Dead Poets Society | Study Guide

Nancy H. Kleinbaum

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Dead Poets Society | Themes


Tradition versus Innovation in Education

The story opens based on the solemn weight of "four pillars," creating and supporting education at Welton. It is the school's centennial year, and its headmaster, Dean Nolan, takes the opportunity to celebrate and boast. Everything stems, according to him, from what has been done in the past based on traditional beliefs. Banners and flags are used as props and propaganda to hammer home that nothing has changed over the century other than an exponential increase in alumni. The boys have to recite and proclaim the principles as a kind of gospel that is unquestioned. Four are selected to repeat the importance of each pillar: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence that supposedly can come only from working hard, harder, and hardest.

The captive audience of those who pay significant sums for their sons to attend Welton can have no voice of its own other than silent agreement. They can only repeat or hear what the script tells them to say and believe Dean Nolan when he claims that Welton is the best prep school in the nation. Education in 1959, during a general era of conservative and conformist thought, is not seen as open at any end toward change. The "pillars" are rigid supports enclosing a fixed space of narrow perspectives, like the path the parade into the chapel follows. Rather than intellectual activity, education seems linked to repetition, faith, and abstract obedience.

When John Keating is introduced, there is no telling what role he will play in upholding this direction. But having been an honors student at Welton himself, hired by Dean Nolan to replace a veteran of many years standing, Keating would be expected to keep to the script in all ways. From the first of his classes, however, he upsets every aspect of the past he can reach. He rips apart the old-fashioned textbook for his class and provides the students with every opportunity to make change paramount, not keeping to a static tradition. By throwing out the old standards for judging literature, for example, he asks them to value such nonconformist voices as Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau. They are iconoclastic writers who rejected social norms and celebrated their individualism that went against accepted behavior in all areas of life.

By taking them to view the photographs that line the walls of the Honor Room, Keating is not asking his students to honor tradition but to do the opposite. He is telling them to look at the sparkle of hope in the departed alumnus's eye and act on their own dreams.

Rather than maintaining tradition, for Keating, it is change and growth that matter. He sees the written language as being especially powerful when it breaks norms: "No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world." He speaks his philosophy only to the older classics professor George McAllister, telling him that he aims to make of the boys "free-thinkers" at age 17. He tells the boys, "We must constantly endeavor to find a new point of view. ... You must strive to find your own voice." The only time he discusses his work with Dean Nolan, he rejects the idea of following a set curriculum: "I always thought education was learning to think for yourself." Naturally, Dean Nolan tells him instead to refocus on tradition and discipline.

Passion versus Repression

The school's principles exalt control and repression through devotion to discipline. The teenage boys are separated from all females and live strictly with denial of any liberating emotions or instincts. They are kept busy and over-occupied much of their time and watched by the supervising authority that is vigilant to any sign of individual freedom. Their study of literature, for example, is based on a mathematical formula for charting precisely the "value" of any poem on a graph, which reduces inspiration and artistic freedom to a precise plotted field measurable like an equation. It is this approach that Keating immediately opposes and has his students physically destroy and dismiss as garbage. He tells the boys that one needs and reads poetry because "he is a member of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion!"

He links poetry to romance, love, and beauty: "These are what we stay alive for!" His enemy, above all else, is conformity and repression. It makes the reader have to wonder if Keating took the job at Welton for the sole purpose of knocking down these values.

The teenage boys find their emotions and instincts inflamed by Keating's words. Charlie Dalton wants to break out and discover passion with girls by bringing them to the secret meetings of the Dead Poets Society and by reading them poems by great writers, which he lets them think he wrote for them. He paints his body and changes his name to "Nuwanda" to represent the primitive, untamed side of his masculinity. He speaks more openly and even crudely than the other boys and feels the need to act on his impulses, leading him to challenge authority and be expelled by Dean Nolan.

Knox Overstreet finds he too has strong romantic feelings that Keating's selected liberationist writers tap into. Though his parents' close friends, the Danburrys, might expect his interest to go toward their young daughter, Ginny, instead, he is fixated on Chris Noel, their son's girlfriend, who is seemingly far from his reach. Knox learns enough from the romantic poets to find a way of winning her heart against the brute strength of Chet Danburry, who flunked out of Welton for lack of intelligence. Like her name, Chris Noel becomes a "present" to Knox as he seizes the moment to use the power of passion expressed through language and win her over.

Though the story ends with Dean Nolan exercising control, the boys of Dead Poets Society will not submit fully to his conformity and repression. No matter the consequences, the class will act on its individual and shared passions to make the point and shake the "pillars" of Welton.

Molding Youths into Freethinking Adults

The four pillars of Welton are abstract methods of controlling intellectual inquiry. Tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence are easily discovered and encouraged in subjects such as chemistry, trigonometry, Latin, and even physical education. Content can be quantified and controlled and subject to rote learning and memorization or physical output that is measurable. These subjects are easily graded and enclosed in traditional texts and exercises, so students can master them well on their own or in groups where they labor to gain quantifiable scores.

On the other hand, Keating concentrates seemingly exclusively on poetry. Though he is billed as the English teacher, he is not shown involved with prose or standard fiction, nor do the students work much on written themes. Rather, he concentrates on the immediacy of inspiration and creative juices he wants to flow over the restrictions of standard textbooks or definitive subject matter. He urges even timid and unconfident students like the withdrawn Todd Anderson to write a type of free-association poetry or to march or dance to primitive rhythms of verse that set them free from the accepted methods of learning at Welton. He rejects the idea that in a few years at Welton the young boys who enter will emerge ready for Ivy League and professional schools as mature adults prepared to carry forward the traditions they recite at the opening ceremony each year.

He wants to teach them how to bluff, to analyze books they have not read, and to not waste their "precious earthly time" on tasks that are meaningless to them. He is not interested in their knowing what an author means, but what they think he means. He gives them a mock pop quiz on a subject they do not know and tries to distract them with slides of pin-up girls in provocative poses, all intended to liberate them into the freedom of expression the other classes forbid.

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