"Dead Poets Society"

Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Tom Schulman
Music score: Maurice Jarre
Released 1989
With Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawk, and others

In 1959, the Welton Academy is a somewhat old-fashioned but well-respected prep school where education is understood to be a rigorous academic learning program combined with the shaping of the students' characters according to explicitly traditionalist ideals. The film begins with a processional march of the students into the main auditorium of the school, where teachers and parents are awaiting the address of the headmaster Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd), who inaugurates the new school year by reminding everyone of the high standards of the institution, and the school's high success rate in sending its graduates to Ivy League universities. Students carry banners on which are embroidered the "four pillars" of Welton's pedagogical program: Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence.

The Welton Academy is located in rural Vermont. The style of its main buildings is imitation-Gothic. The all-male institution is deliberately cut off from the economic and social life of contemporary America. The typical age of its beginning students is sixteen; for most of the adolescents the experience of Welton's rural solitude is somewhat trying. Some call the place "Hellton.” They all groan under the academic work load and many of them feel oppressed by a system that hands out demerits for the slightest infractions of discipline.

During the first scenes in dormitories, hallways, and classrooms we are gradually introduced to the group of students that are at the center of the story: Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is a lively A student with natural leadership abilities. He is, however, harshly bullied by his authoritarian father, who tolerates no deviation from the career plans that he has laid out for his son. Neil's room mate Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawk) is a new student; he is shy, insecure, and unhappy. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) is a banker’s son--lively, self-confident, and about to discover the inspiring power of poetry. Further individuals of this group come into focus in time. The "bad guy" character of the lot is Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the unpleasantly ambitious student who believes in authority and school discipline, and who is frequently accused by his fellow-students of "boot licking" and generally being an "asshole." While the other students are occasionally in the mood and willing to evade the rules of the school and to commit pranks, Cameron always warns them to be cautious, because he greatly fears the retributions that may come down on them from their authoritarian teachers and administrators.

After we have seen how some other teachers keep the students in check by means of crushing amounts of homework and threats of possible punishments, we are introduced to the unusual John Keating (Robin Williams), the English teacher who has just been hired, and who displays ideas and a spirit that deviate sharply from the established Welton practices and norms. Right from the start Keating propagates an anti-authoritarian philosophy of life (that of the New England Transcendentalists, as it turns out), and he will soon profile himself not only as a competent teacher, but also as the provocative and inspiring educator of the youngsters of whom he is in charge. During his very first class session Keating demonstrates forcefully that he is not just there to convey academic information, but also to show what students can do with such knowledge in their everyday lives. The first class session is, indeed, not so much a lesson in English literature, but a dramatic philosophical wake-up call:

The verbal form of the call is "Carpe Diem--seize the day!" Keating tells his students to take a look at Robert Herrick's famous lines

Gather the rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
To-morrow will be dying.

"Why does the poet write these lines?" Keating asks, and he eventually answers himself with a flourish: "Because we are food for worms, lads! Because we're only going to experience a limited number of springs, summers, and falls. One day, hard as it is to believe, each and every one of us is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die!"

To drive home this point Keating makes the students look at the old photographs of former Welton students that decorate the hallways. “They are not that different than any of you, are they? There's hope in their eyes, just like in yours. They believe themselves destined for wonderful things, just like many of you. Well, where are those smiles now, boys? What of that hope?" The students are sobered by what Keating is saying. Keating continues:

Did most of them not wait until it was too late before making their lives into even one iota of what they were capable? In chasing the almighty deity of success did they not squander their boyhood dreams? Most of those gentlemen are fertilizing daffodils now. However, if you get very close, boys, you can hear them whisper. Go ahead, lean in. Hear it? (Whispering) Carpe Diem, lads. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary!

When the students leave the building after class, most of them are in thought. Keating’s words are having an effect on their feelings, and Carpe Diem is becoming a firm reference point in their reflections and activities. Some of them will have occasion to quote the maxim while they are pursuing their various goals during the fall term. Only Cameron asks: "You think he'll test us on that stuff?"

