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Adolescent Development Theories Discussion Through the Critique and Review of a Film

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Adolescent Development Theories Discussion through the Critique and Review of a Film

Rosana Medan

North Carolina State University


Art in its different forms constitutes an expression of the human soul and psyche across time. Films based on powerful stories that deal with real life issues have sometimes been masterfully crafted to allow for rich reflection and analysis. An example at hand is Dead Poet's Society, written by Thomas Schulman and directed by Peter Weir. This movie, which focuses on adolescent development and education, was first released more than two decades ago. However, its lasting, universal themes continue to present us with an opportunity to delve into the complexities of adolescent development. This paper attempts an analysis of Dead Poet's Society through some of its characters, scenes and contexts from the perspective of major adolescent development theories. Aspects of Biological, Cognitive, Psychosocial, Social Cognitive Learning and Ecological theories are applied in the discussion.

Adolescent Development Theories Discussion through the Critique and Review of a Film

The movie Dead Poet's Society was first released in 1989 and ranks amongst the most popular and well recognized films of recent times. It was the recipient of many awards, among them the 1989 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The story takes place at Welton Academy, a private boarding school located on the hills of Vermont. Over a century, Welton has built a reputation for preparing boys to attend some of the most prestigious, exclusive universities in the United States of America. It is typically attended by children of well-off families that want to ensure their children's future success as perceived perhaps in the most traditional sense of the word. The four pillars of education upon which the institution's philosophical vision and mission rest are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Welton has a very strict program of studies with carefully designed curricula to be followed to the letter that leaves little to no room for flexibility and creativity.

Following the retirement of the English teacher Mr. Portius, John Keating joins the Welton Academy staff to take his place. Mr. Keating is a distinguished graduate from Welton himself and has taught at Chester, a highly reputable school in London. His unorthodox teaching methodology expressive of romantic views and beliefs markedly contrasts with the traditional style and values prevailing at Welton. Keating seems to believe in man's innate goodness and the power of poetry to unlock it. Finding our own voices, our true nature and leaving our imprint on the human race depend on a daring act, that of becoming our own selves. Keating's passion and enthusiasm for literature constitute the vehicle for his inspiring and passionate teaching.

The contradictions between the realistic views of an educational institution based on tradition, conventions and conformity against the romantic views of a detractor to that kind of educational structure as John Keating provide a perfect framework for the development of the story and characters. The cold environment where the school is located seems to enhance the predominantly harsh, sterile environment that eventually leads to the tragic resolution of the conflict.

Film Synopsis

The film begins with the opening of the school year by Welton's headmaster, Mr. Nolan, who introduces the new English teacher, Mr. Keating. The four pillars of education that guide the instruction offered at the institution are presented during the ceremony that gathers students, parents and teachers, setting the tone of an environment in which the pressure from parents and school on students are enormous. At the end of the ceremony, we are introduced to the conflict between the students' group leader and his father, who demands that he leave his role in an extracurricular activity and fully devote his energy to academics.

From the very beginning, Mr. Keating makes an impression on his students, who initially seem confused and shocked by his communication style and teaching methods. Soon, Mr. Keating earns his students respect and support and begins to raise concerns amongst his colleagues and school authorities. Inspired by this creative teacher, his love of literature and poetry and his former role in an unorthodox student organization, the main student characters create the Dead Poets' Society. Such secret organization provides an appropriate setting for the exploration of some of the views instilled in the students by their new English teacher. Some of these students engage in introspective processes and face internal and external conditionings as part of their identity development.

An extreme case of transformation or rather revelation is that posed by Neil Perry, the student leader, who decides to defy the authority of his overbearing parent to become himself and embrace his passion for acting and his love of theater. His participation in a Shakespeare's play without his father's blessing leads to the escalation of the conflict between father and son. Mr. Perry's violent reaction culminates in his decision to withdraw his son from Welton to send him to military school. Feeling helplessly trapped by his father's authoritarian disposition and without a choice, Neil takes his life.

Neil Perry's suicide is followed by an investigation intended to use John Keating as a scapegoat and reinstitute Welton - with the values of tradition it stands for - as the flawless educational institution the establishment needs for its perpetuation. Mr. Keating's students are forced to declare against him in order to preserve their enrollment at the prestigious institution and Mr. Keating is dismissed from his position. Neil's best friend, Todd Anderson, perhaps the character that shows the most progress and growth in the story, leads the students in showing their final support and alliance to Mr. Keating as he enters his former classroom to take his personal belongings before leaving Welton.


Before we explore some key developmental concepts presented in the film, perhaps a definition of adolescence should be attempted. James Marcia defines adolescence "both as a chronological period between puberty and early adulthood and as any time in the life cycle when an individual explores important life alternatives with the



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