I recently rewatched the iconic Dead Poets Society, years after the last time I watched it. Since then, I have learned a lot. One thing is first hand experience with people like the students in this movie. People who when asked what they did with their childhood fail to answer. They spent most if not all of high school preparing for AP exams and padding their college resume. They had no interests outside of whatever little interests were transferred from their parents. Even before philosophy, to me this was a disaster, years of their lives stolen. After philosophy, I still feel the same way.
The constitutive ethical principle is one of freedom. When we do something wrong, it is when we do something inconsistent with humanity being rational beings. Kant thinks that his formulation of what is the law of ethics, the categorical imperative, gives rise to four duties. We have perfect and imperfect duties to ourselves and others. The perfect duties are do not coerce or lie to others. The imperfect duties are a little less clear, but the general idea is this. The imperfect duty is the duty of beneficience, the duty to care about humanity. This is our duty to others and to ourselves.
What this looks like to others is that we do not have a duty to assist others every single opportunity we have, which is what has gone wrong with some forms of utilitarian thinking as seen in papers titled things like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me: Restricting the Reach of Moralty’s Demands”, which uses the example of it is moral to buy a nice couch from yourself. However, what the duty does entail is that you should clearly show that you do try, over the course of your life, to make the world a better place, to show that you care. It is obvious that the Scrooge does not care about others, he did not want to make the world a more rational place. After all, it would be a contradiction if no one ever helped anyone else with their own ends. If I go through life self-centered, never helping anyone, I cannot but avoid being helped by others. So my maxim is one in which if made universal, I am willing that no one help anyone ever, but I am contradicting my own self by expecting others to help me in mine.
The imperfect duty to yourself is equally as interesting. We have a duty to care about others, but also a duty to care about our own self. This comes in the form of developing our own talents, cultivating our own skills. To care about ourselves is to realize our potential as humans. To fail to do this would be to waste your life away such that you have no skills, which is not uncommon for people. When given the chance to study something a bit more, to try harder on something they enjoy, they fail to do this.
Before we are responsibile agents of our own, before we are moral beings (still are rational, we still set ends), we will not be expected to be responsible for our own actions. This is why people usually look down on parents when their kids do something bad. It is the job of the parents to not only cultivate this sense of moral feeling and moral responsibility in their child, they should teach them how to be autonomous in a sense.
For example, say your kid Timmy wants to play basketball. Once he has expressed interest in playing basketball, you are supposed to help him in cultivating this interest into some skill. What you as a parent should do is learn how to play basketball yourself (or at least be able to teach fundamentals), watch basketball with your kid, make sure they are exercising, eating healthy, and most importantly make sure they join some sort of team so they can practice. If Timmy starts slacking off and playing video games too much, it is still in the parents duty to Timmy to sort of remind him that he set out to play basketball and he should see it through. Maybe he is feeling temporarily discouraged because he thinks he is not that good. Maybe he is just being lazy, and it takes a little reminder that playing video games is not going to benefit him in being good at basketball, maybe he should go shoot hoops for an hour.
Now, this does not mean that you should force your child to keep doing something just because one time they expressed interest in it. Your child may have expressed valid interest before, but they have a valid reason to stop. Once they have given a good effort, you as the parent should tell them that it is ok to move on, let us see what else you are interested in and want to do. If they have nothing, you should give them some things to try out. After all, most of the time it is the teacher who makes a subject look boring and not the student or the subject at fault.
Where tiger parenting goes wrong is they fail to respect their children as future agents, future people worthy of dignity and respect and freedom. If you fail to treat your child as an agent, it is likely that they will fail to develop into one, especially if you as a parent treat them negatively, not neutral. That is, if you are a tiger parent, you are not just failing to cultivate these moral duties and teach them how to be responsible human beings, you are teaching them not to be. Children who have absent parents or parents who did not care about them still end up as more autonomous beings because they start to learn they have to do things on their own from a quick age.
What tiger parents usually do is two things. One is that they force their children to do what they want them to do. Instead of cultivating interests from the child, they force onto them their own goals and life plans without their consent. If they go along with it, it is because it is extremely easy for children to take an interest in what they were “soft-coerced” to do when young, especially when children usually look up to their parents more than anyone else. This is also why it is so morally wrong to me, since you are in a great position of power and you are abusing this unequal relationship. So the tiger parent robs their kids of their freedom, at least till college and sometimes even longer after.