Most of the students at Welton are, of course, from well-to-do families; most are destined to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and become doctors, corporate lawyers, or bankers. Considering such prospects it would be natural for everyone to regard such disciplines as English literature as a mere sideline among academic studies, as something like a decoration of a life that is dedicated to more palpable and important matters than poetry and the humanities. Bourgeois parents expect their youngsters to know a little about high culture--in the same spirit in which they expect them to learn table manners and perhaps a foreign language. But no student is encouraged to blow the importance of art and culture out of proportion by devoting more time to poetry than to such “serious” disciplines as mathematics or chemistry.

Keating manages to undermine this widespread conception of the liberal arts; he more or less convinces his students that what seems at first of only secondary importance is in fact at the very center of a well-lived life. "One does not read poetry because it is cute,” he tells his students. “One reads poetry because he is a member of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion! Medicine, Law, Banking--these are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, romance, love, beauty--these are what we stay alive for. ... Poetry is rapture, lads. Without it we are doomed." Behind Keating’s high praise of poetry is Henry David Thoreau’s general revaluation of society’s established priorities: We do not live in order to work, according to the philosophy of Walden, we work in order to live. And we succeed in living extraordinary lives only by staying clear of the ordinary preoccupations with careers and making money—by focusing seriously on those things that make a human existence passionate and radiant.

Keating's teaching methods are unusual—at least by the standards of the 1950s. He does not just tell students that it is important to keep an open, flexible mind, and to look at things from different and changing points of view. Rather, he makes them literally climb on top of a desk and take a look around. This unconventional and physical translation of the run-down expression "changing one’s point of view" will have far more effect on his students' dispositions than any amount of theoretical explanation. Keating also has his students tear those pages out of their textbooks that he exposes as dead letters and intellectual rubbish. A book, in his view, is not a sacred authority, but a tool that ought to be used--or unhesitatingly discarded if found wanting. He frequently reminds them to think for themselves, and not just to accept passively what teachers or textbooks try to tell them.
Neil Perry does a little research on Keating, and he finds out that the English teacher had once himself been a student at Welton, and that he had been involved in a mysterious Dead Poets Society. The students ask Keating what that society had been about.

"The Dead Poets Society,” Keating explains, “was dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. That phrase is by Thoreau and was invoked at every meeting. A small group of us would meet at a cave and there we would take turns reading Shelley, Thoreau, Whitman, our own verse--any number of poets--and, in the enchantment of the moment, let them work their magic on us." "You mean it was a bunch of guys sitting around reading poetry?" a skeptical Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) asks. "Both sexes participated, Mister Overstreet," Keating replies with a smile. "And, believe me, we did not simply read. We let it drip from our tongues like honey. Women swooned, spirits soared... Gods were created, gentlemen! Not a bad way to spend an evening!"

The students get involved in a number of extra-curricular pursuits during the fall. Neil gets the role of Puck in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Knox falls in love with a girl from a nearby high school, and Pitts (James Waterston), together with Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), put together a radio tuner that allows them to listen secretly to Rock 'n' Roll (dubbed by them "Radio Free America"). The whole class plays soccer under the direction of Keating—accompanied by lines of poetry, and to the sounds of the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The student's most important undertaking, however, was the revival of the Dead Poets Society. Although Keating had warned them that “the present administration would not look favorably” on such an undertaking, the students rediscover the cave in the woods, and during their meetings they experiment with poetry and music, discuss their various pursuits, combine Playboy fold-outs with classical texts, and even manage to bring aboard some girls from the nearby town. Charles Dalton profiles himself as the most imaginative and daring spirit in this group.

A first crisis develops when Charlie manages to smuggle an unauthorized article into the school's newspaper, an anonymous editorial that demands, in the name of the Dead Poets Society, that "girls be admitted to Welton, so we can all stop beating off." An outraged Nolan calls a school-wide meeting during which he threatens to expel everyone involved in that conspiracy, unless the culprits stepped forward voluntarily to make themselves known. Charlie, however, takes the blame for everything, and he tells Nolan that he simply made up the Dead Poets Society--that the group does not exist. He also takes full responsibility for rigging a telephone for the meeting. While Nolan is addressing the school, the telephone rings in Charlie's briefcase. Charlie, taking out the phone, tells Nolan that the call is for the headmaster--personally from God, who supposedly demands that women be admitted to the Academy.

