Dead Poets Society

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Themes and Colors
Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Conformity and Success Theme Icon
Rebellion and Passion Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Dead Poets Society, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Education Theme Icon

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.

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Education ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Education appears in each Chapter of Dead Poets Society. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Education Quotes in Dead Poets Society

Below you will find the important quotes in Dead Poets Society related to the theme of Education.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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!”

Related Characters: Todd Anderson
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first chapter, we’re introduced to Todd Anderson, one of the novel’s main characters. Todd immediately stands out from his peers because he’s not wearing the Welton Academy blazer, symbolizing his outsider status among the other students (both literally, because he’s transferring from another school, and figuratively, since he’s uncomfortable around his peers). Todd and the other Welton students are in the middle of their yearly convocation ceremony, during which the Welton students obediently shout out the four “pillars” of Welton—the values that supposedly make a Welton education so important. Essentially, the four pillars are a set of rules for the students to obey: the pillars demand that the students study hard (excellence), obey authorities (discipline), tell the truth to the authorities (honor), and respect Welton itself (tradition).

So the passage conveys the vast importance of rules at Welton—as an elite prep school, Welton prioritizes order and obedience in its student body. Todd is evidently skeptical of the four pillars, as evidenced by his scowl—or at least is skeptical of the shouting and the uniform nature of the whole ceremony. It’s also worth noting that his mother has to “nudge him up”—the only reason Todd’s here at all is because, like so many of the other Welton boys, his parents are pressuring him hard to fit their ideas of a “successful” son.

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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.

Related Characters: Alexander Carmichael
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Welton is an elite private school that celebrates tradition for the sake of tradition. The novel is set in 1959, Welton’s centennial, emphasizing the importance of tradition and the past at Welton. And yet the novel also shows the emphasis on tradition at Welton to be feeble, ineffectual, and ultimately impotent. Here, the Welton headmaster invites Welton’s oldest living graduate to speak before the students. If Welton’s education is so valuable, one might expect the speaker to be highly persuasive, charismatic, or otherwise visibly happy. Instead, the speaker’s speech is dull and almost incomprehensible.

The message appears to be that Welton’s education—supposedly the recipe for a good, fulfilling life—is actually a ticket to a long, dull existence without any real wisdom about the world, let alone real pleasure.

Chapter 2 Quotes

As the other boys stared at him, Todd fought back tears.
“You'll like soccer here, Anderson. All right, boys. Dismissed.”

Related Characters: Headmaster Gale Nolan (speaker), Todd Anderson
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Todd Anderson, who’s new at Welton, goes to see the headmaster, Gale Nolan. Nolan assigns Todd his extracurricular activities, including soccer. Todd doesn’t enjoy soccer, and would prefer to do rowing, but doesn’t have the courage to argue to Nolan why he’d prefer some other sport. Nolan speaks over him and insists, “you’ll like soccer here.”

The passage is a good example of how the strict emphasis on rules and obedience at Welton limits the students’ freedom and happiness. Nolan assigns extracurriculars for his students, instead of allowing his students to select their own—meaning that, even outside of academia, Nolan exerts tremendous power over the way his students live their lives. By the same token, Todd’s inability to contradict Nolan proves his shyness and reluctance to stand up for himself. Todd hates the repressive atmosphere at Welton, and the fact that he’s so reluctant to stand up for himself when he first arrives at Welton might suggest that his family life is similarly repressive. But he’s not brave enough to take control over his own life—yet. For now, he swallows his anger and goes along with Nolan’s orders.

Chapter 4 Quotes

He jumped dramatically onto his desk and turned to face the class. “O Captain! My Captain!” he recited energetically, then looked around the room.

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Related Symbols: Standing on the Desk
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we’re introduced to John Keating, the charismatic English teacher who inspires the students of Welton to “seize the day.” Keating immediately makes an impression on the students by standing on his desk—a vivid contrast with the stiff, reserved way most of the other Welton teachers conduct their lessons (not to mention the dull, incomprehensible speech that Alexander Carmichael, Welton’s oldest living graduate, gave at the beginning of the year).

From the very beginning, then, Keating aims to disrupt his students’ expectations and force them to think for themselves. This certainly doesn’t mean that Keating is an anarchist—from the passage, it’s very clear that Keating still wants his students to listen to him, obey him, and respect him as their educator. In essence, Keating still wants to be the students’ teacher—he just wants to be a different kind of teacher, hence his desire to be called “O Captain! My Captain!”, an allusion to the poetry of Walt Whitman, rather than the usual “Mr.” It’s also worth noting that Whitman’s poem is about Abraham Lincoln, the American President who, Whitman claims, was cruelly murdered in spite of working tirelessly to help his people—perhaps foreshadowing the way that Welton will cruelly fire Keating, in spite of everything he’s done for his students.

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!

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

John Keating begins his lesson by urging his students to “seize the day”—that is, to make the most of their lives. Keating’s point, as articulated here, is that the students simply don’t have that much life to live. Though they’re young, and feel as if they’re going to live forever, they’re all going to die someday. Keating reinforces his point by showing his students old photographs of former Welton graduating classes—just about everyone in the photographs is “fertilizing daffodils” now, he says.

