The passing of a Hollywood star makes headlines one day, and most of us move along the next. After all, fame and life are equally fleeting.

When I heard of Robin Williams’s passing, my mind went immediately to characters like Mrs. Doubtfire, the indomitable Patch Adams, and even the fact that my boys have “bangarang” as part of their vocabulary.

Yet one of Robin Williams’ characters stands alone in my mind: John Keating.

I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time as a teenager, by chance. In the days of VHS cassette rentals, the movie was misplaced behind another movie’s cover. I did not realize the switch until I made it home.

Like the students in the movie stationed at Welton Academy, I experienced educators who believed that success was a matter of formula, an unyielding dedication to the ways of doing things that had produced results for “generations.” In some respects, I had come to view my studies as check the box, get the grade, rinse and repeat.

John Keating was a character that pushed the idea of learning into an entirely new direction for me. Hard work and acquiring functional skills were and will always remain integral to education, but Keating introduced me to beauty. He put the idea in perfect context to his students at Welton:

Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

As a teenager, I was not looking for some overarching education policy, and I probably was not adequately concerned about being “college or career ready.” I simply needed affirmation that my dreams and aspirations mattered and were possible.

Dead Poets Society meant more to me than a movie about a great teacher and club of young men that explored the arts. It affirmed my belief that there was more to learning than digesting information and being able to regurgitate it on demand.

One particular line from the movie I committed to memory: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” I was fortunate to have many real-life educators like Mr. Keating in the years since I first watched Dead Poets Society. Each of them believed that the world could be changed and that their students had a role to play.

As a father of three, my perspective has come full circle. With every learned scholar putting forth a formula for the success of my children, I needed to be reminded that the right number of AP courses, tutors or a trajectory I construct for them does not secure their future.

They need to find their own voices, they need to understand how to turn what they learn and know into beauty and wonder. At a time when we need new solutions to seemingly intractable problems, their success hinges on an unwavering belief that their ideas and words could provide the answers.

While we must ensure that the next generation is practically equipped to handle the challenges before them, we must not sacrifice the reasons for life itself in the process. The balance is challenging but our success at that endeavor shapes the future itself.

As Walt Whitman noted “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Robin Williams’s work in Dead Poets Society is a truly beautiful verse that I am better for having experienced.

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