One of the most proclaimed virtues of the fifties – good, old-fashioned obedience – is particularly out of fashion in 1998. It seems that today we are more tolerant of deceit, corruption, even stupidity than obedience. Indeed, I have seen many bumper stickers that boast “Question Authority” but none that proclaim, “Listen to the Boss.”
The world of sports – a clear reflection of out value system – bears this out. Today we expect our star athletes to leave town for an extra million or two or three or ten. By today’s standards would Stan Musial remain a St. Louis Cardinal or Ernie Banks a Cub, especially considering that in 1959, the second year in a row the great shortstop won the MVP award, the Cubs paid him only $45,000?
In the fifties the big threat was communism. At Coral Way Elementary School we would duck and cover under our desks, safe, no doubt, from any thermonuclear blast. My high school history class was called “Americanism vs. Communism,” with its clear implication as to which was better. To work for the Dade County Parks Department picking up litter and animal droppings at Crandon Park at age sixteen I had to take an oath that I was not a member of the Communist Party.
It seemed the thing to do. I read 1984 in class and, properly, derided Big Brother. After everyone’s grandfather Dwight David Eisenhower was met with an angry mob in Japan I wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami News decrying “those Nipponese radicals.” After all, Big Brother was communism and in battling the Evil Empire we, the country of the little guy, were fighting against unauthorized hierarchy and authority.
This, then, becomes the place where the politics of the fifties and being a teenager of that era meet. Teenagers already suspect authority. So when communism finally imploded (just as my ninth-grade civics teacher predicted it would) it validated our suspicions about hierarchy and authority. We are talking about authority in all its forms: not just a shoe-wielding Nikita Kruschchev but “Father Knows Best” and the paddle-wielding (and probably sadistic) dean of boys of Shenandoah Junior High School, my alma mater, as well as the paddle-wielding (and probably sadistic) headmaster of Welton School in “Dead Poets Society.” “All authority is equally illegitimate,” the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff wrote in
In Defense of Anarchy
(1971). “The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled.”
Wolff sounds like my teenage sons, ages fifteen and seventeen. Movies champion this theme, of course, as their primary audience are my sons. Let us consider “Dead Poet’s Society.” In this 1987 film Robin Williams stars as John Keating, an idealistic young prep school English teacher in 1959 who inadvertently challenges two heavy-duty authority figures, the school’s headmaster and the father of its most talented drama student. The student commits suicide after the father orders him to give up acting and prepare for Harvard and a medical career. The headmaster fires Keating not only for, he believes, leading the boy astray but for encouraging his students to
! seize the day. Several of his students heed his call and resurrect the Dead Poets Society, a long-dormant secret coterie of students who love art and literature and seek to study it outside the deadening rigidities of the school’s official curriculum. The message of the movie is powerful: true community is a rare and fragile thing, and authority is its enemy. And the only way to achieve true community is to question authority – to break the rules.
What’s curious in view of American history after the 1959 setting of the movie is that the message of “Dead Poet’s Society” combines the ideology of left and right. It manages to blend (or foreshadow) the student left of the sixties and the Reagan conservatives of the eighties. The connection to the student left is clear in the pre-shocks of protest we can sense in these sensitive short-haired kids and in their suspension of reliance on tradition. The connection to the eighties Reagan conservatives flows from the very center of the movie itself – in its distaste for arbitrary rules and commands, of tyrannical fathers, headmasters, anyone telling the kids what to do. Given a comfortable life-style such a distaste for rules from above get easily translated into distrust of Big Brother. Could there have a better motto that served both the protestors at Columbia in the spring of 1968 and the corporate raiders of the eighties than
Welton, the prep school in the movie (The movie was filmed at Connecticut’s own Gunnery) looks on the surface like the model of calm decorum (or Yale of 1959): short-haired young white males with ties and blue blazers, compulsory chapel, imitation Gothic architecture. But looks are deceiving, and just under the surface bubble two important points: One, adolescents – of any era – are adolescents. And, two, 1959 is just one year away from the start of the sixties, when even Yale went co-ed. (I was in the last all-male class, 1968. Many of my peers, while anticipating the social advantages of admitting young women did not welcome the competition.) Just under its calm surface, then, the student body at Welton harbors a body of disaffected spirits just waiting for rebellious mobilization.
I must point out, however, that “Dead Poets Society” does not lower itself as do so many movies whose core audience is composed of adolescents to exploit the lowest impulses of its audience. After all, there are no hairbrained pranks. No one wrecks a car, sets fire to the chemistry lab, or does anything more with a girl than make out.
Keating, speaking for the film, constantly returns to his main point: the business of education is not to gather facts but to find a ruling passion, something around which you can organize your life. This is a point that seems to elude most kids these days, probably because it is point that popular culture of 1998 rarely troubles to make to them.
The teenagers in these three movies are constantly caught in the tension between authority and autonomy. Should Sarah-Jane be a “good girl” or an exotic dancer? Should she accept her heritage or deny it? Should the troubled youth in “Dead Poets Society” be a doctor of an actor? Should the hot-rodding (but lovable) John Milton in “American Graffiti” obey the law or flaunt authority. After all, he not only drag races on public highways but stuffs his glove compartment with unpaid tickets. Should our all-American hero stay at home or get on that plane? Is the allusion to the end of “Casablanca” purely by chance?