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January 5, 2021
- Surya Raman

“Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence.”

“Travesty. Horror. Decadence. Excrement”

Thirty one years later, Dead Poets Society remains a widely beloved movie, owing not just to its appeal as a bewitching, iconoclastic take on education and all that comes with it, but also to its portrayal of non-conformity, and a disregard for authority.

A stern assembly speech, delivered by an unnerving Headmaster, headlined by a resounding shout from the boys : “Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence.” , leaves a hollow feeling in your gut, and sets the tone for the film. The speech lays emphasis on the rigour with which discipline and the ways of lore are practised at “Hell-Ton” academy - to train and churn out perfect individuals for business and medical schools. A mere minute later, the boys huddle up in Neil Perry’s room, light up a cigarette - an obvious contraband at the school - and relish reciting the insolent variant of the Four Pillars - “Travesty. Horror. Decadence.Excrement”. Their hatred for the uniform code of discipline and excellence is palpable, and the film quickly settles in as a battleground for conformists and free thinkers (in this article we will use dogmatisms and conformism a bit loosely and make the distinction more lucid at a later point).

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

The semester begins with a typical workday - announcements of assignments, exams, grades, etcetera. The soul-crushing trigonometry lecture is quickly met with equal force by Keating’s knack for humour, and his ardent love for free-thinking. Keating has them read aloud “To The Virgins to Make Much of Time” - and quips “Somewhat appropriate isn’t it?” to taunt and relax the students. The alums of Welton and the ancient poets whisper their legacy to the boys through Keating - “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, or “Carpe Diem” - seize the day.

The film makes the lesson in non-conformity more obvious in the famous “Rip Rip Rip” scene. A fictional Dr. J Evans Pritchard’s astoundingly boring measuring scheme of poetry is first read aloud, and then ripped apart quite literally - a conformist colleague of Keating, sees the chaos in the room and bolts in to correct the madness, and is flabbergasted when he realises that the order had come from Keating. “Poetry is not bandstand, and we will not have it measured” decries Keating, in an effort to emphasise the true need for poetry :

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

What follows is a host of heartwarming cave-sessions of the reconvened Dead Poets, and unorthodox lectures on the part of Keating to introduce the students to a world of hitherto unexplored intellectual freedom. His classes have a clear effect on the boys - Neil says to Todd “Nothing Mr. Keating has to say means shit to you does it Todd? ….Being in the club [Dead Poets] means you gotta do something, not just say you’re in” .The Dead Poets, one by one, subscribe wholeheartedly to the “Carpe Diem” notion. Charlie Dalton, aka Nuwanda, explores his anti-establishment persona; Knox Overstreet gathers the courage to go after the girl of his dreams; Todd Anderson - in an iconic and emotionally overwhelming moment - overcomes his fear of public speaking and recites a raw and powerful composition on “Truth”. And Neil, oh Neil, chooses to pursue acting, going against his father’s wishes.

The scene in the courtyard - where Keating asks 3 students to just “take a stroll” - addresses the central notion of conformity head-on. A direct “lesson in the dangers of conformity”, Keating illustrates how the students inevitably end up marching in unison, and how the spectators cheer and clap in perfect rhythm. A sullen Headmaster Nolan watches on silently from behind the drapes of his office, as Keating quite openly exemplifies the notion of teaching students to think for themselves, even in the face of unacceptance and/or ridicule.

A pivotal conversation between the two follows and Nolan justifies the conformist standpoint (at least from an educational perspective) - when Keating posits that the point of education was to teach people to think for themselves, Nolan responds with a quick “At these boys’ age? Not on your life”.

Nolan’s standpoint then is simple - why challenge tried and tested methods, or reinvent the wheel? And why should impressionable students learn to think for themselves just yet?

To “conform” essentially means to “comply” - comply with rules, regulations and the norms of society. This definition is unhelpful and broad, since it encompasses all forms of compliance, but in this article, what we have particularly looked at, is the kind of enforced conformism that puts the blinders on free thought and creative intellectualism. Whether it was the language teacher who always wanted an essay in a prescribed format, or the computer science teacher who never tolerated innovative solutions to coding challenges - we’ve all come across or experienced at least mild variants of enforced conformism. When this self-same principle of enforced conformism is bloated up by the state to contain religious, political and social dicta, one comes across totalitarianism.

The conformist argument has its merits. To rip out the fictional Dr. Pritchard’s essay on “Understanding Poetry’’ is symbolic of challenging the entire system, the establishment. Systems everywhere are flawed and require such challenges - whether it’s the educational system, or the political system, the socio-economic system, etc. However, throwing out entire structures, especially if they have been tried and tested, or can still be tried and tested, is foolish - there really is no need to reinvent the wheel if the logical consistency or validity of an existing structure can be verified. The problem arises when the students are forced to be limited to these texts- this intellectual restriction is what the freethinkers must be indignant about, not the existence of a structure itself.

