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So, Robin Williams died on Monday (8/11/2014).

robin williams

He had a long history of battling depression (as well as difficulties with substance abuse). Ultimately, he committed suicide. Initially, I was sad but not extremely sad; he was a celebrity I’d never met. But then I began to see all the different tributes and comments people made about him. And I began to think about how he was a star in many of my favorite movies, especially ones from my childhood – Jumanji, Flubber, Aladdin, Patch Adams (a movie that made me want to become a doctor – turns out I’m not one yet [and likely won’t ever be]), and Good Will Hunting to name a few. It slowly dawned on me over the course of the evening that I was actually very sad – sorry, morose – about his death. Sad enough to shed a few tears as I began to read about all the times he had made someone laugh or think or feel a little bit better, how he was the kindest, nicest, most sincere man people had the honor to meet or work with. How he gave people hope. (For a particularly good article on this, pop over to Dan Fincke’s blog and read this).

I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time today. It had been on my list for a while but I just never got around to viewing it. Then I kept seeing all these images with quotes from it and decided it was about time. I really enjoyed it – especially the cheesy, late 80’s feel it had at times. It reminded me of my love for the written word (admittedly, I’ve never been a huge poetry fan but I do have a good appreciation for a well-written sentence) and that once upon a time, I aspired to be a writer (maybe I should retitle this blog “Exploring My Past Career Paths”). Alas, I doubt I’ll ever be able to capture emotion or the human condition as well as many famous writers, or even as well as I’d like to. Anyways, I’ve digressed. For those of you who don’t know, the movie is set in the late 1950s at some kind of prep school for boys. Robin Williams is a new English teacher at the school and does his best to inspire his students to be free-thinking young men, to help them find their own voices. He discards the overly objective, markedly boring introduction to their poetry books and how to analyze poetry in favor of a more personal, awe-inspiring approach. One that emphasizes finding the hope, wonder, and/or strength in the writer’s words rather than seeking some abstract value of the poetry’s greatness and impact. The hope part – hope for a fulfilling life doing what you want, rather than what others want for you – seems to resonate particularly with one of the main characters, a young Robert Sean Leonard (who I will [unfortunately?] always associate with his character of James Wilson on House).

I think the movie has been out long enough that I can safely spoil it without fear of repercussions. Wilson’s [Leonard’s] character has a passion for acting but his father (Foreman’s father from That 70’s Show) threatens to put his foot up his son’s ass anytime he tries to stray from the path of becoming a for-serials doctorman. Eventually, the conflict comes to a head and Old-Man Foreman says he’s removing Wilson [Leonard] from the school and sending him to military school. Wilson [Leonard] decides to kill himself. Robin Williams character essentially gets blamed for inciting the misbehavior/tom-foolery/hijincks of the Dead Poets Society that eventually lead Wilson [Leonard] to his suicide. But the movie ends on a high note, showing the still living members/students standing on desks and saying “Oh Captain, my Captain” in a show of solidarity with Robin Williams and defiance against the wrinkly old asshole of a dean? principal? headmaster? that takes over the English class after they fire Williams.

Despite the sad ending for Wilson [Leonard], the movie did well, as many Robin Williams movies do, at instilling an overall feeling and sense of hope. Which brings me to the point of this post: creating/building/instilling hope as a goal of education. Hope, as defined by much of the education literature, is the combination of the drive to achieve goals and the ability to visualize pathways towards those goals (the will and the way). More broadly, it is often taken to mean a feeling that what is desired is what will be achieved (or will be the outcome) but I find the former definition to be more useful, as it revolves less around wishful thinking and more around individual self-efficacy. A hopeful individual is one who feels a sense of purpose and a sense of I-can-do-this or I-can-make-a-difference.There is a movement among some circles of educators and schools to foster the development of hope in students. Hope has been shown to be a solid predictor of GPA, graduation rates, and overall feeling of success and accomplishment by those that measure high on various scales of hopefulness (Snyder et. al, Journal of Ed. Psych 2002).

Robin Williams character hits on how poetry can contribute to this sense of hope in the following clip (text following for those of you that don’t want to watch the video)

“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?”

This scene seems to be asking “what good is poetry” to a bunch of students that have had it instilled in them that poetry is a useless pursuit but I think it hints at a larger question: what is the purpose of life? He goes on to quote Whitman to answer these questions – we read and write poetry because as human beings we need something to be passionate about; we exist to strive towards something greater than ourselves, to contribute a verse to the play of life. This is what hope is – a drive to participate and the knowledge that we can make a difference. Too often the education system leaves students feeling hopeless. Their education is too impersonal, too abstract, feels like busy work or just another chore they have to do.

Students are often left asking “why should I learn this? why do I need to do this?” They’re feeling like their education is out of their control. They can’t visualize how what they’re learning is supposed to help them achieve future goals; the way is not apparent. You may be familiar with the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” but that is markedly untrue for a majority of the population. Some people may be able to get by with just a drive to succeed. Many people(students included), however, are demoralized by a lack of the way or are unable to focus the will when the way isn’t apparent. And we need to do a better job of helping them find the way. Teachers can and should and need to be there to help guide them at the start, to inspire them, to help them feel hopeful and passionate. But our grindstone, faceless, No Child Left Behind education system doesn’t serve them in this endeavor. We can start by giving students more autonomy in their education and by getting rid of our ridiculous sets of content standards. Not every student needs to have the process of cell division memorized or how to do long division with polynomials but they do need to understand the nature of science and how to problem solve. These skills can be taught in more meaningful ways.

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