School's Out

UPDATED 08/12/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/12/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT


Robin Williams's 1989 performance as a passionate but iconoclastic teacher in the movie Dead Poets Society was largely based on John Campbell, who had taught Williams history at the posh Detroit Country Day School in Birmingham, Mich., in 1967. Three weeks ago, Campbell, 55, met the same fate as his celluloid counterpart: He was fired—and for similar reasons, say his supporters.

"John Campbell has been on probation for several years," announced Country Day headmaster Gerald T. Hansen. "[He] has not satisfactorily demonstrated a willingness to adhere to all the academic and professional standards of the school."

That would seem to put it mildly. By his own admission, Campbell's performance in the classroom was even more outrageous than Williams's in the movie. "Actually, Robin Williams wasn't as radical a teacher as I am," said Campbell last week. "He tells the students to rip out the pages in their books. I tell them to throw the whole thing in the garbage."

The thrust of Campbell's pedagogy was to show his students they could teach themselves. One day, Campbell, who had been at Country Day for 28 years, told a class that anybody could teach them. "We went out on the street and slopped the first car. I asked the guy to come in and teach history that day," remembers Campbell. Asked how the class went, Campbell responds, "I don't know. I left."

Although Country Day's officials claim they've received few complaints about the firing, students and their parents seemed stunned. "I am shocked," says Nora Peters, a member of the Mothers' Association, a PTA-like organization. "He was not just a good teacher, he was one of the few that didn't bore parents at Meet the Faculty night."

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