In other words, it’s one thing to teach a student how to write an essay or a computer program, it’s quite another to claim that the taught way was somehow sacrosanct, not to be changed or meddled with. The latter is when the opinion of some is reshaped as the absolute truth, or a dogma. This example is perhaps a bit trivial, but the principle has far-reaching consequences in our present day religious, political and social structures. For example, religious totalitarianism and secular totalitarianism are both deeply problematic due to the same flawed principle - dogmatism. To paraphrase modern day philosopher Sam Harris, enforcing opinions, narratives or structures as inherent facts of nature bolts shut the door out of fundamentalism from the inside, and requires a massive amount of struggle, for a prolonged period of time, from the outside.

Set against the grim backdrop of the school - with its extremist implementation of conformist ideals - it is difficult for the viewers to not empathize with Keating, and the students of the academy. This unsettling environment and the drudgery of the school day that ensues, helps us side with the tenets of free thinking. The idea that Keating wishes to impart to his students is simple - using his own way of teaching as an exemplary model, he wishes to portray that it is indeed possible to have an original thought, even in the face of the dire circumstances students faced at “Hell-Ton”. While his teaching methods are unorthodox and despised by his colleagues, he does not himself give in to extremist free-thinking : when Nuwanda pulls his “lame stunt”, Captain Keating advises all the boys to always err on the side of caution, and “keep their heads about themselves”.

Keating, even as a free-thinker, is portrayed throughout the movie as a “Captain” - a guiding figure. In that regard, Keating’s methods do not disagree with Nolan’s - students do require some structures, and guiding principles, so as to not wander too far away from the road to a healthy existence (it is assumed in this article, that there is indeed such a thing as healthy existence).

But the practicality of Keating’s teachings appears debatable, since it seems as though the notions he propagated in an environment so severely conformist were bound to fail. However the same seemingly idealist teachings result in Knox, Todd and Nuwanda overcoming their fears and exploring their own desires in a “practical” and “plausible” manner. It is ultimately the rules set in stone in Welton and the boys’ own houses, that leave no space for the students to go on a path of self discovery and ultimately “find themselves”.

In this way, the film portrays Keating as a level headed free thinker who wishes to question and challenge the structures of society, without really taking apart those structures that are tried and tested Nolan on the other hand is a rigid, tightly-wound specimen of enforced conformism or dogmatism. He wishes to not just maintain antiquated social and educational structures, but also strictly enforce them as the absolute truth. This is perfectly encapsulated perhaps in the very opening scene alluded to above - the gut-wrenching shout “Tradition.Honour.Discipline Excellence”.

Perhaps “Hell-ton”’s hellish circumstances led Keating to be a bit more-than-moderate version of a freethinker; perhaps he wanted to liberate the intellectualism of the students by setting a straightforward example. Either way, through the course of the cave sessions, it becomes more and more apparent that the boys had learned and felt the lesson - at a level that goes beyond the purely intellectual.

Neil’s suicide, even during the 10th rewatch, is as sudden and horrifying as it is the first time. Faced with a relentless, strict and dispassionate father, who plans on enrolling Neil in a new military school and putting an end to his tryst with acting, a gloomy Neil cries “I’m trapped” to Keating. His decision to openly defy his father and the academy teachers to pursue acting is an example of the creative freedom that had been inculcated in him by Keating. This heroic defiance of authority meets with an end of similar stature. The rigidity of the rules enforced in the lives of students is highlighted at this point - a conformist world leaving no room for free thinking is bound to fail. His death exemplifies the final consequence of an impossible war between conformism and freethinking, especially when one side wields all the power.

Two scenes of genius cinematography define the tone at the end of the movie. The students are escorted one by one into the Headmaster’s office by a professor, as part of the “inquiry” into Neil’s death. The administration finds it easy to blame the Dead Poets, and even easier to make Keating the scapegoat, and Todd and his friends are forced into a corner. A particular scene shows Todd being escorted into Nolan’s office, and they march up a flight of stairs in perfect unison - an indicator of the conformity that the students had been pushed into.


To make the claim that Keating had no influence on the boys would be both ridiculous and wrong. But to conflate influence with blame is a different matter entirely. Perhaps Neil would not have pursued acting had it not been for Keating. Does that matter? Was his death not the consequence of feeling trapped? If it was, then his immediate affair with acting alone can not be blamed for the entire debacle.

And then, the final scene. An outburst from Todd prompts part of the entire class - studying English under Nolan now - to stand on their desks and yell `O Captain My Captain`, and a morose Keating is briefly vindicated, as he realises the fact that through all the pain and suffering, his words and lessons on the dangers of conformity had indeed gotten through to the boys.