Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson and "The American Scholar"

Emerson uses Transcendentalist and romantic views to get his points across by explaining a true American scholar's relationship to education. Here are a few of my key points he makes that flesh out this vision:

• The individual has two states of mind- "the divided" or "degenerate state", where we do not follow our inner selves but simply become an occupation or monotonous action; and the "right state" where we elevate the self to "Man"

• "The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food... sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm" ("The American Scholar") To gain this higher state of mind, the modern scholar rejects past thinking and think for him or herself, becoming "Man Thinking" rather than "a mere thinker.”or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking"

• The "American Scholar" has an obligation, as "Man Thinking" within this "One Man" concept, to see the world clearly, not severely influenced by traditional/historical views, and to broaden his understanding of the world from fresh eyes, to "defer never to the popular cry."

o The scholar's education consists of three pursuits.

1. Investigate and understand nature, which includes the scholar's own mind and person.

2. Take action -- interact with the world; do not become the recluse thinker commenting from afar.

 3. The scholar's duty or "office" is to "cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances."
     Just some thoughts on the state of education today. Does "No Child left behind" encourage this type of thought? I fear that in a short time we may be paying the price for "cookie cutter" education and uninspired teaching. Just saying.

Big Ragu Thinks about "Dead Poets Society."

In the motion picture “Dead Poets Society,” starring Robin Williams there is presented an interesting yet unrealistic view of teaching method and style. Williams’ character, Mr. Keating possesses some of the qualities of a good teacher, but far more that are not in harmony with modern pedagogical thought. We must be aware however, that his method of “teaching” is his undoing and results indirectly in the suicide of a student. In real life this method of teaching could only be used as an introduction to a teaching unit rather than a daily diet of non- conformity. This style should be seen as a disruption of any school system public or private. Some of the good approaches used by Keating could also serve as a learning experience for new teachers. The response of the students to Mr. Keating’s style and method are predictable and very realistic. Students react favorably to individual thought and the idea of a “renegade teacher.”

Mr. Keating encourages non-conformist behavior and recklessness in his approach to classroom control and teaching methodology. The idea that only through non-conformity and “Carpe Diem,” are able to discover themselves and the classroom materials is ineffective in the real world. Hollywood’s portrayal of the “good teacher” is often rooted in what we as adults wished our teachers in high school and college could have been. Keating encourages his students to act disrespectfully and make immature decisions. Why should he be surprised when in the course of the film when one of them actually does an act of vandalism? Does he really believe that a person of this age with limited reasoning capabilities could discern such an act?

These images in the film are stereotyped, but there are some good things that Keating does. The good thing about Keating's classroom technique is the way he sees through his students defenses and helps them to learn by breaking down barriers. In real life what would make him a valuable teacher. But Keating's ideas represent something very much like “The "American Scholar" and Emersonian thought. These ideas fit the teaching style of Mr. Keating. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, “The scholar's education consists of three pursuits. Investigate and understand nature, which includes the scholar's own mind and person. Take action -- interact with the world; do not become the recluse thinker commenting from afar. The scholar's duty or "office" is to "cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances” . The individualism by which Keating treats his students is a good trait for a new educator to develop. His concern for the quiet students gets the quickly involved.

Among all of the good and the bad the fact that cannot be changed is that a student committed suicide as a result of inspiration from Mr. Keating. We are jolted out of romantic thought and remember reality and its consequences.

I taught vocational school for fifteen years in a medical, allied health program and tried to incorporate naively, some of the methods employed by John Keating in “Dead Poets Society.” I discovered that standing on desks can get you sued, if someone falls. I found out that if you manipulate a cookie cutter curriculum, it could get a teacher fired from a vocational school. I discovered that if you are the favorite teacher because of unorthodox methods, your colleagues might dislike you for it. I uncovered the fact that students may take advantage of a teacher with different teaching methods and actually not learn the material and have fun doing so.

The film portrays the student’s response to their new teacher as helping to breathe new life into a dying curriculum and teaching methods. They embrace it as a fresh breath of change in their otherwise stuffy school atmosphere. The characters in the film want to improve their lives and follow John Keating’s advice by “seizing the day.”

In the motion picture “Dead Poets Society,” starring Robin Williams, his character Mr. Keating possesses both good and poor qualities found in real life teachers.