Gen Ed on My Mind

AGLS will invite a series of association officers, members and guests to write short essays on current general education issues and matters of the day. Our aim is to have a new essay every 6 weeks. Past essays will be archived online for a year, then in association offices. Have something on your mind? Contact us at to find out how to share your ponderings.

What Will Your Verse Be?

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, August 21, 2014

What will your verse be?

The recent death of Robin Williams shocked the world. 'Heartbroken' is seen again and again in social media posts, expressed in interviews and undoubtedly felt by millions of fans.

Tributes and retrospectives highlight his varied career--featuring routines from stand up, television shows, movies and Broadway performances. Clips from stand-out performances are being replayed repeatedly in every media outlet.

Each of us likely has a favorite performance. Mine is from Dead Poets Society.

Carpe Diem is what many would consider to be the movie’s message, and an often quoted scene of dialogue. For me, another scene hit home, indirectly changing my path in life.

John Keating (Williams) tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” challenging his students to leave their seats and have the courage to view their familiar classroom from a different perspective--setting them on a path that will impact their lives forever.

I remember how I felt watching the film as a graduate student who was about to step into my first classroom as a teaching assistant. I remember wanting to stand on a desk and be John Keating.

Reflecting on why I choose anthropology as my discipline in part stemmed from wanting to see the world from another perspective. After I had a few years teaching under my belt, I was asked to write a teaching philosophy. As I began to write down what teaching meant and my role as a teaching I came to realize I was standing on John Keating’s desk.

How many of us were inspired by Robin William’s performance in Dead Poets Society to become teachers? To go into the humanities or liberal arts? Browsing through the outpouring of tributes on social media, there is a flood of posts from teachers remembering Robin and how his portrayal of John Keating inspired them to enter education.

As I watch clips of Robin Williams, thinking how his performance influenced me, what resonates with me now is the scene of Keating telling the boys what his classroom philosophy is by explaining why poetry is important to these future doctors, lawyers, business mavens and politicians.

In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I can see that look in Mr. Pitt's eyes that 19th-century literature has nothing to do with going to business school and 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 secret for you. 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. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are 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. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

How fascinating to look back and realize how the movie impacted me. Here I am now, as the executive director of an association championing the need to keep in education what makes us human!

Of course, the film is complex and nuanced along many themes. While perhaps narrow in scope, the film can be viewed as a tribute to the profession at its best...teaching not merely of a subject but for the person as well. Isn’t that what we would all like to have -- a lifelong impact on students' lives?

We want our students to be changed for inspire our students to embrace all of life and be changed for life from all the perspectives they encounter while at university. Not only to give them the foundations of a careers but of a life. We want to inspire them so their words, ideas and passions change the world.

John Keating was a maverick whose own passion and skill was focused on teaching his students to not settle for simply becoming a job but to become fully human. That poetry is what makes life worth living. Standing on the desk top would give them the world, as they would be able to see options from there they never would have thought possible.

I think Mr. Keating would agree his philosophy should be extended beyond poetry to all of the arts, humanities and liberal arts. I would even dare to say that Mr. Keating might be a member of AGLS.

Keating asks the boys, what will your verse be?  As we begin a new semester, walking into a classroom of new faces or meeting with a student for the first time, we can affirm what our verse will be. How will I inspire the student before me to appreciate and value how poetry makes us human? Will I be able to convince the student to climb onto the desk so they begin to understand why general education and liberal studies courses will give them wings to soar in whatever job they pursue?

O Captain, My Captain, your fearful trip is done. Your verse has been written. I hope you know how it has and will forever impact those that read it.

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