Mourning Robin Williams and ‘teacher John Keating’


In 1989, Robin Williams played an inspirational boarding school teacher in the film “Dead Poets Society,” a role that earned him an Oscar nomination. (Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images)

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote the following in memory of Robin Williams.

By Diane Ravitch

We have become accustomed in recent years to seeing films in which teachers are shown as lazy, greedy slugs. This fits nicely with the corporate reform narrative that seeks to strip all honor, dignity, and rights from teachers. Teachers don’t deserve those mean-spirited caricatures, nor the treatment they receive from legislatures.

Remembering Robin Williams’ portrayal of English teacher John Keating in “The Dead Poets’ Society” takes us back to another era, a time when the teacher might be seen as a source of wisdom and inspiration, a rebel and a non-conformist. Here is the trailer. Robin Williams represented the teacher as the best that one could hope to be: not just a man who taught language and literature but a man who changed lives.

My favorite scene in the movie occurs when Mr. Keating invites the class to read the introduction to the poetry anthology. The introduction describes a mathematical formula for judging the worth of a poem. Mr. Keating tells his students to “tear out the entire introduction! Rip! Tear! Rip!”

Now as I read about the econometricians who have developed algorithms to determine who are the best and the worst teachers, I will think of Mr. Keating–Robin Williams– telling his students “Rip!” Live life to the fullest! Dare to be yourself!

He was–or he acted–the teacher of our dreams, the one who inspired us to be our own best selves, to defy authority when it is wrong, and to live lives of possibility, not lives weighted down by the routine. Now as I see the purveyors of Big Data descending upon students, teachers, principals, and superintendents alike, ready to label them, rank them, crunch their numbers and their souls, I will think of Robin Williams as the irreverent Mr. Keating. I know what he would have done with those forms and spreadsheets. “Rip!”

These images remain 25 years after seeing “The Dead Poets’ Society” because Robin Williams was that teacher. Not just in one film but in dozens of films.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 12