Why Mr. Keeting is Responsible for Neil's Death

First, press play.

Mr. Keating has inspired teachers for generations, and probably always will. Whether it be his embodiment of Carpe Diem, standing on his desk to help his students "see things from a different point of view," or having his students march in court yards to stress the dangers of conformity, Mr. Keating was a master at inspiring minds and challenging the status quo. His boys learned to “think for {themselves} again, to suck the marrow out of life, and to express their own unique voice. Mr. Keating was a powerful leader, and one worth emulating. However, he is also the quintessential example of just how dangerous our words and ideas can be.

The opening scenes of Dead Poets Society are crucial to understanding the purpose and the pitfall of Mr. Keating. We are introduced to Welton Academy, one of the best preparatory schools in the United States, by witnessing the first day of school: the light of knowledge, Weltons’ four pillars (Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence), and the sense of overbearing and high-achieving parents. Especially for two of the main characters and roommates, Todd Anderson and Neil Perry. 

Todd is following in the footsteps of his older brother, the valedictorian and merit scholar, while Neil, an only child, is trying to live up to his parent’s expectations of becoming a doctor. Throughout the movie, these two boys wrestle with their relationships with their parents, Todd dealing with his parent’s absence (sending him the same desk set for the second year in a row), and Neil with his father’s overbearing presence (forcing Todd to quit the school annual because he has “decided {Neil} is taking too many extracurriculars”). They are the same different of one another. 

Then comes Keating.  

Mr. Keating also “survived Welton” and is therefore all too familiar with the difficulties and dangers of its restraints. So instead of adapting to its continued and current culture, he challenges Welton, its traditions, and its purpose, and the boys suck it up completely. For them, a starving group of young boys who are eager to live life independently and to the fullest, Mr. Keating’s words and ideas are the marrow of life. Which is often the hope and desire of every aspiring leader. 

Mr. Keating knows his audience. He knows their culture, what they need, and where he wants them to go. In this, Mr. Keating is a good leader. But he also has the personality and ability to get his eager yet often shy followers to go where he needs them to go. He encourages the boys to bring back the Dead Poets Society, inspires Knox Overstreet to woo and win over Chris Noel, and, in one of the most iconic scenes from the move, he breaks Todd Anderson from his restrictive shell. Mr. Keating does this because he, after weeks and weeks of teaching and investing, has earned the boys’ trust as a friend, as an educator, and as a philosopher. In this, Mr. Keating is a great leader, and so his influence and impact continue to grow. 

At the beginning, in one of his first classes, Mr. Keating has his boys rip out the introduction of their textbook, Understanding Poetry. “Be gone Mr. J. Evan Pritchard!” he yells, encouraging them to break through the bonds that bind their minds and actions, “I want nothing left of it.” Then, as he retreats to his office to grab a trash bin, the Latin teacher, Mr. McCallister, happens to walk by, misinterpret the chaos, and barges in. When Mr. Keating returns, they engage briefly, then depart. Later, at lunch, they discuss the minds of young men and the purpose of education. Shortly after, and throughout the movie, the two become friends, talking over tea and engaging in slight moments of friendship. Near the end, Mr. McCallister is seen waving goodbye from the window, an indication that he will miss his friend and, although not always in agreement, has grown to respect Mr. Keating and his views. A mark of any good leader.  

Mr. Keating also shows the breadth and depth of his influence over the boys when he rebukes Charlie Dalton for his “lame stunt” he pulled with the telephone call that had God calling, asking Welton to allow girls into the school. “I thought you’d like that,” Charlie argues, confused at Keating’s rebuke, “"There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for." Charlie not only hears these words, he understands and applies them. As Mr. Keating leaves, Charlie puts away his drum and stops telling his story, because he knows it no longer matters. Living life of passion does not mean “chocking on the bone.” In this, Mr. Keating, yet again, demonstrates his leadership in that he not only inspires, he corrects and directs. He isn’t afraid to rebuke his boys, and instead of hammering them for their mistakes, he uses their mistakes for teachable moments, which only builds and strengths the bond of trust between him and them.  

Then, at the height of his teaching, when the boys seem to be soaring, when Neil is staring in the play, when Knox has finally won over his girl, and after Todd has inspired every English teacher and want-to-be-poet with his sudden recital of “The Sweaty-toothed Madman,” all hell breaks loose. Neil is suddenly whisked away by his father who spits at Keating, “You stay away from my son.” Soon after, Todd is shaken awake in the middle of the night and told through soft whispers, “Neil’s dead”, and Mr. Keating is to blame. 

