In Tom Schulman’s Dead Poets Society a group of bright students are enrolled in a prestigious New England private school named Welton Academy. This school stresses conformity and tradition as one of its trademarks. In order to survive in this school one must never challenge the institution. Dead Poets Society is a powerful example of the constant battle between conformity and non-conformity.
Mr. Keating, a teacher at Welton, fights on the side of non-conformity and free- thinking. On the first day of school, he shows them a picture of past classes. He tells them that they are all in the Earth now, and they have a message for his current students. The message was “carpe diem”, or “seize the day”. He is telling them that one-day they will be dead, so it is imperative that they “make their lives extraordinary” and to “carpe diem”, seize the day. Carpe diem is important because he tells them to follow their dreams, but in many cases their dreams went against the principles of the school. Through his unorthodox teaching style he taught them that conformity was not necessary. Many of the poems he taught them all preached carpe diem, such as the following: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may Old time is still a flying And this same flower that smiles today Tomorrow will be dying.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” means that make your dreams come true before you die. However, they could never live their dreams if they conformed to what their parents wanted, or what their principal wanted. Another example of how his teaching promoted free thinking and non-conformity was the way he ripped out the introduction by J. Evans Prichard. He didn’t want his students to conform to Prichard’s views on poetry he wanted them to form their own views. He called the introduction “excrement” and yelled “rip it, rip it out”. Everyday in his classroom there would be a lesson that preached against non-conformity along with poetry.
After reading a poem, Mr. Keating stood up on the table and said, “Why do I stand here? To feel taller than you? I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly force ourselves to look at things differently.” He then invites his students to stand up. This is obviously a lesson in free thinking and non-conformity. He is saying that there is more than one view to everything, and he is inviting them to be unconventional. Mr. Keating helps almost all of his students become free thinkers and non-conformists. This is illustrated at the end, when they all stand on their desks.
Mr. Nolan, the principal at Welton, is a man who believes that tradition and conformity should be upheld in all cases. From the first day of school, he teaches them never to diverge from tradition. In the opening assembly, every word spoken by the students is done in unison. They all recite the four pillars, which are tradition, honor, excellence, and discipline.
Neil Perry is a victim of society’s need for conformity. He is a Welton student, who has been entrapped in his father’s web of restrictions.