The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

21
The Great-Teacher Myth

The film Dead Poets Society is now well past its once frontpage status, and it may be possible to look at some of its implications without having to duck live or postal fisticuffs. Hilary Mantel’s review in the Spectator (October 7, 1989), charmingly entitled “Alien Corn,” ended thus: “[Robin Williams’s] dominant, self-conscious presence surely cannot disguise, even from his fans, that the film is platitudinous, overblown and absurd. But enough. Already I hear the postman’s tread.” Perhaps any anti-Mantel admirer of the film would have been mollified by the New Yorker ‘s “In Brief” encomium, which singularly abjured metropolitan skepticism: “The picture draws out the obvious and turns itself into a classic [which] has a gold ribbon attached to it.” These diverse judgments resemble those in the movie house where I saw the film. A fellow academic and I, who at movies are sometimes given to napping or to feeling that the two hours are not well spent, were not only kept awake by Dead Poets Society but put into a bit of a snit by it. The audience, however, behaved quite differently: they all but gave it a standing ovation— an amazing response to a film.

Our women companions come in somewhere between asperity and alleluias. They could listen calmly to the opinionated. In saying my piece, I fell into some familiar terms of dramatic criticism. “Well, they take such a stale line. It’s old-fashioned melodrama gussied up to look like educational criticism. First you’ve got this guy on a white horse charging in to save the place. So you need some set-up black hats to make him look like a hero instead of a moral egoist. Look at what a monstrous, trite, overstuffed setup you get—a school principal that looks like a travesty of Thomas Arnold. The type hasn’t been seen since Dickens. You get a Hitlerish papa who screams orders about his son’s career. These long-dead types in the 1950s! And when the hero sets out to look like an intellectual giant, he takes aim at a textbook passage on poetry that would have seemed dated in

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