Philosophy of Education Lessons In ‘Dead Poets Society’ & ‘The Matrix’

The article is about education and the pursuit of excellence. In explaining educational excellence and drawing upon the western philosophical tradition regarding excellence and  flourishing.

My first essay reviews this clip from the Dead Poets Society. The question being is to write a brief critical evaluation on the approach taken by Mr Keating.

While, the second essay is a review of The Matrix. The first question is what is Morpheus trying to teach Neo? Secondly, how does he try and teach him such things, whether through methods or experimentation? Lastly, how does he help Neo to realise his potential?

Dead Poets Society Review

The unique and rare approach taken by Mr Keating shows in his pursuit to protect the truth and logic of poetry (or any subject) you have to go against academia of which the dogmatic unorthodoxy dominates. His students witness a quality of teaching which risks the upheld faculties’ authority and the whole of the professions’ upheld doctrines and theories. In a society where governments, universities, and institutions of a subject lavishly subsidize publications and research with the intention of praising false and incorrect aggregates, statistics and theories which are no substitute for detailed knowledge or logical arguments. Showing how there is always a pressing need to overcome our limited knowledge and prevent special interests from entering into the wide-audience speeches and journals in the departments and libraries of institutions.

The fundamental concern of social theory and educational reform should be to redefine the imbalanced role that the State has on education. Whether of individuals, families, or communities, this imbalance favours the bureaucratic powers in the political sphere, relative to parents and children. “This must also include a rethinking of the means, methods, and institutions most suitable for the education of the child.” (Rothbard, 1999) Education is a necessity of life, as long as education is not of the progressive form. In which, John Dewey’s underlying educational issues and ideals led to reforms, specifically surrounding the Progressive Education Movement. 

Social lives are closely related to communication as ‘education’ is defined as the acquiring a body of knowledge through systematic instruction that is to an individual, enlightening. Social life, and therefore specialization can expand human educational experiences as a ‘necessity’; being the principal that something must be, whether for the functioning of a society or an individual; by virtue either of logic or of natural law and to advance ones ‘life’ or human existence and flourishing. To say ‘education’ is a ‘necessity of life’, can be interpreted as the acting rational person choosing between various opportunities and coming to the choice of education, as which can satisfy one’s current needs the most. “These [human] endeavours range from [activity that can be less educative for society or activity that helps] students improve in mathematics to developing productive citizens.” (Kopkas, 2013) However, when an individual pursues educational options, it should not lead to the progressive ideals of education. John Locke shows how a student can construct an individual understanding amid a standard and universal classroom setting, using classical empiricist epistemology and transforming constructivism. However, the classroom setting is often devoid of culture, “[culture being] the ensemble of social practices by which meanings are produced, circulated and exchanged.” (Thwaites, Davis, & Mules, 2002)

The well-respected prep school portrays education as a rigorous academic learning program. Combined with the shaping and moulding of the students’ characteristics to traditionalist ideals. Mr Keating was able to get young business students to devote study time that could have been devoted to disciplines of which were considered to be more “important” such as mathematics or science. To encourage the acceptance of a liberal arts education, and its importance to a fully lived human flourishing life. He does not direct students on what to think or memorize for an exam, nor does he tell them to have a complete open mind. Instead, he sparks there enjoyment of the subject, from here students devote more time to think for themselves in forming opinions which improve the notable poems and thinkers before them. On day one of Mr Keating’s class each student tears the first chapter out of their textbook, on the grounds the author confined the whole study of poetry to one universal model which could measure the greatness of any poem. A book, seen not as a sacred script, but a learning tool that upon reading can be studied in great detail or unhesitatingly discarded.

The Matrix Review

Morpheus is trying to teach Neo that he is free to think beyond mainstream views of reality, in order to define a system for society to be free from the state like machines. The setting is an important aspect in teaching Neo, as it can be described to be set in a virtual version of Plato’s Cave. For more on this and an explanation see my article on TedEd – Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – Alex Gendler. In which, Neo is now able to be freed from the cave and begin to explore and develop a new perspective. In that he must learn to redefine what is ‘real’ and what is not. Morpheus then to spark the intellectual questioning says “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Interestingly, this can mean that Neo should be careful not to lose sight of reality and think that the matrix is real. In order to remind Neo that exploring and revealing your surroundings within the cyber space can be misleading to what is real and what is not, especially as his surroundings and skills are always changing he must develop his senses quickly and hold his beliefs strongly.

