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Robin Williams: model of a great teacher

Poster for the Movie "Good Will Hunting"
Poster for the Movie "Good Will Hunting"
pastposters.com

A pall of melancholy has descended on the nation, and perhaps the world, over actor Robin Williams’s death at the age of 63.

This irrepressible, gregarious yet lonely, man who made us laugh and cry and brought us in touch with our humanity through several memorable performances will be impossible to replace. He was truly a sui generis, and the heart is inconsolable at the way he left the earth. The comic who chased our blues away could not chase away his own demons.

Lost in the adulation is any reflection on the role a community college played in Williams’s formative years.

Robin Williams was a student at the College of Marin (COM), one of California’s 112 community colleges comprising 72 districts and serving over 2.6 million students.

From 1970-1973, he was active in the Drama Department at COM’s Kentfield campus. Studying as a classical actor, he appeared in the college productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, the Wild West version of Taming of the Shrew and Oliver, among others.

He was a protégé of the celebrated director James Dunn, a COM graduate who founded the college’s drama department in 1964. As Mr. Dunn recalled on learning of Williams’s passing: “I first knew he was more talented than the other kids when he played Fagin in 'Oliver!' We were having light board issues and by midnight had only made it through half the musical. At one point he started talking to a baton he was carrying, and the baton talked back. It cut the tension and he had people laughing in hysterics. I remember calling my wife at 2 a.m. and telling her that this young man was going to be something special.”

While his brilliant, protean roles as an actor will be analyzed and cherished for decades to come, Williams’s insight into what constitutes effective teaching should be studied by teachers everywhere.

At a time when teachers are under siege by the education-industrial complex, Robin Williams taught teachers how to remain true to their calling through performances in movies such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997).

As a floppy-haired English professor in Dead Poets Society, Williams pulled out all the stops to get his stuffy, boarding school students excited about the wonders of poetry, and of life. Anyone questioning the commercial value of a degree in English poetry is bound to be swept away by the manic energy Williams infuses into his character. “In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again,” bellows Williams to his class. “You will learn to savor words and language.”

What comes through with blinding clarity at the end of his performance is the awareness that poetry and literature, if properly taught, can transform us into questioning, civilized and empathetic human beings.

Note to English professors everywhere: Bring up Dead Poets Society on your laptop, savor it one more time and then meet your students refreshed and rejuvenated.

In 1993, Alison King, an associate professor of education in the College of Education at California State University in San Marcos, wrote an influential article in the journal College Teaching titled “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.”

“In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes,” she began her article. “The professor is the central figure, the “sage on the stage,” the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam – often without even thinking about it.”

She proposed replacing this passive and useless model with one of “active learning” where students take charge of their own learning, thereby taking center stage while teachers become the “guide on the side.”

In many of his hyper-kinetic roles, Williams personified the “sage on the stage” model but in Good Will Hunting, he was the “guide on the side” par excellence, the kind we all dream for as we tried to grope our way toward a meaningful life

Will Hunting is a janitor at MIT who also happens to have prodigious gifts in math and chemistry. He is unaware that his gifts can rescue from his rough upbringing in South Boston and his frequent brushes with the law. Until, that is, he meets his guide and soul mate, the therapist Sean Maguire.

The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Mainstream media will provide us with all the data we need of Robin Williams’s work in theater, TV and film. What we need to discover on our own, as we revisit his various performances, is his humanity and his indelible model of a great teacher.