Although most who attend the meeting get a good laugh out of the caper, Charlie pays a harsh price. "Mr. Dalton," Nolan addresses him in his office, "if you think you're the first to try to get thrown out of this school, think again. Others have had similar actions, and they have failed just as surely as you will fail. Assume the position." Nolan beats Charlie’s buttocks with a paddle to the limit of what the young man can stand in terms of humiliation and physical pain. Charlie remains unbroken, however. He does not give away any names, and he returns to his room admired by his peers.

Keating tells Charlie that his “lame stunt” was not wise. "Sucking out the marrow doesn't mean getting the bone stuck in your throat, Charles. ... There is a place for daring and a place for caution as well, and a wise person understands which one is called for. Getting expelled from this school is not an act of wisdom. It's far from perfect, but there are still opportunities to be had here." "Yeah? Like what?" Charlie wants to know. "Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes, understand?" Keating replies, and Charlie smiles in agreement.

In spite of such advice in favor of caution, Keating keeps emphasizing a central tenet of his philosophy: determined individualism and non-conformity. On one occasion he brings the whole class outside the building and makes some of them walk around the yard. As the students walk, they more and more adjust their steps to those of the other students, and in a short time the leisurely walk turns into a strident march. Keating begins to clap his hands, and the students all join into the clapping and the rhythm of the marching. After a while Keating stops the exercise and explains:

What this demonstrates is how difficult it is for any of us to listen to our own voice or maintain our own beliefs in the presence of others. ... Lads, there is a great need in all of us to be accepted. However, that need can be like a nasty current, whisking us away unless we're strong and determined swimmers. Don't insist on the separate path simply to be different or contrary, but trust what is unique about yourselves even if it's odd or unpopular.

This Emersonian message to trust themselves as individuals--their own innermost intuitions--inspires the students in various ways. Todd, for example, overcomes his shyness and social isolation by allowing his hidden feelings and ideas to come out into the open as a cathartic expression. Knox is emboldened to declare his love to Chris (Alexandra Powers), even though the odds and convention are overwhelmingly against him. The Emersonian message is most effective, however, in the case of Neil Perry, because it suggests to him to disobey the directives of his father, and to pursue what he most passionately wants: to act in Shakespeare's upcoming play, and to possibly take up acting as a career. When he talks to Keating about it, his teacher advises him to talk to his father and to "let him see who you are." Mr. Perry has to get to know his son, and to understand why acting is so important for him. "To be or not to be, that is the question," Neil had once declaimed to indicate the importance of acting for him. And while he was working on the role of Puck, he had joyfully exclaimed in front of his room mate: "God, for the first time in my whole life I feel completely alive!" Keating wants Neil to explain all this to his father.

Neil does not dare to talk to Mr. Perry, however. He is convinced that his father would neither understand, nor give his required permission for Neil's extra-curricular activity—even though Neil is maintaining As in all his classes. Neil forges the letter of permission and works in the production in secret. His performance during opening night turns out to be outstanding; he receives an enthusiastic ovation, and his friends of the Dead Poets Society carry him off in triumph. When Mr. Perry finds out what has happened, however, he furiously takes Neil home and tells his son that he will enroll him in Braden Military School. "You are going to Harvard, and you are going to be a doctor," he declares. Mr. Perry has made "too many sacrifices" to provide Neil with the opportunities that he himself had never had, and he will not be deterred from pursuing the best life for Neil that he can think of.

While the Dead Poets, together with Keating and Knox's finally won girlfriend Chris, celebrate the success of the play, Neil fails to come to terms with his painful situation at his parents' home. After Mr. and Mrs. Perry have gone to sleep, he finds his father's revolver and shoots himself.

When the news of his death hits Welton, Neil's close friends have no doubt that Mr. Perry is the real killer. "Even if Mr. Perry didn't shoot him, he killed him. They have to know that," Todd exclaims. Not surprisingly, the school authorities take a different view. Prompted by Mr. Perry, who had disliked Keating and his philosophy for some time, the headmaster promises “a thorough investigation” of the Dead Poets Society and John Keating’s alleged role in it. To avoid negative repercussions for the school, Nolan needs a scapegoat on whom everything can be blamed. His goal is to see him tried in a court of law, if that should be possible, but in any event make sure “that Mr. Keating will never teach again."