“You guys didn’t really think he could avoid responsibility, did you?” Cameron says to the boys while they hide in the attic storage.” 

“Mr. Keating responsible for Neil, is that what they’re saying?” Charlie asks. 

“Who else do you think, dumbass?” Cameron shouts, “Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn’t he?” And Todd won’t stand it. 

“That is not true, Cameron, and you know that,” he says, holding back tears, “He didn’t put us up to anything, Neil loved acting!” 

“Believe what you want,” Cameron shoots back, “But I say, let Keating fry.” 

This scene is crucial, for two reasons. One, the choice of characters and the words they use are extremely critical. Cameron has always been portrayed as the one not fully immersed in the teachings and ideas of Keating, so it isn’t a surprise that he sides with the administration. It also is not surprising that he does so with such cruelty, because there needs to be a quick and clean separation. “Let Keating fry,” is heartless and calculated, but it also creates in us, the viewers, a sense of “Us vs Them”, and there’s no way we are them – those who blame Keating for Neil’s death. We are part of the Dead Poets, those who believe in Keating, his teachings, and Carpe Diem, and we believe he is innocent! 

Great leaders, however, do not have the luxury of passing responsibility. Great leaders, at all times, must evaluate the actions and reactions of those they care for and ask, “What role did I play? Where am I responsible?” For Keating, he needs to look no further than his classroom. 

In the most watched and adored scene of the movie, Mr. Keating brings Todd Anderson up to the front of the classroom and helps him create poetry, and it’s magical.  

Todd is terrified, believing “everything inside of him is worthless, and embarrassing,” and therefore refuses to write a poem or speak in front of the class. But Mr. Keating, being the great leader that he is, refuses to let him sit comfortably in his shell. “I think you’re wrong,” he argues, “I think there is something inside of you that is worth a great deal.” Shortly after, he pulls Todd to the front of the class and asks him look at Walt Whitman and describe what you see, "Don't think, answer, go!" Mr. Keating says, "free up your mind, use your imagination, say whatever comes to mind, even if it's total gibberish." And out comes one of the most quoted poems about Walt Whitman ever uttered. 

However, what Mr. Keating fails to supply is context and an anchor for such behavior because, applying that same technique, that same way of thinking and living to other emotions in a very different scenario results in the death of Neil Perry. 

In the final scene of the movie, right before the students climb on their desks, the headmaster is teaching the class. He asks what they've been reading, and Cameron responds with, "Mostly the Romantics."  

"What about the Realists?" the headmaster asks? 

"We skipped over that part," Cameron responds. 

Mr. Keating knows his boys need a break from tradition, that they need to be free thinkers, but what he fails to understand is that he was a graduate of Welton Academy where he was encouraged/required to wrestle with and learn from a variety of minds and ideas, not just the romantics. Mr. Keating had a well-rounded perspective of life and living. However, with his boys, he provided very little balance. He didn’t have them think for themselves, evaluating which philosophies of life were more appropriate, and why. Instead, he only focused on the Romantics, and this, for young and influential minds who are used to strict structure, oppression and tradition, was extremely careless. 

Mr. Keating didn’t kill Neil Perry. Nor is he solely responsible for Neil’s death. He did, however, fail to grasp his influence upon his boys and properly assess their needs and struggles. The boys needed a break from tradition and the ability to think for themselves, just as Mr. Keating believed, but they also needed structure and balance to their rapidly changing hormones and emotions. They needed the freedom to feel and express their emotions, but they also needed to know how to evaluate them, to balance them, and to check them against other, much less ambiguous and fluctuating truths such as principles and ethics. They needed to be taught how to evaluate their emotions, not just embrace them.

In many respects, Mr. Keating was a great leader. He inspired his boys and, for the most part, brought out the best in them. However, he was incomplete. “Don’t think, just answer,” he taught them. But outside confines and safety of his classroom, this way of thinking lead to death.  

Mr. Keating doesn’t deserve to fry, as Cameron suggests, but he does deserve a healthy dose of responsibility for the role he played. “In my class, you will learn to savor words and language,” Mr. Keating encourages his boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” However, placed in the minds of young men who are unable to grasp their severity and consequence, who cannot align and judge them to strict and grounded principles and ethical standards, those words and ideas can also destroy.  

And for that, Mr. Keating is responsible.