Better late than never. I blame myself for never watching it before an educational psych class senior year of college. This was a truly inspiring movie!
There was a clear clash between the traditional and conservative values espoused by Welton Academy as an institution, and the progressive teaching methods of John Keating. Welton Academy’s ethos of “tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence not only discourages but makes it a crime for a student to exercise a critical political consciousness. Professor John Keating, on the other hand, is concerned with the political and moral quality of his students. He challenges them to question the social and political norms that defines their lives at Welton. As a result, he inspires Charlie to publish an article in the school newspaper, arguing for why Welton should be coeducational. In the end, Headmaster Gale Nolan, was so unwilling to even consider the possibility that Neil Perry’s suicide was a product of the intellectually and political repressive atmosphere at Welton, that he compelled every member of the Dead Poet’s Society on threat of expulsion to sign a form stating that Keating’s “destructive” teaching method was the true culprit. By the end of the film, it was clear that what transpires at Welton Academy is not true learning, but rather an insidious form of social and political control in which the dynamics of the dominant, established society, as exemplified by Neil’s father’s suppression of his son’s desire to pursue acting, reproduce themselves in the classroom. In this type of society, children are treated as mere objects or tabulae rasae, without feelings, without desires, without willpower, without dignity, without knowledge. They are to remain docile, unthinking, predetermined automatons subject to the moldings of wiser adults who are the creators, possessors, and dispensers of all necessary knowledge. They are the passive receptacles of information, the Oppressed, in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of The Oppressed. They are the sufferers of Welton Academy’s most hateful and repressive representation of Freire’s “Banking” method of education. While Keating is not their savior he enables them to discover the savior within themselves and thereby free themselves from the context in which they suffer. In his mind, an affective teacher is an active enabler of his or her student’s inner potential for growth and learning. By virtue of his teaching method and stated objectives, he rejects the ethos radical conformity disguised as harmless tradition. In a tense conversation with the Headmaster, he expresses that he a wants the students to be able and willing to think for themselves. The student’s embrace Keating’s methods and overarching message of critical thinking and intellectual freedom, and by the end of the movie, are courageous enough to openly defy Headmaster Gale Nolan spurred by knowledge of the true circumstances surrounding Neil’s suicide and Welton’s shameless attempt to suppress it. This moment represents the most powerful point of the film, because Todd, Charlie, Knox, Pitts, Richard, and Steven by standing on their desks and addressing Professor Keating with the title of Walt Whitman’s poem “O’Captain, O’Captain” at last, come to the full realization that “schooling is a political process because it is produced and situated in a complex of social and political relations from which it cannot be abstracted.” Welton Academy is all about the politics of dominance and control. The school issues directives to the teachers on the curriculum and the manner in which it is to be administered, while the students are expected to follow it unquestioningly. A culture of silence and conformity ensues, and the students are compelled to accept that, at Welton, nothing else matters as long you do what we tell you to do without protest. Professor Keating enables his students to not only recognize their own individualities but harness them into a collective unit that is capable of challenging the status quo. The final scene reveals his success.