As its boarding school setting would suggest, Dead Poets Society is in large part a novel about education. The book articulates two competing theories about how young people should be educated: first, the process of rote memorization and blind obedience practiced by most teachers at Welton Academy (the “Welton way”); second, the process of training students to think for themselves (the “Keating way”).
At Welton, students are trained to obey authorities and internalize whatever knowledge their teachers deem fit to pass on to them. According to the “Welton way,” education consists of an older, more experienced teacher passing on specific information to a classroom of younger, relatively inexperienced students. Therefore, the ideal Welton student will obey authority without question, memorizing Latin, trigonometry, history, etc. But although the Welton way defines education as the internalization of specific pieces of information, education itself is just a means to an end: i.e., a way for Welton students to go to a good college and later get a good job. The Welton way isn’t designed to foster any real passion for knowledge whatsoever; rather, it’s designed to produce graduates who will go on to make lots of money.
The “Keating way” of educating students, by contrast, is designed to get young people to think for themselves. Content-wise, Keating’s classes stress the idea that a “good life” must be structured around one’s unique passions, not society’s rules. Similarly, Keating’s theatrical, sometimes over-the-top methods push students to think originally and independently. He lets his students stand on desks, walk around the schoolyard, yell in class, and generally break out of their old, familiar habits at school. The goal of these seemingly frivolous exercises is to train students to “un-learn” their blind obedience to Welton, and to authority in general. Keating believes that students have innate passions and talents—his job, then, isn’t to pass on information to his students, but rather to help them cultivate the abilities they already have.
As many critics have pointed out, however, it’s not clear that Keating really trains his students to think for themselves at all. He tries to use humor, performance, and wit to train his students to think freely, but it seems likely that he’s just training his students to worship him. It’s telling that the novel shows Keating analyzing specific poems only once—he claims that he wants his students to love poetry, but in fact, he seems to want his students to love him. In short, one could argue, Keating’s students become blindly loyal to Keating where before they were blindly loyal to Welton. While such an interpretation of Dead Poets Society may be beyond Kleinbaum’s authorial intent, it’s important to keep in mind. There is a potential contradiction in the notion of teaching students to think originally (how can you teach originality?), and at times, Keating seems to fall prey to such a contradiction, his theatricality as much of a barrier to free thought as the other Welton teachers’ dullness.
Education Quotes in Dead Poets Society
Sixteen-year-old Todd Anderson, one of the few students not wearing the school blazer, hesitated as the boys around him rose to their feet. His mother nudged him up. His face was drawn and unhappy, his eyes dark with anger. He watched silently as the boys around him shouted in unison, “Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence!”
The audience rose to a standing ovation as the octogenarian haughtily shunned offers of help from those beside him and made his way to the podium with painstaking slowness. He mumbled a few words that the audience could barely make out, and, with that, the convocation came to an end.
As the other boys stared at him, Todd fought back tears.
“You'll like soccer here, Anderson. All right, boys. Dismissed.”
He jumped dramatically onto his desk and turned to face the class. “O Captain! My Captain!” he recited energetically, then looked around the room.
Did most of them not wait until it was too late before making their lives into even one iota of what they were capable? In chasing the almighty deity of success, did they not squander their boyhood dreams? Most of those gentlemen are fertilizing daffodils now!
Keating grabbed onto his own throat and screamed horribly. “AHHHHGGGGG!!” he shouted. “Refuse! Garbage! Pus! Rip it out of your books. Go on, rip out the entire page! I want this rubbish in the trash where it belongs!”
He stood silent at the back of the room, then slowly walked to the front. All eyes were riveted on his impassioned face. Keating looked around the room. “What will your verse be?” he asked intently.
The teacher waited a long moment, then softly broke the mood. “Let's open our texts to page 60 and learn about Wordsworth's notion of romanticism.”
“Ah,” McAllister laughed, “free thinkers at seventeen!”
“I hardly pegged you as a cynic,” Keating said, sipping a cup of tea.
“Not a cynic, my boy,” McAllister said knowingly. “A realist! Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man!”
Todd stood still for a long time. Keating walked to his side. “There is magic, Mr. Anderson. Don't you forget this.”
Neil started applauding. Others joined in. Todd took a deep breath and for the first time he smiled with an air of confidence.
“There is a place for daring and a place for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” Keating said.
“But I thought …” Charlie stammered.
“Getting expelled from this school is not an act of wisdom or daring. It's far from perfect but there are still opportunities to be had here.”
“Talk to him, Neil,” Keating urged.
“Isn't there an easier way?” Neil begged.
“Not if you're going to stay true to yourself.”
“Damn it, even if the bastard didn't pull the trigger, he …” Todd’s sobs drowned his words until, finally, he controlled himself. “Even if Mr. Perry didn't shoot him,” Todd said calmly, “he killed him. They have to know that!”
“Cameron's a fink! He's in Nolan's office right now, finking!”
“About what?” Pitts asked.
“The club, Pitts. Think about it.” Pitts and the others looked bewildered. “They need a scapegoat,” Charlie said. “Schools go under because of things like this.”
As Nolan started down the aisle toward him, Knox, on the other side of the room, called out Mr. Keating's name and stood up on his desk too. Nolan turned toward Knox. Meeks mustered up his courage and stood up on his desk. Pitts did the same. One by one, and then in groups, others in the class followed their lead, standing on their desks in silent salute to Mr. Keating.