Because life is short, Keating argues, it is a huge mistake to accept other people’s definitions of success. Most of the students at Welton have been told—both by their families and their teachers—to believe in the same narrow definition of success, tied to a high salary, a family, and a good job (for example, Neil Perry’s parents tell him again and again that he’s going to be a doctor). Keating wants his students to think for themselves and discover their own definitions of success—because, as we’ve already seen from Neil and his peers, the traditional definition of success isn’t particularly fulfilling or satisfying for many people.

Chapter 5 Quotes

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!”

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Keating teaches a class in which he asks his students to read the introduction from their English textbook. In the essay, an academic writes about how to “measure” the greatness of a poem mathematically. In the middle of the essay, Keating begins to cry theatrically, showing that he despises the essay for its narrow, dull understanding of poetry. He makes a show of telling his students to rip the essay out of their textbook. The point seems to be that poetry can’t be analyzed scientifically, as the essay would have its readers believe. Instead, poetry must be experienced on a visceral, emotional level—it must be read with passion. Keating wants his students to rebel against tradition, conformity, and the stiff, scientific approach to education, epitomized in the essay—and this is why the Welton administration ultimately considers him a danger.

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.”

Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, John Keating comes to his central point: the purpose of the students’ lives is to “contribute a verse” to the grand poem of life—in other words, to making a lasting, meaningful, and, above all, original contribution to the world. While other teachers (to say nothing of the students’ parents) try to ensure that the students’ contributions are essentially the same (becoming, for example, doctors and lawyers), Keating doesn’t try to tell his students what to do at all; all he asks is that his students choose their path in life freely, rather than simply doing what their parents order them to do.

The passage is a good example of some of the contradictions in Keating’s role as a teacher (some of which the book explores, some of which it doesn’t). Keating is a charismatic professor, but by and large, his most memorable actions are either 1) not directly related to literature at all (standing on a desk, for example) or 2) reactions to how other people interpret literature (as in the previous quote). How, exactly, would somebody like Keating go about actually teaching poetry—how would he talk about specific lines of poetry, and what level of academic rigor would he bring to these analyses? It’s very telling that the chapter ends at the exact instant when Keating is about to start lecturing about a specific poet, Wordsworth—we’re left to imagine what form the lesson will take. Critics of Dead Poets Society, both the book and the movie, have argued that Keating isn’t really teaching his students to love poetry at all—he’s just teaching them to love him.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“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!”

Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the only passages in the novel when two teachers stop and chat about teaching. George McAllister, the strict Latin teacher, has witnessed one of Keating’s lessons, and he’s bemusedly skeptical of Keating’s wild, free approach to teaching. When Keating claims that his goal is to get his students to think for themselves, McAllister scoffs: the goal of a teacher of teenagers should be to impart information, not to inspire impulsiveness.

The passage establishes the basic tension between Keating’s teaching methods and those used by most of the other teachers. Welton Academy is designed to prepare students for “success” in life, albeit a narrowly defined version of success that includes, basically, going to an Ivy League school, becoming a doctor or lawyer, and, eventually becoming a Welton alumni donor. While McAllister sincerely believes that he’s doing his students a favor by forcing them to be realistic and grounded, Keating seems to think that training students in this way just makes them soulless and fundamentally unhappy. Instead, he opts for a riskier but perhaps ultimately more fulfilling strategy: teaching his students how to discover their own values and passions—in short, their own versions of “success.” Keating believes that this strategy—dismissed by McAllister as “foolish dreams”—is the surest way to lead young minds to happiness.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we see Keating at his most inspiring. He’s asked his students to compose a poem—when it’s Todd’s turn to read his poem, he admits that he didn’t write one. He’s so shy and insecure that he believes anything he writes will be bad. So Keating pushes Todd to improvise a poem. To everyone’s surprise, including Todd himself, Todd composes a brilliant poem about Walt Whitman. After he’s finished, Todd smiles confidently—he’s discovered that he’s brighter and more talented than he thought.

Keating’s methods are interesting because, unlike most of the other teachers at Welton, he isn’t forcing Todd to learn any specific lessons—there’s no information that Keating expects Todd to recite back to him. Instead, Keating is trying to get Todd to access his own innate talent—the talent that Todd already has within himself, but that his parents and other teachers have suppressed. In all, Keating doesn’t think of himself as passing on knowledge to his students, but he does think of himself as a teacher. A teacher’s job, as he sees it, is to help students harness their own creativity and talent—and in this scene, Keating succeeds in doing so.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“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.”

Page Number: 110-111
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Keating clarifies the lessons he’s trying to teach his students. Headmaster Nolan has just punished Charlie for disrespecting him in public. Charlie insists that Keating inspired him to act out against the Welton administration—Keating’s urgings to “seize the day” inspired him to think for himself and challenge authority. But Keating claims that he never intended for his students to act like Charlie has. On the contrary, Keating wants his students to balance daring and caution. There’s a time for rebellion, and there’s a time for obedience.

