How Morgan Freeman and Robin Williams Derailed America’s Schools

It’s impossible to be a serious teacher AND a cultural performer

Robin Williams stands on his desk in the film Dead Poets Society

My new book, Getting Education Right, dropped last week. In it, Mike McShane and I do our best to sketch a principled conservative vision of how to improve early childhood, K–12, and higher ed. But rather than get all wonky here, I thought it worth addressing a broader thread we dwell upon near book’s end: how Morgan Freeman and Robin Williams derailed America’s schools.

“How they what now?!”

Look, I can hear you spluttering from here. So I’ll give you a moment.

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Okay, now let’s see if I can convince you that I haven’t completely lost it.

In the book, Mike and I talk a lot about the notion that good teachers embody a certain kind of moral seriousness, regardless of their pedagogy and however light-hearted their style. The kind of seriousness we have in mind entails approaching the teacher’s role as a formative calling rather than a performative one. It requires restraint, humility about one’s role, and respect for the larger institution.

Unfortunately, we’ve permitted an education culture that lionizes the performative. School and system leaders prosper by becoming high-profile standard-bearers for the latest fad. Social media is dotted with teachers proudly sharing how they’re promoting personal agendas in their classrooms. Far too many instructional coaches, advocates, foundations, and vendors eagerly urge educators to use their perch to promote particular social and political dogmas.

Well, Mike and I don’t actually blame Freeman and Williams for all this. But they supplied the mojo behind two iconic teachers—in films released more than three decades ago—who retain a remarkable grip on the cultural imagination.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating encourages his students to rebel against Welton Academy’s fussy, uptight routines in order to “make [their] lives extraordinary.” The enduring image was the closing shot: defiant students standing on their desks to honor Keating as the fired teacher walks out the door.

In Lean on Me, Morgan Freeman plays a fictionalized version of educator Joe Clark, the no-nonsense taskmaster charged with cleaning up a failing, unsafe, out-of-control urban high school. The image that lingered was of Clark striding the halls, baseball bat in hand, illegally chaining the doors, threatening to toss a student off the roof, and gloweringly restoring order.

Those tropes, the righteous rebel and the charismatic disciplinarian, have long gripped the popular imagination when it comes to education. That’s normal enough—we’ve got movie-fueled archetypes of cops and coaches and lawyers, too. So, what’s the problem? Both Keating and Clark celebrate self-satisfied performance at the expense of education’s formative mission.

Mr. Keating leaves a wake of destruction as he uses his role to quietly defy the culture of the school where he teaches. The curfew is strict? Break it. The poetry book is banal? Tear the pages out. Keating gladly accepts the mantle of teacher but rejects his reciprocal responsibilities to the institution. He courts the deference of his students, only to encourage them to deny that same respect to his colleagues. He uses his charges to act out his own frustrations. It depicts teaching as performative self-indulgence, ending in tragedy.

Like Mr. Keating, Mr. Clark is a showman. He expels students by summoning them to a stage. He bullies his teachers, suspending one for picking up a piece of trash during an assembly. He cancels a prestigious concert to squeeze in more test prep—and then fires an accomplished music teacher when she objects. He belittles and rages at teachers who question his decisions or take initiative—except when he’s arbitrarily pleased that the new music teacher secretly rewrote the school’s alma mater. This is not formative leadership; it is capricious, performative authoritarianism.

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Mike and I acknowledge that “formative and serious” is a lousy recipe for a Hollywood screenplay. That said, Keating and Clark are bedroom-poster icons, designed to appeal to the adolescent in us. It’s a problem that they’re role models for so many in education today.

Let’s skip the extreme examples, like the “woke kindergarten” impresarios who’ve decided it’s their role to indoctrinate six-year-olds in political dogma. I can’t help but think of the high school English teacher who felt moved to take to the pages of Education Week to tell the world, “When I read Romeo and Juliet with my students, I pause, give a thumbs-down, and say ‘Boo’ when the play says something misogynistic.” There’s something pitifully self-involved about a teacher who feels compelled to boo a 400-year-old Shakespearean play for failing to conform to her 21st-century social politics.

In analyzing a teacher survey they released a couple weeks ago, RAND researchers lamented that new laws and parental pushback have led teachers to voluntarily curtail their classroom discussion of social and political issues. Now, I may be in the minority here, but I suspect that’s a good thing. If academic performance was off the charts, I might feel differently. But I’m just fine with teachers spending less time wading into heated contemporary disputes and more on stuff like math, science, literature, geography, history, and the arts.

It might come as a rude shock to the heirs of Mr. Keating and Mr. Clark, but classrooms are intended to be places for students to learn, explore, and inquire—not for adults to work out their hang-ups and frustrations.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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