Morpheus firstly, questions Neo for what he believes to be true, in which Neo says he believes he is able to be proficient in martial arts. Now, Morpheus develops upon his believes and challenges Neo to fight him in the matrix. Morpheus sees Neo’s almost immediate fighting level and recognises his newfound confidence. For Morpheus, fighting could be interpreted as fighting toward achieving some end gain. The method should construct Neo’s intellect and beliefs, in order to override any human existence that stands without meaning or purpose. Attacking the values that humans hold onto and accept, claiming them to be illusions or constructs, no more real than the matrix. He gives Neo a purpose that is beyond his current capabilities, yet he also gives Neo the urge to succeed in pursuing toward its end goal.

Neo is helped to realise his potential, and is brought about as Morpheus listens to him and allows him the chance to develop his views unhindered by the everyday common normalities. He is ultimately trying to uncover the truth about reality and freedom that Neo has lost confidence in having been hindered by others from developing further. Additionally, I think the contrast in the white and black suits shows a juxtaposition towards Morpheus being more experienced and passing on his knowledge to Neo who is the new student. Unless, the contrast is to create a suspicion about Morpheus’s character, in which he is misleading and forcing Neo to his adopt his set beliefs as he believes them to be true. Though, Neo ultimately rejects fate, and chooses on his terms to believe in free will, saying “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” Proving that it is the first case as he asserts this when he tells Agent Smith that he fights because he “chooses to” at the end of Revolutions.

“Our social nature is expressed, like our rational nature, in everything we do; from the fact that our language and means of communication are shared to the reality that all of our basic needs depend on cooperation/exchange with others.” (Brook et al., 2014) Learning becomes a process of social life as one engages in dialogue to communicate, reading text to think critically, or to act appropriately through observing. However necessary education of a teacher’s instruction can be, “[the] greater part of the students are certainly not mature enough to form their own opinion on the ground of a critical examination of their teachers’ representation of the subject.” (Mises, 1949) Here, John Dewey’s epistemology disagreed with Plato on the ‘spectator theory’ of knowledge, in stating knowing as an active rather than a passive affair, in which Dewey thought dominated western philosophy and therefore can detract students away from learning in the ways of Plato. “The democratic way of life aims at allowing individuals some measure of control over their lives and [allows for a pursuit of] unique potential [rather] than being passively impacted by external, uncontrollable forces in a futile attempt at isolation.” (Jackson, 2014)

To add to this the films political philosophy sways to a Marxist ideology. Portrayed through the way the film shows oppressive and control in society. In fighting with government officials, shows the fight against those who try to oppress them. Coming to light the Marxist views toward Capitalism, especially with the machines exploiting humans, where the human value or worth is seen as assigned to their work or profit ability, while there is so called widespread ‘inequality’ and ‘exploitation’.

Reference List

Brook, A., Younis, A. R., Anderson, R., Simkovic, D., Kohler-Ryan, R., Dennis, R., … Lovell-Jones, S. (2014). Introduction to Philosophy and Theology within Catholic Liberal Education. Australia: McGraw Hill.

Rothbard, N. M. (1999). Education Free & Compulsory. Alabama: The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Mises, M. 1949 (2010). Human Action, (Scholar’s ed.). United States: Yale University Press, Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Jackson, J. (2014). The democratic individual: Dewey’s back to plato movement. The Pluralist, 9(1), 14-38. Retrieved [27/05/16] from <>.

Kopkas, J. (2013). Is the casting of utilitarian as discordant with arts education philosophy justified?. Journal of Thought, 48(1), 52-72. Retrieved [27/05/16] from <>.

Thwaites, T., Davis, L., & Mules, W. 1994 (2002). Introducing Cultural and Media Studies. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Featured image supplied from Pixabay.

Copyright © 2016 Zoë-Marie Beesley

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