Keating’s clarifications are importance, because they help us understand how he defines “happiness” and “the good life.” Some of Keating’s most enthusiastic pupils have interpreted his words to mean, “rebel against everything.” Keating, however, distrusts his students’ impulsive, rebellious behaviors, because they’re motivated by a love of rebellion for its own sake or by a desire to cause chaos, rather than by any genuine passion. Instead, he wants his students to take their time before committing to their passions and beliefs—in other words, to exercise caution, especially when the consequences could be dire (like being expelled altogether).

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Talk to him, Neil,” Keating urged.
“Isn't there an easier way?” Neil begged.
“Not if you're going to stay true to yourself.”

Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Neil Perry goes to Keating for advice. Mr. Perry has discovered that his son is going to perform in a play—something he doesn’t approve of. He forbids Neil from performing, even though opening night is tomorrow. Neil is furious with his father, and asks Keating for help thinking through the situation. Keating’s advice is for Neil to try to communicate some of his passion to his father—he’s sure that if Neil can make his father see what acting means to him, his father will give in and allow Neil to perform (particularly because Neil’s grades haven’t suffered because of the play). In the end, though, Neil doesn’t talk to his father, and instead just performs in the play against his father’s wishes—a rash decision that tragically leads to his suicide.

Keating encourages his students—not just Neil—to be bold and original, but ultimately he also wants them to be happy and to get along with others (especially their families). The reason Keating encourages Neil to talk to his father is that Keating wants Neil to be honest about his passions, instead of hiding them from his family forever.

Chapter 14 Quotes

“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!”

Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Todd has just discovered that his friend and roommate, Neil Perry, shot himself with his father’s revolver. Todd is distraught at the news, and not just because his friend is now dead. Todd is so upset that he immediately begins to blame Mr. Perry for the accident. Todd doesn’t know all the details of the matter, but he does know that Neil quarreled with his father about his love of acting—a love that Mr. Perry was unwilling to accept. He’s sure that Mr. Perry’s refusal to accept his son’s choice of a profession was what drove Neil to suicide.

Todd’s reaction to Neil’s death is notable because he’s so desperate to blame someone for the accident. In this way, his reaction foreshadows the final chapter of the novel, in which the Welton administration will, sure enough, blame someone else for the suicide—Keating. Even if blaming Mr. Perry isn’t an entirely fair reaction to the suicide (it’s not like Todd has all the information, though he’s making a very serious accusation indeed), it gets at the heart of what was the matter with Neil. Neil was a sad, repressed young man—highly intelligent, desperate to be independent, but still very much under the control of his family. Keating inspired Neil to find an avenue for expressing himself—performance—and then Mr. Perry took away that avenue. In essence, Keating made Neil happier than he’d ever been, and then Mr. Perry made Neil more miserable than he’d ever been.

“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.”

Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to a close, the Welton administration begins to investigate the matter of Neil’s suicide. Headmaster Nolan is eager to make Keating the “fall guy” for Neil’s suicide, for a number of reasons: Keating is a new teacher, meaning that it’s easier to fire him; there’s evidence suggesting that Keating inspired his students to act out and be independent, meaning that blaming him for Neil’s suicide is halfway credible (though ultimately untrue); and finally, Mr. Perry already despises Keating.

Notice that Nolan is willing to place the blame on Keating for many different reasons—but not because doing so is the “right” thing to do. For all Nolan’s talk of the importance of values and grand traditions at Welton, he’s motivated by a far simpler and crasser motive: keeping the money flowing. As Charlie points out, Nolan wants to keep Welton from “going under”—he wants to ensure that parents keep sending their children to his school (and paying full tuition!). So ultimately, the passage shows the celebration of “tradition” at Welton for what it truly is: a smokescreen for the constant process of tuition payment and alumni donation that keeps those supposedly noble but ultimately meaningless traditions from “going under.”

Chapter 15 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Standing on the Desk
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final scene of the novel, Keating’s former students—now being taught by Headmaster Nolan—see Keating one final time. Keating has come back to his classroom to collect his personal things, and sees his students in the middle of a long, dull lesson—exactly the kind of lesson he tried to avoid. Then, one by one, Keating’s former students stand on their desk in a show of loyalty and solidarity with Keating.

The scene shows the novel coming full circle from Keating’s first appearance in the book. Keating began his school year by standing on his desk in order to inspire his students to think differently. Now, it is Keating who stands on the ground and his students who stand on their desks. The message is clear: despite being fired, Keating has successfully inspired his students to be free thinkers.

The passage is also interesting to think about in the context of the 1960s (the novel begins in 1959, and the final scene of the book takes place at the first months of the 1960s). The 1960s are still regarded as an era of radical social changes that challenged much of the racism, sexism, and corruption of American society. Some of the most notable events of the 1960s involved young students practicing civil disobedience—i.e., refusing to comply with rules they considered unjust—in order to protest society’s corruption. Students were instrumental in protesting the Vietnam War, fighting for civil rights for African Americans, and lobbying for gender equality. So it’s not a coincidence that the novel ends with a group of young, free-thinking students refusing to obey their headmaster at the dawn of the 60s: Keating has inspired them to stand up for what they know to be right, and they’ll perhaps continue to do so for years to come.