Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Peter Weir (director), Tom Schulman (writer), Dead Poets Society (1989)

The film Dead Poets Society (1989), directed by Peter Weir and written by Tom Schulman, presents a protest against what the filmmakers believe was the stifling, oppressive school culture and curriculum of the 1950s, and against the conformist norms and values of the wider society at that time that produced, and lent support to, that school system.  

Schools are accused of narrowly focusing on students passing exams rather than expressing themselves and developing their creativity, and parents are accused of using their authority to push young people into particular careers, expecting them to assume roles in life that will not be fulfilling.  The school system is presented as part of the prevailing social system that is oppressive and effective in crushing free-spirited rebellion and imposing conformity. 

The newly-arrived English teacher, John Keating, plays the role of the charismatic leader who liberates the thinking of several high school boys in his class and he points them towards the path of greater expression, imagination, creativity and fulfilment.  Under his guidance, most of the boys flourish.   

The film extolls the existentialist push towards cultural change of the 1960s and 1970s that produced a cultural revolution.  From this perspective, the 1950s is represented as horribly oppressive, unfulfilling, and spiritually empty in its emphasis on achieving a career in a middle-class profession and living an affluent, comfortable life in the suburbs. 

The school culture and curriculum is depicted as focused on formulaic exercises, rote learning, passing tests and exams, and achieving the high grades for entrance into prestigious Ivy League universities.  The official teaching methods and curricula are represented as unimaginative and dull.  They are unable to unlock the creativity and passions of the students. Instead, there is an emphasis on routine, drill, tradition and conformity. 

This narrow-minded school system is backed by equally narrow-minded parents.  The father of the student Neil Perry represents the oppressive middle-class parents of the 1950s.  He is the dominant male in a patriarchal household.  He is an authoritarian and he expects to be obeyed.  He has planned a life for his son that suits his own values and not those of his son.  He has a concept of his son’s welfare and happiness that his son does not share.  He loves his son but he cannot show tenderness, compassion, understanding or the ability to compromise.  He is therefore shown to be lacking terribly as a parent.  He is shown to be wrong.  His son’s suicide dramatically reveals that he failed as a father who was not able to recognise his own shortcomings. 

A group of John Keating’s most inspired and devoted students forms a secret society, the Dead Poets Society, where they read and write poetry and dare themselves to be more adventurous in their lives, an approach that bears fruit.  But clashes with the school authorities, and with parents, leads to the disbanding of the group and the dismissal of their inspiring teacher.  The system prevailed but the memory of their charismatic teacher will persist, and the excitement of their short-lived rebellion meant that the boys have set an inspiring example for others to follow.   

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Dead Poets Society meaning, Dead Poets Society themes, Dead Poets Society analysis, Dead Poets Society notes