Release Year: 1989
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Tom Shulman
Stars: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles
We'll admit it: prep schools don't have the best literary rep. We've got the stifling conformity and phoniness of the prep school that Holden Caulfield goes to, the stifling conformity and betrayal-happy prep school showcased in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and the stifling conformity and—gulp—organ harvesting of the prep school in Never Let Me Go.
And we'll also admit that the 1950s don't have the best literary rep. Remember the stifling conformity and rampant racism on display in Go Set a Watchman? Or hey: the stifling conformity and homophobia apparent in the film Carol? How about the stifling conformity and familial dysfunction going on in Revolutionary Road?
Dead Poets Society gives you a double scoop of stifling conformity: a prep school, circa the 1950s. But it also gives you the antidote to the aforementioned stifling conformity: meeting a mentor that will encourage you to march to the beat of your own drum.
Four Pillars of Yawn
The students of Welton academy live a super-privileged existence in their prestigious school, where some of the finest future academics, doctors, politicians, and scientists are being groomed.The boys live lives of discipline and tradition, and basically have their Ivy League futures tied up with a bow.
That doesn't mean it's an idyllic existence, though. When a new and dynamic English teacher arrives on the scene, some of Welton's finest are given a glimpse of the world that exists beyond rituals and test scores. They learn about the value of poetry and individualism, and become inspired to lead the lives they have only been dreaming of.
But because this movie takes place in the conformity pressure-cooker of a 1950s prep school, these lessons on scary poetry and scarier individualism don't come easy. We're given front row seats into the lives of young men struggling to find meaning…even as the environment they find themselves living in is choking them like a too-tight school uniform tie.
That doesn't mean it's all doom n' gloom n' claustrophobic school hallways, though. The film's motto of "carpe diem" (aka: "seize the day") struck a chord with audiences and landed Touchstone Pictures with plenty of Oscar nominations (and even a win).
Dead Poets also launched the careers of actors like Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, and gave audiences a glimpse into the dramatic chops of everybody's favorite genie, Robin Williams.
Carpe diem FTW.
We're guessing even the most math-allergic among you is familiar with the following equations:
Hard Work + Good Grades = Good School
Good School + Hard Work = Good Job
Good Job = Success
Right? Isn't that the way it works?
For most of our lives, we're told that excelling at school will lead to a bright, successful future. All we have to do is study and work hard.
That's the way it works at Welton. Welton Academy—otherwise known as "Hellton," so you know it's super-fun—is the best of the best, and the students (and faculty and parents) know it. The young men of Welton are all destined for bright futures. It's already decided. They simply have to solve the equation that leads to success.
But what does success even mean? Does it mean making money? Having a fancy-shmancy job? Or is it…something else?
In Dead Poets Society, we meet a teacher—Mr. Keating—who challenges his students to consider that very question. He wants them to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Mr. Keating tries to inspire them to live fully, seizing every day, and make their mark before it's too late. He challenges them to avoid conformity and march to the beat of their own drum.
In other words: he wants them to let their freak flags fly.
And maybe it's not just the Welton students who could use a little inspiration. Maybe we could all take a little break from working toward the nebulous goal of "success" and consider which (and whose) goals we want to be working for.
So maybe take a quick study break. Read a Walt Whitman poem. Run barefoot through a meadow. Build a radio. Tell the cutie-pie you've been dreaming about that they're worth dreaming about. Take a stand.
And—oh, yeah—watch Dead Poets Society.
The first scene of the novel conveys the preeminence of conformity at Welton Academy: Welton’s students dutifully file into the chapel, dressed in the same school blazers and reciting the same “four pillars” of success at Welton (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence). In a way, conformity—the blind emphasis on sameness and repetition—is the real villain of Dead Poets Society. It’s important to understand where conformity comes from and why it has the potential to be so dangerous.
The four pillars of Welton—tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence—are different aspects of the same conformist model of success, a model that by definition can’t work for everyone. Both in school and in life, Welton students are ordered to follow the same rules. Ultimately, the point of following the rules is to achieve “success,” but only in the narrow, material sense of getting good grades, going to a good school, and finding a high-paying job. In this way, the four pillars of Welton are designed to force students to aspire for the same kinds of success—and, essentially, to become the same people.
At times, the novel is sympathetic to the idea of conformity—there are, after all, times when it’s good to follow the rules and pursue the same kinds of success that other people have achieved. Mr. Perry, the father of Neil Perry, a Welton Academy student, seems to genuinely care about his son, even if he expresses his love through the language of conformity and discipline. Mr. Perry, it’s implied, comes from a poor family, and so wants his son to have the best life possible—and as he sees it, this means forcing Neil to do well in school, go to Harvard, and become a prosperous doctor. So one clear advantage of “success” as Welton defines it is that it produces students who can support themselves financially, find challenging, fulfilling work, and raise a family.
Nevertheless, the novel is mostly skeptical of Welton’s model of success, because it forces young people to conform to rules that don’t work for everyone, a state that often produces more misery than happiness. The ultimate goal of studying hard and following the rules, one would think, is that it produces lasting happiness. But, as the novel emphasizes again and again, many of the students of Welton, as well as their parents, are conspicuously unhappy. Students hate their parents for micromanaging their lives and forcing them to study hard. By the same token, the parents of Welton students have become so obsessed with the idea of making their children “successful” that it’s overshadowed their natural affection for their children. (In the novel, not a single parent of a Welton student is portrayed positively.) Ultimately, conformity has no psychological or spiritual “payoff”—it just produces more conformity. The same could be said of Welton’s understanding of success—students are trained to achieve “success for the sake of success,” not for their own happiness.
At the end of the novel, we see the moral bankruptcy of Welton’s celebration of success and conformity. After Neil Perry’s suicide, the Welton headmaster, Gale Nolan, scrambles to find a teacher to blame for the tragedy. In the end, he holds John Keating responsible for Neil’s suicide, and fires him from the school. As the students of Welton recognize right away, Nolan doesn’t really blame Keating for Neil’s death at all—he just wants to avoid a scandal that would jeopardize Welton’s alumni relations, and therefore its status as an elite, “successful” school. This suggests that Welton’s emphasis on “conformity for the sake of conformity” is even more sinister than it appears: Nolan is more concerned with his own professional success than with right and wrong or the welfare of his students. Ultimately, the novel shows that Welton’s overemphasis on conformity produces shallow, morally blind, deeply unhappy people.