The other is that the children are treated as “properties of honor”. Tiger parents seem to think that what the children amount to in some sense is an extension of the parents honor. This stems from the parent’s own irrationality, falling victim to the vices of culture. Tiger parents seem to fail to realize the only thing that matters of worth is moral worth, things such as money, status, race, etc., do not matter to equality. This equality stems from the dignity in our own person. But the parents think that their status, their honor, and their worth compared to others in society needs to extend to their children. They feel lesser if their kids are not also doctors, lawyers, or engineers or if they fail to get into Berkeley or the Ivies.
The end result of this is you end up with very fragile humans and humans who lead very shallow lives. At most, they go to college, they get their job, and they have nothing to look forward to. They distract themselves with idle habits and small pursuits, a hobby here and there. Most will hit their mid-life crisis in college or early after once they start feeling empty inside. Some fail to ever realize this though, they are content with just working, possibly having a family, and repeating the same cycle again.
Welton is a boarding school for kids seemingly around 12 years old and til college. The movie starts with the school’s bourgeoisie opening ceremony, parents dropping their children off, and getting in their last “divine” commands of parenting. One parent tells their kid to give up one of his extracurriculars, he puts up a weak fight, the dad puts him back in his servile place, and the kid retreats back into his own mind, more hope fading from his eyes.
There is a new English teacher, however. The students are sitting in his class and see the teacher, Mr. Keating, just walk out, pop his head back in the class door and ask them if they are coming with him. Keating tells them to look at the previous Welton student pictures in the hall. These were kids just like them, full of hormones and aspirations, but now they are “food for worms”. Keating uses this as an exercise in describing what the concept of carpe diem means. The old souls of the Welton students of former whisper to the new students (Keating is the one whispering), that they must sieze the day. The old students telling the new students is to motivate the idea that we have one life and we must not waste even a single day.
The next time the students are in class, Keating tells them to open their books up to the introduction written by some shmuck PhD about how to analyze poetry using two x, y variables and plotting the area. Keating tells them that he thinks this introduction is “excrement” and to tear it out. No one takes him seriously at first, but he repeats “tear it out”. One by one, the little devils in the students come out at the command that they can act out of normal, to rip a page out of page, and they do so excitingly and furiously.
The students find out that Keating was part of the “Dead Poets Society”. Keating explains this as not just “reading poetry”, but letting these words drip from their mouths like honey, “women swooned”, and they became gods. The way that Keating was describing something seemingly as “useless” as poetry with more vigor and passion and love than anything they have heard or seen before inspired them to do the same. They decide to go to the same cave off the campus to start reading some poetry as well. They too wanted to “suck the marrow out of life”, as Thoreau used as a way of describing what it means live life to the fullest, even after eating the meat off the bone we will even suck the marrow out for more sustenance, to get every last drop.
The students are then tasked with creating their first work of art, to write a poem for Monday. One of our main characters was visibly scared of this, and Keating calls him out before leaving. Our character works hard over the weekend on his poem, trying to keep it away from his friends because it was seemingly personal. Monday comes, and he is still shaking in his boots. The time comes and Keating says that it is his turn, time to “put you out of your misery”. To this our character says he did not write one. Keating takes this, like every other moment in class, as a teaching example. He writes a line from Walt Whitman on the board :
I SOUND BY BARBARIC YAWP OVER THE ROOFTOPS OF THE WORLD. (To me it should be in all caps).
Keating invites our shy poet up to the class and coaxes him into giving a yawp. His yawp is like a puppy, and Keating tries to make him mad, to let out a real yawp full of emotion, to which he does. Then Keating asks him in this opportune moment, now that he is riled up, to describe what he thinks of Walt Whitman, pointing to the picture above the classroom. Keating puts his hand over his head so he can focus on his thoughts, and Keating tries to bring out some poetry. As our budding poet is trying to gather his words, he defaults to start reading his poem he worked so hard on. At first the class is laughing because it is obviously personal, but then they are quiet. They realize that this poem is about what it is like to live under these oppressive parents who control their lives, and they give him roaring applause when he finishes. Keating tells him to never forget this moment, which he never will.
