Dead Poet’s Society

Last night I watched Dead Poet’s Society, which is a fascinating movie about an English teacher at an all boy’s school and a group of students who are inspired by him. It isn’t a movie for young kids, but it would be a good choice for discussion with teenagers. Themes include: conformity, pressures on students (academic and parental), thinking for oneself, creativity, and poetry. It is not a happy movie, though the ending does shine a dim ray of hope for some of the students. There are moments of beauty and moments where teenage boys push against the great expectations of parents and headmasters in ways that aren’t always healthy.

But I’m not here to convince you to watch or not watch this movie. Rather, I want to delve into some of the themes brought up by this movie because of how they connect to my own experiences. So let this be a spoiler warning: what comes after the break will reveal aspects of the plot and ending; caveat lector.

Having worked in South Korea as a teacher for a school year has provided me with a new perspective on American and South Korean society. Like the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating stands on his desk and admonishes his students to look at what they know from another perspective, my experiences living in another culture prompted me to look at my home culture from a new perspective. And my time here in South Korea has allowed me to look at the culture here differently than I had prior to moving here. Thus, I have acquired a better understanding and appreciation of not just my own culture but the South Korean culture as well. All from deciding to stand on the desk.

This is not to say that I am an expert on either culture, I’m not, or to say that I understand everything about either culture, I don’t. There are aspects of both cultures that I haven’t experienced. But I am still quite capable of observing what goes on around me, connecting things (as Mrs. Dalloway does), and analyzing. And since I don’t want to ramble on too long at a time, I cannot possibly give you the full picture of what I perceive. So today perhaps I show you the shepherd on the hillside, tomorrow the ships, and the day after Icarus drowning unnoticed. Put together you get Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and the parts gain additional meaning from being a part of this particular whole.

The whole that concerns me now, however, is vastly more complex than any painting. For art is moments frozen in time (though not static, for the dialogue between art and its partaker is part of the art). You may have a single moment, say a statue, or many moments, say a novel, but in the end they are all preserved like mammoths recovered out of the ice. What is in the art will not change (with the exception of the decay and degradation due to environmental factors), but what we bring to it will change and will vary between people. And our experience of culture, like our experience of art, does vary based on how we interact with it. But culture, unlike art, can be fleeting. Granted, there are parts of a culture that may not have changed in a rather long time, such as traditions and mores. But there is an ephemeral quality to culture. American culture in 1910 is connected to, but does not correspond exactly with American culture in 1960, which is connected to, but does not correspond exactly with American culture in 2010. So my attempt to portray my interactions with South Korean culture is akin to chasing after the wind.

The aspect of South Korean culture that started me on this circuitous journey ties in with my experiences teaching and, through those experiences, to the movie Dead Poet’s Society. You see, having been on the front lines of the South Korean education system, I learned rather quickly of the pressures students face (student essays also contributed to my knowledge). If students are planning on going to a Korean university, they have a brutal test to take. And since some companies hire only from the most prestigious of universities (and hire for life, from what I’ve been told), the competition to get into one of the SKY universities (an acronym for the top three prestigious Korean universities) is intense. If the students are planning on going to a university outside Korea, then they have a language to learn and other tests to pass. And then there are the 학원 (hagwon), which are private academies for subjects from mathematics to English to guitar. Some of the students I taught would go through the full school day, go to a 학원 for several hours, get home perhaps around 10:00 pm, and then start on their homework.

So when I saw how driven Neil’s parents were in Dead Poet’s Society, I made a connection to my experiences. The fact that education is stressed here in Korea to such a degree is commendable (I wish people cared a bit more about education in the US), but too much pressure can lead to fractures and breaks. This is seen in the movie by Neil’s suicide after his father shuts down yet another of Neil’s choices. In the same way, there have been Korean students who have committed suicide because of the pressure. It is tragic. This is why failure should not be anathema in certain circumstances in American culture as much as in South Korean culture. When taking a class or test, it should be acceptable to fail if you did the best you could in the time that you were given – we can’t be good at everything. Edison failed many times before he came up with an improvement on the incandescent light bulb filament. Successful writers will accumulate rejection slips. It is not if someone fails, but how they fail that we should be more concerned about – do they try again, do they learn from their failure, do they blame others or take responsibility. But to put so much pressure on students that they would seek to end their life, to dream no more, saddens me. The South Korean government is doing the best they can to solve this problem, but only time will tell if the societal and parental pressures ease up.

On the other extreme are stories I’ve heard of South Korean parents who bow to their children’s demands. Supposedly a 7th grader from last year is not returning to the school because he wants to be a pro gamer (I learned this when discussing Dead Poet’s Society last night). I have no issue with people becoming pro gamers. I have enjoyed watching Starcraft 2 matches as part of the live studio audience. People have made professional careers out of sports, so it makes sense to extend it to the games popular with youth today. What I take issue with is the parents allowing their child to drop out of school to do so. While education systems the world over may have their flaws, they do provide the potential for more opportunities and roundedness.

Now the first potential of education, that of more opportunities, probably wouldn’t mean much to someone whose goal is to become a pro gamer or who already has all they need for what they want to do. My paternal great-grandfather, if I remember right, dropped out of school at a young age to help earn money for his family (immigrants from Sicily), but eventually became a rear-admiral in the US Navy and owner of a steamship company. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of university. So the opportunities education can provide aren’t always needed to become successful. However, for many people education is the path that leads them to success or a better standard of living, so I caution against writing off education.

Furthermore, the potential for roundedness that education provides is very important. Being familiar with a particular work of art, knowing when the Normans invaded England, being able to use integrals to find the area under a curve, being able to identify Mali on a map, understanding what is meant by nominative and accusative case, and all the other varied things one might learn at school might not seem entirely practical. Gilbert and Sullivan make a valid point when they have the Major-General sing:

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

There is a danger in not knowing what you need to know for your profession and if your education does not give you what you need to know, you won’t make a very good Major-General, teacher, footballer, accountant, pro gamer, etc. But, if all you know is what is practical, you may not do as well as someone with a more rounded education. The more you know, the more likely it is you are going to be able to make connections and come up with creative solutions. Steve Jobs credited a calligraphy class he sat in on for the way fonts behaved on Macs. Perhaps I will never use integrals ever again in my pursuit of writing, linguistics, and folklore, but if I do end up in a situation where I need to find the area under a curve for some project, I will know how to do it (or at least what to refresh my memory on).

And this brings me back to poor Icarus who, in his unbridled excitement at flying, melted his wings and crashed into the sea. We might be tempted to bolt headlong after some particular goal or dream that we lose sight of where we are. “I’m going to write novels, get published, and make a ton of money,” I might say (were I more naive). Or perhaps you might hear someone say, “I’m going to make a living as a pro gamer” or “I’ll invent something revolutionary and make millions.” The problem comes not from what people want to do, but from the expected payout. Very few writers will make it like J.K. Rowling. Not all pro gamers make enough money to live on through gaming alone. Not all inventions bring a windfall. Sure it is nice to hope that you will be the one for whom the planets align, but to count on it can be dangerous. Because if you get yourself into a situation where you have to make it big and you don’t, then you may plummet into the waves while the world goes on oblivious to your fall.

In other news, Typhoon Bolaven is expected to hit the Korean peninsula within the next two days, so I may have something exciting to report on. Probably a good idea not to go to the beach.

Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip those thoughts of yours!