Nolan also desires the complete subjugation of the students. They are to demonstrate their submission by their willingness to inform on other students, and by signing a letter that puts the blame for everything on Keating. Nolan gets all the information that he needs from Cameron: "Cameron's a fink," Charlie tells the other Dead Poets. “He's in Nolan's office right now, finking." Cameron, coming out of Nolan’s office, does indeed urge the other students to “cooperate” by blaming their English teacher for leading them astray: "Keating put us up to all this crap, didn't he? If it wasn't for him, Neil would be cozied up in his room right now, studying his chemistry and dreaming of being called doctor." After some furious exchanges Charlie, full of rage and contempt, strikes Cameron in the face, thereby insuring his own immediate expulsion from the school.

What follows is a McCarthy-type interrogation and humiliation of the members of the Dead Poets Society. In the presence of their parents the students are asked one by one about others who may have been involved in the group, and then told to sign the letter of blame. All the Dead Poets succumb. We see Knox and Meeks hiding in their rooms after “cooperating” and signing the letter—deeply ashamed of their betrayal. Todd Anderson tries to resist. He haltingly questions that Keating is responsible for Neil's death. But he is browbeaten into submission by his impatient and uncaring father and the intimidating stare of Nolan. He reluctantly signs when he sees the signatures of the other students under the incriminating letter.

The film does not end with the defeat of the students, however. It is Todd who initiates an open demonstration of defiance in the class room, once classes have resumed. Nolan has taken over Keating's English class. It so happens that during the first session Keating has to pass through the room to remove his belongings from the closet. Todd, greeting him Whitman-style as “Captain, my Captain,” climbs on top of his desk to thus honor the fired teacher. One by one other students follow his daring example. Nolan shouts at them to sit down, and he furiously orders Keating to leave the room. But the students, who at first were too ashamed to even look at each other because of their earlier betrayal, nearly all stand on their desks proudly, thanking the man who had awakened their minds, and not caring what may become of them because of their demonstration. Only Cameron and a few others remain sullenly seated, hating this open insubordination as much as they had despised everything Keating ever taught.

Two Philosophies of Education

Welton's approach to life and teaching is summarized in the four catch words of Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence. These four words, stitched on ceremonial flags, are paraded with pomp and circumstance at the formal opening of the new school year. Mr. Nolan comments on their significance: "The key to your success rests on our four pillars. These are the bywords of this school, and they will become the cornerstones of your lives." The students, to be sure, do not necessarily show much respect for the four pillars. In the privacy of their rooms they lampoon them as “Travesty, Horror, Decadence, and Excrement.” But there is no doubt that the ideas that Welton connects with the four words translate into important pedagogical practices, and that these practices are instrumental in shaping a particular kind of society.

To emphasize Tradition with a capital T expresses the will to do things the way they have been done in the past. Traditionalists prefer sameness to change, and permanent structures to improvising spontaneity and open outcomes. They value stability. Unchanging institutions and practices provide them with a sense of security and reliable orientation that shields them from the uncertainties and turmoil of upsetting challenges or revolutions. Anyone who disturbs or threatens this stability will be instinctively perceived as an enemy or a danger—even as evil.

It is clear that Welton is imbued with this conservative spirit, and that the school is dedicated to instilling its traditionalist outlook on life in as many of its students as possible. It is also clear that an innovative and individualistic teacher like Keating is bound to become an outsider at such an institution in a very short time. When Nolan reminds Keating that Welton’s teaching methods are well established, and that they work, he signals to the new faculty member that new views and approaches are not welcome at the academy. While for Keating traditions tend to stand in the way of healthy and productive developments, for Mr. Nolan they represent accumulated wisdom and proven practice.

Honor, as understood at Welton, is the recognition that a student gets by fulfilling the demands of the school, and the renown that the school receives by placing a great number of its graduates in elite universities. For Welton honor is not a matter of inner and personal integrity, but rather one of how well the students achieve traditional goals, and how high the institution scores according to easily measurable performance criteria. Todd Anderson’s remarkable courage and sense of justice, however, remains not only unacknowledged, but will most likely lead to the student’s expulsion.

