During lunch, Mr. McAllister joins Mr. Keating at the teacher’s dining table. Keating cheerfully apologizes for “shocking” McAllister with his lesson that day. McAllister calmly replies that Keating’s methods are fascinating but “misguided.” Keating is trying to teach his students to be artists—and once they realize “they’re not Rembrandts or Shakespeares or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.” Keating insists that he’s trying to produce free thinkers, not artists. McAllister insists that he’s just being realistic—people are happiest when they set aside “foolish dreams.” Nevertheless, he admits, he looks forward to Keating’s future lectures.
In this passage, the difference between Keating’s approach to education and Welton Academy’s (as embodied by Mr. McAllister) is clear. McAllister believes that education should be about transferring specific pieces of information to students; Keating maintains that education should be about teaching students to be free thinkers. McAllister dismisses Keating’s talk of freedom and ambition as “foolish dreams,” but based on what we’ve seen of Welton students’ unhappy lives and families, going to a good college and getting a lucrative job could be dismissed as “foolish dreams,” too.
At lunch, Neil shows his friends an old Welton “annual” (i.e., yearbook), in which there are pictures of Keating from his student days. He was accepted to Cambridge University, voted “most likely to do anything,” and was also the head of the Dead Poets Society, a society none of the students have heard of before. Headmaster Nolan swings by the students and asks Neil how he’s enjoying Mr. Keating. Neil replies that Mr. Keating is an excellent teacher, and Nolan nods in agreement, noting that Mr. Keating was a Rhodes Scholar.
Keating, we learn, has always been a free-spirited, outgoing man—hence his “most likely” at Welton. And yet Keating is also a brilliant man and a great thinker—that’s why Nolan hired him in the first place. Nolan seems more concerned with Keating’s impeccable resume than with his personality or specific teaching methods, so that, for now, Keating isn’t under any pressure to conform to Welton teaching standards.
After classes, Neil and his friends see Mr. Keating leaving school. Neil, addressing his teacher as “O Captain! My Captain!” and asks about the Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating, chuckling, explains that the Dead Poets would meet in the secret “old cave,” read poetry by Whitman and other great writers, and savor the beauty of life. The society’s name specified dead poets because, in order to be a member, one had to promise to be a member until death—therefore, even Mr. Keating is “still a lowly initiate.”
Keating’s description of the Dead Poets Society is important for a number of reasons. First, notice that Keating considers poetry a means of savoring life itself: as he sees it, poetry reveals beauty and strong emotions that might otherwise be repressed at Welton. Furthermore, it’s important to see that Keating mentions death while describing the Dead Poets Society (just as he did when explaining the concept of “carpe diem”). While Keating’s explanation could be interpreted as morbid (that’s how Nolan will interpret it at the end of the novel), the point of invoking death is to savor life—which, as Keating explains, is itself a lifelong responsibility.
Later that evening, Neil suggests that everyone sneak out to the old cave—a traditional Welton meeting place. Cameron is reluctant to join, but eventually he, along with Pitts, Knox, Meeks, Charlie, agree to go there.
Of the Welton students, Neil is most eager to revive the Dead Poets Society—as we’ve already seen, he’s been feeling rebellious for a long time, due to his father’s overbearing behavior. The fact that the other Welton students agree to meet Neil in the cave suggests that they, too, secretly desire to escape their dull, repressed lives at Welton.
After dinner, Neil asks Todd to come to the Dead Poets meeting in the cave that night. He insists that Todd is being too standoffish—he needs to get to know his classmates, and let them get to know him. Todd politely declines Neil’s invitation, saying he doesn’t feel comfortable reading poetry in front of others. Neil insists that Todd has to come, and, if he’s shy, he doesn’t have to read any poetry. Neil then runs off before Todd can protest. Todd, miserable, returns to his history books.
Neil successfully cajoles Todd into joining the Dead Poets meeting, by just telling him he’s going and then quickly running away before Todd can protest. It’s interesting, in light of the novel’s ideas about education, that Neil has to pressure Todd into joining the Dead Poets, especially considering that Todd will later become one of the Society’s most enthusiastic members—it’s suggested that Todd needs to “conform” to his more rebellious peers in order to unlock the passion and potential within himself.