Movie Analysis

The Meaning behind the Movie Dead Poets Society



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Socrates is reincarnated as John Keating in the "Dead Poet's Society."

Keating is a teacher at an old private school and his first lesson includes "Carpe Diem" and "gather ye rosebuds while ye may." He tells his students to make the most of their lives by thinking for themselves. He wants them to examine their lives and to not follow blindly. His students have been told by their parents what they will be in life (Neal, a doctor and Charlie, a lawyer). He wants them to be who they are, not who and what their parents and teachers expect them to be.

Keating is an unconventional educator working in a very strict atmosphere where conformity is the rule. He holds onto the belief that education means teaching students how to think, which goes against the teaching methods of the school where everyone had to dress, behave, and think the same. Anyone who was different was suspect and at risk of punishment. Even the hooded coats the students wore seemed symbolic of the dark times when free thinking was dangerous.

The school is run by stagnant old men who demand total control. They expect the boys to follow like sheep and quietly be spoon fed the 'proper' information, to not think for themselves. They believe in tradition, even if it no longer works, and strict discipline. Every minute of the day seems to be scheduled for the boys, they are not even free to choose their own recreation. As the dean, Mr. Nolan says, Tradition...discipline...prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.

Like the first philosophers, Keating sets his students on the path of questioning. He does not follow with the traditional methods of teaching. Rather than stifling the boys' natural curiosity, he shows them how to broaden their experiences. As they learn to question, their lives expand and they grow braver by testing new things. He teaches them different perspectives. He has them stand on his desk to see how their perspective of the room will change. In an exercise in the school yard he demonstrates that they should all 'walk their own walk,' or choose not to walk at all, and not blindly fall in step with whoever is walking beside them.

Under threat of punishment from the school, the boys search for their own answers. The Greek Miracle is replayed as the boys gain self-confidence in asking questions. They learn that the authority figures (the gods) do not have all the answers, especially not the answers to the questions about their own lives. After his students find Keating's old annual from when he attended their school, they question him about his club called the "Dead Poet's Society." The boys resurrect the group and meet in the same cave where Keating and his friends met. They then go out into the world to try out their new found knowledge and ideas.

Knox, one of Keating's students, attends a party with the football team from a nearby public school. The athletes are perfect examples of epistemic naivety. They drink beer and wear helmets with horns and life is good. The only questions they ask are, "Where's the beer? " and "What was the point spread?"  They don't know who they are and they don't want to know, that would be too deep for them. Their battle cry is party on.

Neil, another of Keating's students, wants to be an actor, but his parents insist he study medicine. He disobeyed his father and took part in a play. Afterwards his father arranged for Neil to be sent to a military school until he went to college. Faced with another ten years of training to be something he did not want to be, Neil committed suicide.

Keating is blamed for Neil's suicide. Mr. Nolan and Neil's parents contend that it was because of Keating putting ideas in his students' heads that Neil was unhappy. Keating is sacrificed to protect the school's reputation He was only guilty of helping his students expand their view of the world. Keating is the scapegoat for the mistakes of the school and the boy's parents, and like Socrates he is charged with corrupting youth.

More about this author: Laura Montana

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