In Dead Poets Society, one of last summer’s more popular movies, Robin Williams as John Keating, an unconventional English teacher at a stuffy all-male prep school, climbs up on his desk and urges his students to join him. “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” he says. “The world looks very different from up here. Come see for yourselves. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong—you must try.”
More than a century ago, another teacher used a more sophisticated approach to broaden the perspectives of his students. Edwin Abbott Abbott invented a mythical kingdom called “Flatland”—a two-dimensional world of width and length but not height. The creatures in Abbott’s table-top land perceived everything in dots and straight or curved lines. A sphere passing through the plain on which they existed would be perceived only as a series of circular slices.
Brown University Professor Thomas Banchoff, whose article appears in this month’s “Ideas” section, uses the story of “Flatland” to help his students and others understand his research. Using computer graphics, Banchoff is able to enter into one of the most mysterious realms of science: the fourth dimension. He creates four-dimensional forms that could not be visualized until recently and cannot even exist in our three-dimensional world.
The fictional John Keating, Edwin Abbott Abbott, and Thomas Banchoff all possess a talent that makes great teachers: the ability to help their students see things differently, to connect the seemingly unconnected—or, in Thoreau’s words, to “see beyond the range of sight.”
That is no easy task—for teacher or student. The act of looking beyond the obvious, of trying to see things in any given situation that others do not see, requires one to think critically and creatively.
The new school buildings pictured beginning on page 46 are obviously the work of architects who think that way, who have the ability to see things differently and shift perspective. They have designed structures that look nothing like the traditional school building. They have created schools that are in harmony with their natural environment and that bespeak the joy and excitement of learning.
If the architects focus their fresh insights on buildings, the founders of the experimental Child Development Project in California focus theirs on the students inside those buildings. The CDP, described on page 52, reflects a perspective radically different from that which has shaped so much of what happens in the nation’s classrooms. It rejects what often appears to be the central tenet of educational philosophy in our capitalistic society: competition.
Instead of encouraging children to compete with each other, to perform in a context of external rewards and punishment, the CDP encourages children to work together to reach common goals, to perform well for the personal satisfaction of achieving.
Looking at things differently, striving for new and different perspectives, can be risky. Inherently, it means questioning the way things are. And that is always threatening to some.
Abbott’s allegory, later published as Flatland, was really a social satire, challenging the rigid class society of Victorian England, especially the low status of women. The embarrassed students who reluctantly climb to the desk top early in Dead Poets Society, do so again at the film’s conclusion. This time their gesture is one of defiance against authority that they, with their new perspectives, have begun to question.
Questioning is what successful education leads to. It is a process that often generates controversy, that cannot be risk-free. As John Dewey said, “Anyone who has begun to think places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” But then again, so do those who don’t think.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1981 edition of Education Week as Unsettling Young Minds