Discipline is the control and, if necessary, repression of personal impulses, instincts, and desires in order to insure uniform behavior and compliance with established social expectations or the demands of authorities. Discipline is, of course, not always and everywhere onerous, but the way it is typically enforced at Welton usually results in the needless and injurious stifling of the students' individuality and creativity. The students are made to wear uniforms, and their supervision is almost as close and pervasive as in a prison system. They regularly learn by rote, and they are systematically prevented from meeting young women at an age when they have to learn to come to terms with their sexuality. Pitts and Meeks have to hide their interest in Rock’n’ Roll and their “Radio Free America” project, and the Dead Poets have to meet in secret—just as Neil is pressured by his father into pursuing his most passionate interests by deception. Obviously, Welton and its supporters do not believe much in the free expression of individual desires or personal intuition. What the academy cultivates is behavior that functions on the model of authority and obedience more than on the model of a citizenry that is used to thinking for itself and to making its own reasoned decisions. If the political option existed, Welton enthusiasts would tend to be monarchists.

Excellence is to be outstanding. But again, at Welton it does not just mean to do things well, but rather to fulfill or exceed the expectations of authorities and the establishment. Sending students to Harvard is more important than making sure that they find their academic studies meaningful, and getting youngsters into prestigious professions counts for more than allowing them to feel truly alive. That getting good grades in school and embarking on an externally successful career might be a form of alienation or self-betrayal never occurs to people like Nolan or many of the parents who entrust their sons to his program. The achievement of conventional and externally recognized high standards is enough to fulfill their best hopes and ambitions. They seem incapable of recognizing excellence when it occurs in unforeseen ways. Whatever one may think about the wisdom of Charles Dalton’s provocative article in the school’s paper and his subsequent telephone prank, only unperceptive minds could fail to recognize the good quality and real promise of future accomplishments in that student’s undertaking and conduct. It is, as Emerson and others point out, often the very breaking of existing rules and molds that indicates true excellence and genius, and not the dutiful and unimaginative satisfaction of traditional expectations. In a certain sense, one might say, it is mediocrity that Welton promotes, not excellence.

It may not be self-evident that what Welton espouses is a philosophy. Much of it could be described as mere narrow-mindedness or lack of critical self-reflection. Nolan’s and the school’s faith in their kind of traditionalism, honor, discipline, and excellence does, however, grow out of an established body of thought and a number of fundamental convictions, and one would have only an insufficient grasp of what Keating is facing at the school if one were not aware of the underlying reasons for the conservatism of the academy. These reasons constitute a significant challenge to the principled individualism that Keating represents.

The writings of Edmund Burke are often named as the main inspiration of conservative thinking. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 in particular is frequently cited as a convincing presentation of what may prompt a thoughtful person to be suspicious of individualistic intuition and radical change. Speaking on behalf of all conservative critics of the French Revolution, Burke declares in his Reflections:

Instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and … we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Burke does not just detest the French Revolution of 1789. What he rejects even more are the principles and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that inspired many of the more educated revolutionaries. Enlightenment thought is offensive to Burke because it desires to radically eliminate all beliefs of the past in one fell swoop as just so many prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and obvious illusions, and to construct a new body of knowledge on the basis of modern reasoning alone. (Descartes’ desire to start out with a tabula rasa, an empty slate, was an altogether unacceptable methodology for Burke.) Enlightenment thought is also offensive to Burke because it assumed that individuals could find truth all by themselves, and that they could give the lie to whole communities and their collective wisdom. In contrast to most Enlightenment thinkers, Burke’s stance was both traditionalist and communitarian. As far as he was concerned, society and the past were not impediments to unbiased reasoning and insights, but preconditions for both.

While, as a British parliamentarian, he was not categorically opposed to all changes everywhere, or even to all political revolutions (he did approve of the American Revolution, for example), he did think that on balance more was to be gained from maintaining the status quo and honoring tradition than from challenging and undermining established authorities and trusting such unproven and uncertain forces as individual intuition and open-ended innovation.

This is obviously not an attitude shared by John Keating, although the English teacher’s stance does not stem so much from the 18th century Enlightenment that Burke attacks, as from the Romanticism of the New England Transcendentalists. It is, as Keating points out, more than coincidence that he focuses extensively on the Romantics, and the portrait of Walt Whitman adorns his classroom for a reason. That Thoreau’s words open all the meetings of the Dead Poets Society also testifies to the Romantic principles of the English teacher. Emerson is not explicitly mentioned in the story, but the presence of his Transcendentalist thought is evident in almost everything Keating says. Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar,” for example, or his “Self-Reliance,” can be as much perceived as the background of Keating’s pronouncements as Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution as that of Mr. Nolan’s. This becomes clear by observing how Keating deals with the “four pillars” of Welton pedagogy.

