The setting is a prestigious boy’s school whose mottos are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. The philosophy underlying the school appears to be neo-scholastic. Knight says that “subject matter concerns, rather than student desires, are central to the educational endeavor” p. 56. Both parents and teachers in this movie show this philosophy. Parents choose the future careers for their sons and release them to the school believing that they will be trained and educated in formal learning. Teachers respond to this by being “mental disciplinarians”. Math is the center of the curriculum followed by languages (Latin and Greek). In the movie, boys are drilled on Latin verb conjugation and conformity.
Into this setting comes John Keating, an English professor, whose ideas are just a bit different than his predecessors. His first challenge is to seize the day, “carpe diem”. Beyond this charge, his lessons are filled with passion and self realization. “Existentialism is largely a revolt against a society that robbed humanity of its individuality” p. 73. Keating strives to reunite the student with his own individuality by asking him to think and feel (and walk) in his own unique manner. Knight also says that “philosophy must be ‘informed by passion’”. This, too, is one of John Keating’s trademarks. He teaches with passion and encourages the students to live with passion; seizing each moment.
One student that is seen in a state of flux is Steven Meeks. This young man is very much the idealist in the beginning of the movie. Slowly he is swayed and follows his classmates in their search for life and passion, but in the end, his ideas are turned back to the traditional stance of the school. He believes that the traditional modes of teaching are correct and no deviation is acceptable.
Neil Perry, on the other hand, is under the close scrutiny of his traditional father and expected to adhere to the age old philosophies of the school and become a doctor. Keating’s words become the avenue to freedom for this young man. He discovers who he is and what he desires to do with his life. Unfortunately his choices lead to death, but show that existentialism was indeed his philosophy.
Louann Johnson is a former Marine seeking to do her student teaching. To her surprise, she ends up with a full time job and a “special” class. After the first day, Ms. Johnson learns that the textbook model of teaching will not work with this class, and she must conjure up a new way to get the student’s attention. While still desiring to teach the classics through a lecture form, she searches for ways to connect the material to real life situations. When asking for verb conjugation, she writes a sentence stating “We ate the green beans.” The class ignores this and her recourse is to write a sentence that has meaning for them. “We choose to die.” The existential strain of educational humanism “has led to an emphasis on a search for personal meaning in human existence” p. 103. This personal meaning is the key to gaining the student’s attention. Poems are used that they can relate to, such as the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s songs. In addition to this, they are told that they are active, not passive students. They are not victims, but they have a choice.
The school that Jamal Wallace attends is very much like the one in Dead Poets Society. Keeping the status quo is of utmost importance, as is following tradition. Robert Crawford, the featured instructor of the school, shows his views of idealism through his method of teaching. As Knight explains on p. 46, “the real purpose of schools and universities is to provide a place where the mind can ‘think’ and ‘know’ without being bothered by the transitory experiences of everyday life.” He also writes that “the social function of the school…is to preserve the heritage and to pass on the knowledge of the past.” p. 46 Crawford is very adamant about preserving the integrity of the school and of writing. His challenges to the class are in the form of recitations. Students are expected to know the writings and writers of the past and hold them up as heroes or models. Claire adds to this by stating in the movie that the teachers are not interested in student interaction because they are too busy listening to themselves talk.
William Forrester, the estranged writer, has remained in his own world over the years. His remark to Jamal is that the neighborhood has changed, not him. In this statement we see him keeping the status quo also. Yet he challenges his protégé to make his own decisions. One of his main arguments is that questions are to obtain information that matters to the individual and no one else. This statement falls more under the existential realm where the only one who matters is the individual. I believe that throughout the movie, Forrester’s character slowly changes. He shows indications of an idealist, but does not believe in a higher being. To him, good luck was the same as praying. There was no risk in believing in either. There is also an aspect of realism shown. One clue is that his writing Avalon Landing was possibly about his adventurous life. Another indication is his fascination and documentation of the natural world around him, birds. He concludes the movie by supposing that Jamal will make his own decisions from there on and proceeds to broaden his own sphere in an existential manner.