Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Dead Poets Society makes a critique of traditional education

Upon its release in 1989, Dead Poets Society (written by Tom Schulman, directed by Peter Weir) became a film that spoke to teens, students, the public and critics at large. The movie represents a social movement of ‘freedom of thought’ in the education of young adults as traditional learning techniques are challenged by a new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) who introduces new progressive approaches in stark contrast to the traditions of disciplined learning styles. The movie opens with a very formal assembly of students and their families in the celebration of a new school year. Here is begun the education of the students as they are reminded of the four pillars of success: tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. The largely authoritarian structure of the school is seen in every aspect where order, discipline, honesty, rules, education and obedience are considered the only acceptable qualities. With this backdrop the educational styles of teachers reflect this traditionalism: promoting rote memory, didactic learning and textbook reliance as the authority on a given subject. The focus is on exercises and homework assignments that show proper memorization has occurred. With these demands placed on them the students form study groups to work together through difficult materials outside of classroom hours.

 Mr. Keating’s style of teaching is in great contrast to that exhibited by the other faculty and the students show initial hesitation in accepting this style as being permissible. With  progressive non-conventional approaches he illustrates and encourages the students to take a more active part in their educational as well as life aspirations. With phrases such as ‘carpe deum’ (seize the day), ‘start to find your own voice’, ‘constantly look at things in a different way’, ‘take the road less traveled’, Mr. Keating encourages critical thinking, individual expression, and self-fulfillment in the students’ pursuit of knowledge and their transformation towards adulthood. Providing a nurturing environment, his lessons carry with them nuances of self -directed learning and transformation. The remaining faculty and administration (as well as the families) neither understand nor see the value in these techniques. Instead consider it a risk to encourage ‘free thinking’ to seventeen year olds, as they can be so impressionable, that could only result in rebellion and failure at school. 

As the movie progresses one sees the birth of the students’ own identities (through the support and encouragement of Mr. Keating), which have previously been strangulated by discipline and conservatism. We see how each student undergoes a personal transformation of character and self-identity and as a result gain the courage to explore their opportunities, identify their needs and their own ambitions (as opposed to those laid out to them by parents and faculty). 

In a culmination of tragic events, the administration and parents, desperate to find a scapegoat, use the teacher of ‘free thinking’ as their escape from their own contribution and personal responsibility. He is quickly and prudently dismissed from the college on false charges. As the English teacher prepares to leave we see another faculty member learning from Mr.Keating’s progressivism and adapting it to his own teaching style. In little steps we see the influence his initiative has had, from other faculty adapting their own teaching techniques, to the students who, in an act of rebellion and solidarity for the teacher who influenced their ‘education into adulthood’, they rise, against the direction of the principal, in a final salute: ‘O Captain my captain’. The movie makes a strong statement against traditional education and demonstrates the power of free thinking on the will and self-fulfillment of the individual.

Prepared by Carol Laic (OISE/University of Toronto)

December 2001

See also: 

Citation: Laic, Carol (2001). 1989: Dead Poets Society makes a critique of traditional education. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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