Like Emerson, Keating is not just untraditional, but an anti-traditionalist: "Try never to think about anything the same way twice!” he tells his students. “If you're sure about something, force yourself to think about it another way." Adhering to established way too often leads to being stuck in ruts, according to his teaching, and thus to the weakening of the intensity of life as well as the power of the mind. Knox, as an enthusiastic follower of Keating, is once asked by a teacher: "What is wrong with old habits, Mr. Overstreet?" "They perpetuate mechanical living, Sir. They limit your mind," the student replies, greatly enjoying his magisterial performance. (This latter exchange, although present in Schulman’s script, has been left out in the final cut of the movie.)

It is not that such thinking is blind to the virtues or greatness of the past, but it implies that staying with past accomplishments is detrimental. Emerson writes in “The American Scholar”: “The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they,--let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead.” It is for this reason that Keating places more emphasis on what students think here and now than on what others have thought in the past. The fact that students are actively responding to intellectual impulses is more important than their passive reception of what preceding generations have produced. Learning, according to Keating, has more to do with activating and inspiring the innermost feelings of adolescents than with forcing ready-made and handed-down packages of knowledge on them. Whatever a cultural heritage has to offer, according to Keating, it will remain something alien and sterile unless a certain hunger and enthusiasm has been created in students first. In the formulation of “The American Scholar”:

Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office,--to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.

To the extent that striving for honor is tantamount to striving for the recognition of others, Keating has not much use for this second pillar of Welton pedagogy either. What he exhorts his students to do is not to fulfill or surpass the usual expectations of others, by simply memorizing the thoughts of others and internalizing established valuations, but to explore what would make sense to them: "When you read, don't consider only what the author thinks, but take the time to consider what you think. You must strive to find your own voice, boys, and the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all." Even if the poems that he has his students write are neither masterworks nor perfect, their writing them will do more for their understanding of poetry than the passive reception of classical works.

In connection with the walking in lock-step exercise Keating had pointed out that everybody has the natural desire to be liked, and therefore the tendency to adjust his or her conduct to the expectations of others. And when striving for academic honors, students (as well as scholars) similarly try to please their examiners and readers—instead of speaking their minds without self-censorship and fear. But the price of such behavior is the suppression of what is most valuable in everyone, individuality, and a person’s becoming part of “the herd.” Resisting such adjustment to the expectations of others is, according to Keating and Emerson, the basic precondition for living a fulfilling life as well as finding the truth: "Either you will succumb to the will of the hoi polloi [the herd], and the fruit will die on the vine--or you will triumph as individuals.”

While Welton advocates discipline by cultivating uniform behavior, Keating does his best to encourage natural expression and uninhibited communication among his students. By making them write poems besides papers, he develops the emotional side of his students’ lives as well as their scholastic aptitude. He cures the stutter and inhibition of Todd by making him "yawp" in class, and by provoking him into producing a highly poetic description of the “crazy” Walt Whitman. He also inspires Knox to express his spontaneous feelings to Chris—against all social odds and conventional expectations. Knox’ declaration of his love becomes a decisive break-through experience for the young man.

Keating is by no means opposed to striving for excellence, but to merely get good grades or a prestigious job is a sign of mediocrity for him. Striving for true excellence in life requires being open to the ultimately significant dimensions of human existence. In the same spirit in which he had explained to his students that medicine, banking, and the practice of jurisprudence are only the means to maintain life, not its ends, he also exhorts them to takes ideals seriously: "Deal with the important things in life--love, beauty, truth, justice.” Only persons for whom such ideals are not the usual platitudes, but a lived and living reality, can be said to be truly alive and awake. They are inspired, while the “the mass of men” (in Thoreau’s formulation) waste their time on mundane details “in quiet desperation.”

A key scene of the whole film is a short conversation between Keating and Nolan. Nolan asks the English teacher about the walking in the court yard exercise that he had observed from a distance. "Oh that," Keating says. "That was an exercise to prove a point. About the evils of conformity." "John, the curriculum here is set," Nolan tells him. "It's proven. It works. If you question it, what's to prevent them from doing the same?" "I always thought education was learning to think for yourself," Keating replies--deliberately echoing the famous pronouncements of Socrates and Kant to that effect. Nolan, almost laughing, shrugs off such Enlightenment notions: "At these boys' age? Not on your life! Tradition, John. discipline,” he tells Keating while patting him fatherly on the shoulder. “Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself."

