a certain control over each. It appears that Keating learned that through experience by the way he talked about the London girl in the picture on his desk and by the warning he gave Nwanda after the “phone call from God” stunt.
Definition 2 – Keating sacrificed the love of his life – teaching to give his students a taste of “living”. This is what distinguished Neil’s death from Keatings – Neil’s was personal while Keating’s was for the sake of his students.
Definition 3 – Keating was a “victim,” or scapegoat is a better term. Keating was the newest teacher at the school, the one with the most unorthodox teaching methods. He was not only the scapegoat of the administrators (for the bad publicity the school was receiving), and the parents (for encouraging students to speak out for what they believed in, and that carried to an extreme lead to Neil’s suicide), but he also fell victim to his own followers. The story draws many parallel to the crucifixion story of Jesus in the bible as the Jewish scribes and Pharisees wanted Jesus dead so they falsely accused him based on his alleged teachings. His followers turned on him as well, as Judas handed him over and Peter and the others fled the garden. Peter then proceeded to acknowledge he was a follower three times.
Todd was the one student Keating managed to “save” with his message. Todd realized he did have a verse to contribute, but he did not need to contribute it by extreme measures. A simple standing on his desk was enough to show that he understood Keating. In that act, Todd becomes the leader as Knox, Pitts and Meeks followed soon after. Cameron, however, refuses to stand at the end. It is probably safe to conclude that Knox followed because this was a romantic act and another way to speak out against tradition. Meeks and Pitts, on the other hand, probably did so because Keating did inspire them (whether they truly understood as Todd did is questionable). Regardless, this act proves that at least one person grasped the message and that Keating’s symbolic death was not in vain.
I believe that was the reason Keating came back to get his things during class, and he was not disappointed in Todd and his other students. He probably did feel responsible in some way for Neil’s death, that he could have warned him or tried harder to “save” him, along with the other complex plethora of emotions a suicide of someone close brings with it. Seeing that some of his students did not blame him and that they understood Keating’s message was genuine probably helped to renew his faith in his teaching methods, thus leading to his rebirth.