Yesterday morning, I had just woken up and was listening to the radio as I was getting ready to start the day, when I heard the bad news. Robin Williams was dead. After the initial shock, I looked it up online and found that sadly it was true. The world had lost a brilliant man who made so many people laugh and cry through his comedy and acting career.
It so happened that this was the day I was to welcome back all faculty from the summer vacation and as is our tradition, we would be gathering together to start the new school year at the International School of Prague. I always enjoy this first gathering with all of our teachers in the same room for the first time – new and returning – because it can be a moment of inspiration and celebration as we look forward to the new year .
The presentation I had planned was to make a connection between a central aspect of our mission: Engaging learners in an authentic global education and the major theme of a new book by the influential educational thinker and senior professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, David Perkins, entitled: Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (2014) . In it, Perkins articulates one of the major challenges schools face today. How to prepare our students for an unknown future? Perkins’ argument is that the traditional curriculum is often filled with topics and knowledge which isn’t likely to matter in the lives our young learners are likely to live. He challenges educators to create a curriculum which addresses the question: “What is worth learning?”
In the book Perkins describes that awkward moment in every teachers’ life, when the student in the back of the class raises his or her hand and asks, “Why to we need to learn this?” And while the teacher might find such a question inconvenient, the truth is that usually the student only wishes to know how a particular topic or unit is relevant to her or his life. Perkins reminds us that a response such as: “It will be on the test” or “…because you need to know it for next year” is insufficient.
So what does all of this have to do with the death of Robin Williams? When I heard the news that morning, I remembered the movie, The Dead Poets Society, in which Williams played an unconventional and inspirational teacher in a very conservative boarding school. In particular, I recalled a scene in which the students embark on a study of poetry. The teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams) listens dutifully as a boy reads bland instructions about how to disect and mechanically annalyze a poem with vertical and horizontal axis points. At some point, Keating interrupts the student and says the following:
“Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.
I mean, how can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it. Now I want you to rip out that page.
Go on, rip out the entire page. You heard me, rip it out. Rip it out! Go on, rip it out.
Leave nothing of it. Rip it out. Rip! Begone J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. Rip, shred, tear. Rip it out. I want to hear nothing but ripping of Mr. Pritchard.
It’s not the bible, you’re not going to go to hell for this. Go on, make a clean tear, I want nothing left of it.
No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I see that look in Mr. Pitt’s eye, like nineteenth century literature has nothing to do with going to business school or medical school. Right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins, you may agree with him, thinking “Yes, we should simply study our Mr. Pritchard and learn our rhyme and meter and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions.” I have a little secret for ya. Huddle up. Huddle up!
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.
And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: “O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Finally, looking directly at one of his students Keating (Williams) says:
Together as a faculty we watched this clip from the movie. How moving and true are John Keating’s words to his students. As we work in this noble profession of education, we must continually challenge ourselves to make our time in school meaningful, our teaching relevant and what we teach worth learning.
We will miss the joy and laughter that Robin Williams brought to the world. Surely his book of verse is full.
What will your verse be?