Faced with the crushing conformity of boarding school life, John Keating inspires many of his students to rebel against the repressive, sometimes tyrannical culture at Welton Academy. The students’ rebellion takes many different forms, some internal (“freeing their minds” from conformity) and some external (drinking, sneaking off campus, playing pranks, etc.). At the end of the novel, we see an extreme form of rebellion against conformity and repressiveness: Neil Perry’s tragic suicide. In general, the novel draws an important distinction between rebellion for the sake of rebellion and rebellion grounded in sincerity and passion.
In his earliest lessons at Welton, Keating underlines a concept that lies at the core of any fruitful rebellion against conformity: passion. A good life, he argues, is a passionate life, lived according to the individual’s unique talents and interests. Discovering one’s own unique talents, he implies, can take a lifetime—but doing so is inherently worthwhile because it yields true, fulfilling happiness. By the same token, Keating suggests that the lives of many adults are unsatisfying because they lack any true passion: people go through life without feeling love, whether for art, work, or other people. Keating’s lessons suggest that true rebellion must be personal before it becomes external: for example, an adult who gives up an unsatisfying job to pursue his passion is “rebelling” against society, without using violence or interfering with other people’s lives. Put another way, rebellion against the status quo has to be the result of passion, not the other way around.
As Keating’s students learn more and more from him, they’re inspired to rebel against their parents and against the Welton administration. But many of the students also misinterpret Keating’s ideas, celebrating rebellion for its own sake. Keating’s students seem more interested in rebelling against their parents and teachers than in standing up for what they’re truly passionate about. For instance, Charlie Dalton pulls an elaborate prank on Headmaster Nolan, seemingly for no other reason than that he wants to embarrass Nolan in front of the entire student body (Charlie claims to be standing up for women, but his claim is not very convincing—see “Men, Women, and Love” theme.) Keating later reprimands Charlie for his actions, suggesting that pranks and similar kinds of rebellion can be harmful when motivated by childish destructiveness, rather than sincere conviction. In general, many of Keating’s students mistake the thrill of disobedience for genuine passion.
Keating’s lessons in non-conformity and “seizing the day” could be interpreted as inciting rebellion, but ultimately, Keating is really a moderate figure. He wants his students to stand up for what is right, but also get along with their parents and teachers by communicating openly and honestly. Most of all, Keating wants his students to “rebel” against society in a personal, individual way: by altering their thinking, pursuing their sincere passions, and sharing these passions with other people. Keating encourages his students to get along with their teachers and parents: he encourages Charlie to exercise caution at Welton, and urges Neil Perry to talk to his father about his love for acting instead of going behind his father’s back. Though the novel ends in a tragedy of passion (Neil’s suicide, which is based in his love of acting and rebellion against his father), it seems that many of the other students ultimately take Keating’s real lessons to heart, rebelling against Nolan by standing on their desks, but only as a sincere show of solidarity with Keating himself.
The first scene of the novel conveys the preeminence of conformity at Welton Academy: Welton’s students dutifully file into the chapel, dressed in the same school blazers and reciting the same “four pillars” of success at Welton (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence). In a way, conformity—the blind emphasis on sameness and repetition—is the real villain of Dead Poets Society. It’s important to understand where conformity comes from and why it has the potential to be so dangerous.
The four pillars of Welton—tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence—are different aspects of the same conformist model of success, a model that by definition can’t work for everyone. Both in school and in life, Welton students are ordered to follow the same rules. Ultimately, the point of following the rules is to achieve “success,” but only in the narrow, material sense of getting good grades, going to a good school, and finding a high-paying job. In this way, the four pillars of Welton are designed to force students to aspire for the same kinds of success—and, essentially, to become the same people.
At times, the novel is sympathetic to the idea of conformity—there are, after all, times when it’s good to follow the rules and pursue the same kinds of success that other people have achieved. Mr. Perry, the father of Neil Perry, a Welton Academy student, seems to genuinely care about his son, even if he expresses his love through the language of conformity and discipline. Mr. Perry, it’s implied, comes from a poor family, and so wants his son to have the best life possible—and as he sees it, this means forcing Neil to do well in school, go to Harvard, and become a prosperous doctor. So one clear advantage of “success” as Welton defines it is that it produces students who can support themselves financially, find challenging, fulfilling work, and raise a family.
Nevertheless, the novel is mostly skeptical of Welton’s model of success, because it forces young people to conform to rules that don’t work for everyone, a state that often produces more misery than happiness. The ultimate goal of studying hard and following the rules, one would think, is that it produces lasting happiness. But, as the novel emphasizes again and again, many of the students of Welton, as well as their parents, are conspicuously unhappy. Students hate their parents for micromanaging their lives and forcing them to study hard. By the same token, the parents of Welton students have become so obsessed with the idea of making their children “successful” that it’s overshadowed their natural affection for their children. (In the novel, not a single parent of a Welton student is portrayed positively.) Ultimately, conformity has no psychological or spiritual “payoff”—it just produces more conformity. The same could be said of Welton’s understanding of success—students are trained to achieve “success for the sake of success,” not for their own happiness.
At the end of the novel, we see the moral bankruptcy of Welton’s celebration of success and conformity. After Neil Perry’s suicide, the Welton headmaster, Gale Nolan, scrambles to find a teacher to blame for the tragedy. In the end, he holds John Keating responsible for Neil’s suicide, and fires him from the school. As the students of Welton recognize right away, Nolan doesn’t really blame Keating for Neil’s death at all—he just wants to avoid a scandal that would jeopardize Welton’s alumni relations, and therefore its status as an elite, “successful” school. This suggests that Welton’s emphasis on “conformity for the sake of conformity” is even more sinister than it appears: Nolan is more concerned with his own professional success than with right and wrong or the welfare of his students. Ultimately, the novel shows that Welton’s overemphasis on conformity produces shallow, morally blind, deeply unhappy people.