Although the genesis and perhaps lion’s share of credit for the power in this inspiring scene from “Dead Poets Society” belongs with screenwriter Tom Schulman, it is the understated yet determined passion in Robin Williams’s delivery that carries the power and meaning of the words through the mind and plants it in the heart and spirit of the viewer. In this scene, if even for a moment, the window of wonder of many closed minds was opened to the intangible universe that is art, poetry, and thinking.
In my studies and life experiences I believe they could easily change the subject from poetry, to theology, literature, history, politics, sociology or any other thought and reflection based discipline. The fact that persons such as J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. could dare to propose a standardized assessment of poetry or determine the worth of a poem is, as completely demonstrated by Williams’s Mr. Keating, beyond imagination. Such an attempt to standardize something as immeasurable as poetry is a veiled attempt to control perception and thereby limit thought. The veil of such measure is removed later in the film when the school’s headmaster tells the young impassioned teacher to constrain free thinking on the part of the students, for to do otherwise is dangerous.
Unfortunately, some sixty years from the film’s setting, we seem to be pasting Mr. Prichard’s introduction back into the text that is society. There is a reemergence of fear, fear of allowing people the freedom to think and make decisions which is fostering a growing command of conformity in how to think, live and be. More and more in groups and greater segments of society, there is one way to believe if one is faithful, one way to vote if one is patriotic, and one group to associate with if one is loyal to one’s faith, country, state or civic group. Increasingly if one thinks outside social lines, thinks beyond the accepted standards of what is determined to be correct, then one is wrong and, at best, tagged as suspicious or, at worst, banished from the community or group.
One need look no further than Christ to see the that model of faith, discipleship and spiritual leadership is diversity and freedom to think and apply faithful discernment. Among the Apostles were a zealot, a tax collector, and others that would likely be considered mainstream or regular Joe fishermen. The last Apostle called by Christ after his crucifixion was even a fanatic Pharisee. Each of the Apostles, sent to be and build the body of Christ, had unique perspectives and manners of living faithfully as a disciple. As a United Methodist I need look no further than John Wesley who taught and preached that one is to read and study scripture, pray, and think for one’s self in gathering discernment as one journeys the sanctification path toward perfection.
Certainly in the midst of diverse and independent thinking there will be ideas and beliefs that are incorrect or unwarranted by scripture and social mores. Not every idea, thought or practice is correct or appropriate. Such missteps are where the community comes in to offer guidance in correcting false or incorrect assumptions or acumen. Rather than limiting thoughtful exploration of ideas and beliefs, the community is to offer correction through loving teaching and example when errors of perception and discernment are made.
Increasingly, communities, churches, denominations, political or social groups follow the opposite order and limit thought and expression first. Labeling and banishment of those who think outside guidelines has replaced loving correction of incorrect thought and actions, and increased mistrust of, and skepticism toward, the idea of community. While such a reversed order is more streamlined and safer because it carries fewer unknowns, it also is more constraining, less relational, and as such less loving; and is a tide that carries away passion and life. As Keating teaches “words and ideas can change the world,” but such ideas as Whitmann writes grow from the voices and verses we each add to the “powerful play” that is life and community. Without the freedom to think and act; without the freedom to receive loving praise, or when necessary gracious correction, passion dies in the lifeless, blank stare inducing recitation of what is deemed correct or great.
So to those who seek to limit freedom to think and explore by mandating conformity, I say “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard!”