Keating, of course, does not take Nolan’s advice, and that makes him the target of Mr. Perry’s fierce hatred. Neil Perry’s father embodies a pathological form of the authoritarianism and paternalism cultivated at Welton. Mr. Perry, the parent who is determined to make his son live the life that he himself could not live, disregards the wishes and aspirations of his gifted son to such a degree that Neil’s being as a person is denied outright. Mr. Perry confronts his son with fierce enmity whenever Neil shows as much as a cautious indication of his own thinking and being. Mr. Perry’s idea of education, although abnormally extreme, is the epitome of a pedagogy that reduces adolescents to malleable raw material in the hands of all powerful educators, and that denies students the status of human beings by systematically disregarding any degree of autonomy that they may have or to which they may be entitled.

It is no coincidence that the students’ most inspiring experiences do not occur at school, in some class room, but in the Dead Poets cave in the woods. Classrooms, schools, curricula, and disciplined instruction may be necessary for the education of the students and the maintenance of the life form into which humanity has evolved, but they are meaningless unless some deeper inspiration or vision will make them truly useful and fulfilling. Welton as a school can provide means, but never an end. It is in the cave (in the primal womb of the earth, one might say, or in the uncivilized regions of their minds) that the students encounter the questions and explore the texts that will enlighten them with regard to the ultimate meaning of their lives. The text from Thoreau’s Walden that they read at the beginning of their sessions specifically aims at the exploration of what the ultimate realization of lives may be:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to route all that was not life.

It is necessary, as Thoreau suggests, to go to the woods—to connect to the wilderness in one way or another--to get a real hold of one’s life. “Life consists with wildness,” he writes in his essay “Walking,” and “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” In the same spirit in which Emerson defined the true self not as reason, but as “intuition” or “instinct,” Thoreau declares primal nature as the true source of life, strength, and inspiration, not the artifices of culture and civilization:

From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks that brace mankind. … The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source.

The reason why Keating inspired most of his students in the way he did is the fact that he kindled their potential for enthusiasm and feeling—their non-rational faculties. He mobilized their primal and natural capacities first, and only then their theoretical intellect. While other teachers enforced learning by imposed discipline and rote, Keating managed to turn knowledge into something they desired—by connecting it to their primal interests. Under Keating poetry ceased to be a mere object of mechanical dissection and became a passionate way of experiencing the world and seizing the day instead. Keating succeeded in bringing his students to life because—like the Romantics who informed his work—he trusted his wild intuition more than the established routines of traditional learning.

Besides being a Romantic in the spirit of the New England Transcendentalists, Keating is also a significant Socrates figure. Not that he aspires to repeat the martyrdom of the Athenian gadfly, but his love of teaching puts him eventually in the same position in which his archetypal forerunner found himself. In the conservative environment of Welton, Keating is an intellectual subversive; his practices and pronouncements challenge the assumptions and habits of the community in which he lives. Like Socrates he lives out of his own individual conscience; he deliberately stays clear of running with the herd. He is aware of the unsettling effect of his presence and his special status, and he explicitly defines his usefulness in terms of being a gadfly: "Every school needs someone like me."

Socrates had enemies who would not forgive him for what he did as an educator. Anytus, whose son he advised to give up the business of his father in order to become a philosopher, became one of the prosecutors who asked for Socrates' life. Mr. Perry is the parent who demanded that Keating be barred from ever teaching again—from the activity that constituted the teacher’s life. And like Athens in the 5th century BCE, Welton mercilessly quashed the activities and ideas of one of her most outstanding members.

Welton, in other words, is the microcosm in which the great drama of 5th century Athens was convincingly reenacted—demonstrating in modern terms that Socrates’ fate was not an exceptional occurrence, but a pattern of events and attitudes that is bound to be repeated wherever societies and communities sink into the self-righteous thoughtlessness and arrogant complacency that call for the proverbial gadfly.

(From Jorn Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2004)

Emerson: On Being Oneself

Back to Philosophical Films: A Special Topics Course