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Dead Poets Society (1989): Damn the Carpe Diem!

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In 1989, the film Dead Poets Society was released. It was directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams in one of his most memorable roles. The rebellious and vitalist message of this film marked the young generation of the late eighties and early nineties, and continues to have a strong emotional impact on the following generations who discover it.

But as inspiring as the message of Dead Poets Society is, it may have been misunderstood by millions of people and, having been taken out of context, may have had pernicious effects on the minds of viewers.

This film tells the story of Professor Keating and his impact on his students during his time at Vermont’s prestigious, elitist – and fictional – Welton Academy in 1959.

This school is in charge of training the children of the wealthiest members of society, with a demanding educational program and extremely strict teachers. The arrival of the relatively young Professor Keating, with his transgressive and innovative teaching methodology, was a breath of fresh air for the monotonous lives of the young students who, until then, knew only the severity and discipline of the rest of the teaching staff.

On the first day of class, he asks them to tear out the pages of their boring literature textbooks, to forget about the rules for poetry and to start enjoying it, and by extension, to learn to live life under the motto of carpe diem: seize the day.

Living in the moment, enjoying each day as if it were their last and not worrying so much about the future was a very valuable lesson for these kids. After all, they were subjected to a very demanding educational regime, almost unhealthy, given their status as children of the country’s business and political elite. Until then they had been forced to sacrifice their present completely, in pursuit of a future predetermined by their parents.

The revolutionary teachings of Professor Keating were probably what they all needed in order not to lose all the years of their youth, which they would have no possibility of recovering.

The problem lies in extrapolating these teachings from an elitist environment of excessive demands, to the predominant context for the rest of the youth. For the protagonists of the film, at the limit of the demand, it could be very well, but human beings, and especially young people, have a natural tendency towards leisure and lack of productivity.

Dead Poets Society may have contributed to the belief, wrongly, that the future does not matter and that one must only live the present without moderation, as if this had no consequences. Spend all your money on traveling and enjoying life, don’t save. Buy the most expensive cell phone and upload a thousand selfies to Instagram, where it is clear that you are not deprived of wearing big brand clothes, driving luxury cars and getting a tan on the most exotic beaches.

What’s the difference? After all, you can die tomorrow and take your experiences to your grave. All the money you’ve saved won’t survive you, will it?

No! The point is, you’re not usually going to die tomorrow. Believing the carpe diem will only have served as a justification for rationalizing why you are suffering hardship, will feed your complacency, or worse, will make you blame others for your bad decisions.

The marshmallow and immediate pleasure

In 1972 the psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the so-called “marshmallow test” at Stanford University. In it, a child was put in a room in front of a marshmallow, a cookie or some candy. He was informed that the adult would leave for 15 minutes and that, during that time alone, he could eat it freely. But if he managed to wait without eating it, he would be given another one on his return.

Many children succumbed to the impulse of instant gratification and were unable to control themselves, and they ate their dessert at the first change; others, however, did not surrender to this philosophy of the carpe diem pastry chef, and got their double prize after 15 minutes. In the subsequent follow-up of the children in the experiment, the researcher found a correlation between their ability to sacrifice the present and their overall success in various aspects of life.

While the child’s environment justified half of that success, particularly financial success, the other half seemed to be explained by the ability to have a low time preference. This is being able to think ahead, sacrifice and not give in to immediate pleasure.

Dead Poets Society and Capitalism

Many people confuse capitalism with consumerism, when in fact they are quite the opposite. To capitalize is to save in the present in order to invest in goods that will bear fruit in the future. To stop consuming today, when you have the capacity to be productive, in order to have tomorrow, when you will see your productivity decrease.

It is often thought that the rich are very stingy, when in fact it is the stingy who become rich. Being rich or poor, to a great extent, is not a question of money, but of attitude. The media, advertising, entertainment and, above all, governments promote the idea that you have to spend and spend to be happy.

Carpe diem is the philosophy of Keynesianism, a hegemonic economic doctrine that proclaims that “in the long run we will all be dead.”

Using Aesop’s fable of the cicada and the ant as a metaphor, Professor Keating of the Dead Poets Society was like a merry cicada arriving in a world of boring ants, making them listen to music and hear poetry for the first time. Good for him, music and fun are very necessary.

However, nowadays, if you look around, you will find yourself surrounded by cicadas that live off a few ants, and on top of that, they make fun of them for being so hardworking and not enjoying the moment. We must not forget that in the film the poets were dead, and the protagonist ends up committing suicide. Perhaps this society of dying poets in which we live needs a new Mr. Keating to proclaim:

Damn the carpe diem!

dead poets society

Ignacio Manuel García Medina, Business Management teacher. Artist and lecturer specialized in Popular Culture for various platforms. Presenter of the program "Pop Libertario" for the Juan de Mariana Institute. Lives in the Canary Islands, Spain // Ignacio M. García Medina es profesor de Gestión de Empresas. Es miembro del Instituto Juan de Mariana y conferenciante especializado en Cultura Popular e ideas de la Libertad.

Social Networks: @ignaciomgm

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