The film Dead Poets Society by Peter Weir is about an unorthodox teacher whose philosophical motive is to teach his private college preparatory school students how to think for themselves and not fall into conformity or simply accepting truth as information found in books. He urges them to find their own voices, to strike out on their own and think for themselves.
However, the main purpose at Welton Academy is reproduce society by socializing their students and can be seen in how the teachers uphold the status quo and also the four pillars of the school: “tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence.” The message here is that by obedience to the values and behavior code at Welton will lead them to social success (e.g. careers, university degrees, money, good marriages). This is further supported at the year’s inauguration ceremony where the dean reminds the students that 75% of the previous graduates went on to Ivy League universities. The message is that if they follow the rules at Welton, they will go on to have successful lives. At every turn, the boys receive the message that upsetting the status quo at Welton will not be tolerated.
The emphasis on maintaining the status quo and reproducing society can be seen in the reactions some of the other teachers and administrators have to Keating as a teacher. For example, in the dining hall scene Keating mentions he wants his students to be “free thinkers” and the other professor scoffs at the idea. These examples show how Welton Academy is not interested in fostering a conducive, learning environment, but reproducing their values of “tradition, honor, discipline and excellence.” Yet, the biggest example of Welton Academy reproducing conformist society is in the termination of Mr. Keating’s contract at the school. The students are forced to comply with the investigation and subsequent expulsion of their beloved teacher. This affirms that any deviation from Welton’s focus on reproducing society results in severe consequences.
In the film, Mr. Keating introduces the students to the idea of carpe diem, a Latin phrase that means “seize the day.” Keating introduces the idea while having his students read a related passage of poetry to put them in touch with their own mortality; with the fact that we are all “food for worms.” Keating wishes to impart on the students that life is too short to let things they are passionate about fall through their grasp passively. Mr. Keating wants to motivate his students to find their passion and purpose through actively engaging in their lives and thinking for themselves.
Mr. Keating is trying to get his students to find their real voices, to discover and follow their own paths, not the predetermined ones set for them by others. It is easy for one’s voice to be drowned by the multitude of mediocre desires and safe decisions, Keating is trying to motivate his students to not settle. He sees the importance of “making your lives extraordinary” as the ultimate battle.
Standing on the desks was a vehicle to teach the importance of thinking outside the box by getting an alternate perspective. Keating tells his students “we must “constantly look at things in a different way” and you “must strive to find your own voice.” He warns his students that: “the longer you wait to start looking [for your voice] the less likely you are to find it at all.” Keating is once again trying to express the danger of just going along will the status quo instead of finding out who you really are and what you really want.
Neil’s father was opposed to Neil becoming an actor because he was attached to his own vision of his son’s future. Neil’s dad explains that Neil has opportunities that he never had, and firmly states that Neil will go to Harvard and become a doctor. Although Neil wants no part in his father’s plan for him, he finds it impossible to confront him.
In the beginning of the movie, Todd Anderson was timid and unable to speak up for himself. Todd was not capable of speaking up for himself, and so his needs and desires were often pushed by the wayside, as in the scene where the school’s dean chooses his activities for him. Todd fears his own meaninglessness and that he has nothing to contribute, as illustrated in the scene where Keating elicits a poem out of him. This event showed Todd the latent capacity he holds to do something out of the ordinary. He begins to believe more in himself. At the end of the movie, out of all the students, it is Todd who shouts out to Mr. Keating “O Captain, My Captain”, which pays respect to all their teacher had taught them and how he stimulated them to grow as people and thinkers.
Neil’s death holds a double meaning in the film. First, Neil would rather die than comply with his father’s wishes for him to go to military academy and become a doctor. This shows the great lengths he will go to in order to stay true to himself. Secondly, it is a grim warning to those who try and stand up against the status quo and what others want for them. Neil was in a losing situation with is father and felt the only way out was taking his own life.