‘Dead Poets Society’ and the Evolution of 21st Century Smart

  • August 24, 2022

In the 20th century media, description of smart characters was quite similar. Smart people were flat and analyzed every situation with logic. And they were terrible writers and socially awkward. I disagree with the description of smart here, but people did (and do) believe that all smart people are like this.

I have encountered smart people who over rationalize. Aristotle was one of them. They try to use logic to explain everything including poetry, literature, arts, and social sciences. They assume that logic is the superset. However, they are wrong. Logic is not the super set. It is a tool to make sense of reality.

The problem is that most books are written by people assuming logic is the superset. Therefore, the students that pay attention in class, work hard, and get good grades fail to challenge existing ideas. Education is important. But Mr. Keating in the movie – Dead Poets Society introduces an important skill that is often overlooked.

Mr. John Keating had been hired by a private all-boys school to teach literature. The school had a reputation of sending most of its students to ivy league, and as you may expect, the teachers rigidly taught the subjects, including poetry. Mr. Keating was expected to stick with the curriculum and teach poetry in a similar way. However, he refused to do so. During the first day of class, he asked the students to tear off the page from the textbook that said poetry must be analyzed using a particular mathematical formula. Instead, he insisted that poetry must be looked through various lenses. He argued to look at poetry and the world as it is – to accept the reality and enjoy it. He was the real teacher of liberal arts – a subject essential for the 21st century smart.

Rationalizing phenomenon is important. Simplifying reality using logic is necessary to open future avenues of exploration. F = ma led humans to discover so much more. Conservation of mass and energy is a simple idea that explains so much of the universe. However, simplification risks ignorance. If Einstein considered the laws of conservation of energy to be an absolute truth, he wouldn’t have come up with conservation of mass and energy.

If students are asked to believe in absolute truths, they will not explore the world through different lenses. This is my complain with a pure STEM education. STEM teaches how to solve problems but doesn’t promote exploring the infinity. It does not make students comfortable with things that can’t be explained – like poetry, music, and arts. It makes us forget that STEM exists because someone decided to tackle the unexplored. To understand gravity, Newton had to watch an apple fall and be like – ‘hey, what is happening here. Aristotle never told me about this. It is something I have no clue about, but exploring it seems like a good idea’. This kind of thinking is promoted in liberal arts. And once you begin looking at the world this way, you crave the infinity.