Keating inspires our main characters to live a life more full. We have scenes of characters making a radio and then later on dancing on the rooftop at night together. One of our characters becomes so overcome with this new found appreciation of life that he wants to be called a different name, starts playing the sax at meetings and doing musical poetry, and even gets in trouble for pulling a prank in a desire to make a statement against the authority at the school. Another character is given the courage to confess his love to a girl he met before, he even goes to her school and reads a poem in front of all her peers. One of our characters ends up getting the lead role at a local play, but he has to hide it from his dad.
This becomes the central conflict in the show, since he is scared of his dad finding out, which happens and he is told to stop acting, since it “embarassed” him in front of others. To this, he seeks out comfort and advice from Keating. The regretful part about this is that he was so scared of his father, felt like such a stranger, that he did not even think it was possible to talk to his father about this. Keating knew that there was still some care in his father, since even tiger parents probably care in some way, it is just caring gone wrong. The talk between father and son goes well, in that, he is allowed to do the play.
All of our characters end up at the opening night, our lover ended up securing a date with his girl too. He played Shakespeare’s Puck, and he was wonderful. Not only were his friends supportive, but the whole crowd. At the end, his castmates push him forward for a final round of applause to which everyone cheers louder for him than they were before. Full of ecstasy and joy, our Puck has his last moment of bliss before he is told that his father is here and looking for him. They storm out the theater and he is told that he no longer can act and to get in the car, they are going home. One of his friends tries pleading with the father, to which Keating says to stop, it will only make it worse.
When they get home, the father seems to want an argument, to which the son tries for a second, but he gives up. Even the father is stunned a bit that he has “nothing” to say. But we can tell that, like in the beginning, he gave up trying to win any argument, to demand respect. However, this was the last straw for him. He seemed to think that the choice was either to act or to die, which is how it feels sometimes when you find something in life truly worth living for taken away from you. In the middle of the night, while everyone is sleeping, he goes into his father’s study and shoots himself in the head.
The school investigates the “Dead Poets Society” and ends up using it as a front to get evidence to fire Keating, who is going to take the fall for his suicide. At first, no one is going to rat on Keating. Then they find out that one of them did, and says that it is us versus Keating and they have their whole lives ahead of them, it is not worth ruining their career to save Keating. For this betrayal, he is punched rightly in the face by his peers. Keating leaves, but not without his loving students giving him a final round of solute and thanks for transforming their lives.
The usual justification to any of this is that the parents are doing one of or both of two things. One is that they just want their kids to be successful. The other is that they did not have these opportunities as a child and want to make sure their kids are successful. To this I say, are you being a Keating or are you being the father or school administration? Are you teaching your kids to merely live or to live, to “suck the marrow out of life”? What does it mean to be successful? It is the success that you think or the one you so uncritically and thoughtlessly accept from society. To be successful as a person is up to their person, since it is defined by their own goals and skills that they want to develop. The only way for you to be successful as a parent is if you are able to make it such that your child can become this responsible person, that can set their own ends and achieve them, to change them when they see fit.
It is not an option between “success” or nothing. Both are lazy routes of parenting. The good parent would not force their kid to be a lawyer. If Timmy wants to be a poet, they should help them to become a poet. They should help them realize what it is like to be a poet, how hard it is to be financially successful, and maybe it is ok to get some other job and do poetry on the side until they can make it full time. To help them plan our their ends and their goals is hard, it might mean that they might not make it to some of the ends they set later on, but that is fine. Sometimes people fail, but the consequences between the child raised by tiger parents and the one raised by good parent are drastic. The good parent’s child is capable of taking care of themselves and achieving their own ends. The tiger parent’s child is fragile and narrow minded, if they fail at med school, the thing that they have been bred for since day one, it is going to be crushing. Not only are they bad at cultivating new skills on their own, but setting down a new path is going to be difficult if not impossible.
Arendt described this concept in human nature best. Without the totalitarian regimes of the 1900s, humanity may have never realized what the end result of things like anti-semitism were, that is, the attempted descruction of the Jews. Similarly, the end result of tiger parenting, when taken to its fullest extent, is one in which you force your child into a corner, you force them to choose freedom or death. Since you already took away the third option, to leave the family, by exploiting your power to make it seem like there is no life outside the family. Once they get a taste of freedom and you try and take it away, they will choose death.