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Dead Poets Society Essay

Topic: "Well, John the curriculum here is set. It's proven. It works." Is Mr Nolan right?
In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir explores and compares the effects of
different curricula and teaching methods. Mr Nolan, the principal of the prestigious boys
school Welton Academy, claims that the set curriculum has been proven to work. While
this curriculum may work from an academic point of view, it is in fact dysfunctional in many
other crucial aspects. The curriculum enforced at Welton restricts the boys individuality and
creativity. Additionally, it attempts to spoon-feed knowledge, debilitating the students
ability to learn independently. Meanwhile, it also creates a dreary and grim atmosphere within
the school. Therefore, it is evident that Mr Nolans claim is, overall, flawed.
Weltons curriculum is defective in that it forces the students to conform to the schools
values, removing them of their own voices, thoughts and identity. At the start of the film, the
maths teacher notes that trigonometry is a very precise topic. This description reflects upon
the structured and constrained curriculum, as well as Mr Nolans statement that academic
excellence is the result of fervent dedication to the principles taught at Welton. However,
this dedication causes the boys to lose their individuality, and resemble a large flock of birds
all flying along the same route towards the same direction, as symbolised in a shot towards
the beginning of the film. The introduction to the English textbook, is another example of the
restraints of the curriculum, as it shows a very structured and almost mathematical way of
analysing poetry. It does not leave any space for the students to express their personal
feelings and interpretations of literature, or allow them to look at literature from other
perspectives. From this, it is evident that the curriculum is ineffective in nurturing the
students individuality and imagination.
Furthermore, the Welton curriculum is based upon the Empty Vessel Theory and fails
to foster its students independent learning abilities. The EVT is distinctively and excellently
illustrated by a film technique at the start of Dead Poets Society where the old dean passes a
candle light, referred to as the light of knowledge, to a students candle. This light is then
passed to each candle in the hall, by tipping the candle so that the flame touches the wick,
almost as if tipping a glass of knowledge as such in the EVT. It can also be seen that Mr
McAllister, the Latin teacher, compels the class to repeatedly recite and rote learn vocabulary.
This rote learning method is a notable example of the EVT in that it forcefully feeds the
knowledge to the students without giving them a chance to discover the knowledge by
themselves, as Mr Keating recommends. McAllister later argues that it is a big risk to
encourage students to become artists or freethinkers, as thinking will cause them to
develop foolish dreams. Additionally Mr Nolan claims that once the boys are prepared for
college, the rest will take care of itself. However, without the ability to learn and think for
themselves, the boys will be unable to succeed in college or work; thus, depicting the flaw of
implementing the EVT into Welton Academys curriculum.
The curriculum at Welton also contributes to creating a dreary, unsupportive and
austere atmosphere in every classroom. In order to achieve this, the director portrays the
classrooms and school grounds in cold, dark and hazy lighting. The low angle shot of the clock
tower, and the eerie, echoing bell sound at the beginning of the film, also signifies the
dominance and control of discipline over the students, as well as the calamity of so-called
Helton. The grim atmosphere is further illustrated by the fact that as the teachers enter the
classroom, the boys become strangely quiet and subservient, almost as if their personalities
have been subdued. This is juxtaposed with the boys much more audacious and carefree
temperament outside of class. Moreover, when teaching the curriculum, Weltons teachers
speak harshly to the students with loud, controlling voices. This is demonstrated when the
maths teacher threatens, in a domineering voice, to lower the boys final grades if they failed
to submit even a single piece of homework. It is then further established later when Mr
McAllister becomes annoyed at the boys and exclaims Oh shut up will you? However, the
true severity of the school is shown when Charlie receives the paddle, while ordered to count
the strikes, due to a joke he had made at assembly. Therefore, it is established that the
curriculum fails to create an engaging and supportive classroom atmosphere.
Mr Nolan claims that Welton Academys curriculum has been proven to work.
However, Weltons curriculum fails to foster the students individuality, creativity and
independent learning, as well as failing provide an engaging, supportive and comfortable

classroom atmosphere. Thus, it can be concluded that Mr Nolans statement is ultimately


Jennifer Chen 9H