Movie title– Dead poets society
Year of production– 1989
Feature-length– 129 minutes
Director– Peter Weir
Major character cast– Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard
Welton Academy is founded on tradition and excellence and is bent on providing strict structured lessons prescribed by the realist, anti-youth administration. The story is viewed predominantly through the eyes of Todd Anderson a newcomer to Welton and his roommate Neil Perry. Todd is painfully shy and terrified because he is expected to fulfill the legacy left by his brother who was a valedictorian. Neil on the other hand is bright and full of life but is immensely controlled by his father as he dictates every detail of his life.
The new teacher Mr. Keating comes with an unorthodox approach to teaching and teaches the students to seize the day to make it count as their lives are fleeting. This unconventional method of Keating challenges the status quo of the school tradition and the story builds on it. After being exposed to and having enjoyed the company and teaching of Mr. Keating Neil finds it difficult to cope with the ongoing pressure of his father and finally ends his life. This leads to the expulsion of Mr. Keating. Todd who was previously very shy stood up on the desk to salute his teacher Mr. Keating who changed his life.
Psychological Review of the Movie
In this paper, I want to show how the director brings the structure of authoritarianism in school and in parenting which affects the cognitive, intellect, and emotional behavior of adolescents which finally results in a psychological identity crisis. In the movie, we see how Neil is so free and full of life when he is with his friends but the moment, he is confronted with his father he is a different person. The movie revolves around Neil struggling for his right with his uptight father. The movie also has many sociological aspects that correspond to the son’s and father’s relationship and effects on them separately. Neil is under an authoritarian father and Todd is under authoritarian as well as achievement-oriented parenting.
Seeing Neil and Todd through Erikson’s theory
Let’s look at this issue through Erikson’s theory. According to Erickson’s psychosocial theory, two conflicting ideas must be resolved successfully in order for a person to become a confident, contributing member of society. Failure to master these tasks leads to feelings of inadequacy. Since the boys in the movie are teenagers in prep school, according to Erikson they are in the stage of Identity vs. Role confusion (ages 12-18) According to Erickson, an adolescent’s main task is developing a sense of self. Adolescents who are successful at this stage have a strong sense of identity and are able to remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problems and other people’s perspectives. (Erikson, 1994) In the movie, we see since Neil was a victim of a strong authoritarian lifestyle he couldn’t take a stand for himself in spite of Keating’s advice to stay true to yourself because Keating didn’t like the idea of Neil lying to his father to run away temporarily from the situation rather than facing it and resolving the matter once and for all. When adolescents are not successful at this stage or are pressurised to conform to their parent’s ideas for the future, they may experience a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure about their identity and confused about their future. Adolescents who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to find themselves as adults. It is interesting to also see the coping strategies as it sheds light on why some individuals are able to cope with stress than others. The film portrays the concept that the boy is not able to cope with the stress and not able to do that cost him his life.
Mr. Keating brings out the best from Todd who is otherwise shy and has very low self-esteem because authoritarian parenting puts kids at greater risk of anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Studies have shown that children with authoritarian parents are more likely to suffer from a psychiatric disorder and also put children at a higher risk for depression, and the children tend to have more trouble regulating their emotions. Links between authoritarianism and emotional problems have also been found. Having said this, it may not always be the case again. Some studies have shown that there is no link between authoritarian parenting and psychological problems like depression. So why is there inconsistency? Maybe culture plays a role here. If kids perceive authoritarianism as normal and mainstream, they may be less distressed by it. (Dwairy, 2004)
Authoritarian education and its impact on the psychological development of the mind
The movie portrays that the school is authoritarian in its approach. According to Freire, in authoritarian education teaching was to deposit information into the minds of the learner which is similar to depositing money in the bank. Power is held by the teacher. The role of the learner is to learn what is taught, memorize the information, and produce the same on the exam. There is little room for thinking and questioning. Freire argued that the goal of authoritarian pedagogy is to condition learners to accept the cultural, social status quo of the dominant culture or tradition and to view the same as complete, whole, and correct which prevents the learners from knowing the world and seeing it as something that can be changed. (Freire, 1970) Here, Mr. Keating the new English teacher challenges the status quo and disrupts the order which makes the school administration uncomfortable. There is a fundamental difference in the approach of the school and Mr. Keating in molding young minds. The school wants to make the students competent for the world and Mr. Keating wants to make them competent for life.
Even though this movie is not made or viewed purely from a psychological point of view. Having said this one can’t help but see the psychological aspects all over it. So, I have made a humble attempt to analyze the lives of key characters from the counseling psychological view. The informal counseling of Mr. Keating to the boys was liberating. This helped them to realize the conflict stated by Erikson “Identity vs. Role confusion” and helped them to cope up with the conflict to some extent and come over it as we see in the last scene of the movie that Todd who was shy took the initiative to stand on the desk and salute the teacher who changed his life.
Dwairy, M. (2004). Parenting Styles and Mental Health of Palestinian-Arab Adolescents in Israel. Transcult Psychiatry.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the Life Cycle. W.W Norton & Company.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Brazil: Myra Ramos.