Dead Poets Society (1989)

“-Poetry, beauty, romance, love… These are what we stay alive for” 

Set in 1959, Welton Academy is a boys-only boarding school, elite in status yet conservative in nature. After the retirement of a former English teacher, an honours graduate of Welton Academy takes his place. This new English teacher, Mr. John Keating, inspires his students through poetry and his controversial ways of teaching.

Dead Poets Society features a large cast of highschool boys, with the well-loved Robin Williams starring as their new but eccentric English teacher, John Keating. If you’re interested in poetry, beauty, romance and love, why not watch Dead Poets Society.

Moral of the Story: Make Your Life Extraordinary 

John Keating’s first lesson

“Carpe diem”, Latin for “Seize the day”.

In his first lesson, John Keating directs his students to a picture hung up on the school’s trophy wall. Existential questions sparks among the students looking at a picture dating 57 years ago, of a class just like them; The passing of time is inevitable. The students who were once lively and young like them have now grown to be their generation’s elderly. 

Welton students of 1902

Thus, Keating emphasises his point. 

Carpe diem; To make the most out of your life while you can.

His lesson leaves such a major impact on the boys that it spurs them to seek the goals that they could have only previously dreamt of.

The boys sneak out of school to read poetry. Knox gains the courage to pursue the girl he likes. Charlie writes a bold advertisement promoting that girls should be able to join Welton. Niel decides to pursue acting despite his controlling father.

“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today. Tomorrow will be dying.”

“To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick

Blood Family vs. Found Family

Niel Perry is a passionate young boy who enjoys taking part in many extra-curricular activities. He has a strong drive and holds many of his own wants and desires. 

However, his father had already planned out his whole life for him. And, that is to study medicine. Niel, on the other hand, wishes to pursue acting, a career his father frowns upon greatly.

Niel’s family protesting against their son’s acting dreams

However, family is not just bound by blood. The people you choose to surround yourself with can manifest itself into another family. This found family may even share a stronger bond than the people you relate to by blood.

“the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”

In Neil’s case, the discomfort he feels around his mother and father is evident. On the contrary, when surrounded by his friends and his teacher, he has received nothing but encouragement to pursue his acting dream.

Their support ultimately led him to pursue his lead theatre role despite his father. When standing among the crowd of cheering audiences, Niel had finally felt the true taste of life; A life not controlled by his blood family.

Lessons in Conformity

“Every child is born an artist. The question is ‘How do they stay one?’”

Schools do not generate creativity in students. It forces conformity, the rigour and competitive nature of exams forces students to memorise and regurgitate information rather than encouraging the bright minded youth to create new ideas. 

In Dead Poets Society, John Keating was a big advocate for nonconformity and believed that all students should be able to think for themselves. His teachings are fun and wacky, making students kick footballs while reading poetry or marching around the courtyard. The break in structure and typical methods of teaching replaced by passion and seemingly outlandish, probably unacceptable actions is how they once again fall in love with the thought of learning again. Maybe there is some meaning to the education that everyone puts on a pedestal.

In contrast, Mr. Nolan represents the common structure of the education system. Tradition. Discipline. Society and schools usually hold S.T.E.M subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) to a high regard, while art is seen as a waste of money and time. This can also be seen in Niel’s father as he encourages his son to study medicine rather than take part in the art of theatre.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

The following section contains spoilers for Dead Poets Society…

Was John Keating’s Teachings Right?

Mr. Keating is a great inspiration to many of his students. His wise words are the boost that gives the boys the motivation to pursue their dreams. Despite the support from many of his students, is Keating teaching his students the right things?

As Mr. Norman liked to put it, John Keating’s way of teaching English is unorthodox. In his second lesson, he encourages his students to tear out pages from their textbooks that he does not agree with. 

However, is it not ironic that Keating encourages students to think for themselves, yet orders them to disregard several pages of a textbook due to his own opinion. A more efficient way would be to allow students to absorb the text for themselves to ponder upon, forming opinions on the subject matters discussed in the textbook. To allow themselves to decide whether to agree or disagree with the established syllabus, letting their minds wander while guiding them to find out more about the whims and wishes of the world through literary academia, to constantly pour themselves into fight of good, bad and the dirty; Now, that is to truly think for yourself.

Was Keating responsible for Neil Perry’s death?

(Trigger Warning: Suicide)

Keating encourages his students to “Seize the day! Suck on the marrow out of life!”. His words served as a great motivator, yet caused his students to take leaps and risks that severely cost them or “choking on the marrow”, as Keating puts it.

Neil ends his life with his father’s gun

At the end of Dead Poets Society, Neil commits suicide the night after the play. His father had crushed all his hopes for the life that he wanted and decided that night that he had had enough. To protect their reputation, Welton Academy puts the blame on John Keating and dismisses him.

Why Keating? Well, the night before the play, he was the one who encouraged Neil to continue on with his role in the theater. He helped Neil have a chance to feel what life was like. Yet, consequently, the events had all led up to his suicide.

Was he truly in the wrong? I do not believe so. In the end, what matters is the intention behind Keating’s advice. He is as flawed as any human being but the love he has for his students is real, and most importantly a precious thing to behold.

Keating believes in the freedom to express yourself. He creates a fun environment for the students to learn in. Grueling hours of studying at a desk has become normal to us but what is the true harm in teaching your students through fun and memorable activities? After all, the youth are restless and searching for meaning, confining them to their desk space will make their outlook on life seem glum and uninteresting.

John Keating’s teachings may have its flaws but it makes a great step toward the enrichment of creativity and innovation.

Students standing on their desks in support of John Keating

“But only in their dreams, can men be truly free. Twas always thus and always thus will be”

John Keating

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