How are the boys starting to embrace Transcendentalist beliefs in "Dead Poet's Society"?
Transcendentalism is the idea that intuition, imagination, and other subjective ways of perceiving the world are just as important and reliable as the objective physical senses (as opposed to Empiricism, which holds that we can know truth only through the physical senses). Transcendentalists believe that we should pursue our individuality and celebrate the things that make us unique, as opposed to going along with the crowd or following traditions just for their own sake.
Dead Poets Society is set in 1959 at Welton Academy, a conservative Vermont boarding school where everyone accepts the same norms and procedures that have been in place for years. Welton’s motto, in fact, extols the “Four Pillars” of “Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence.” Both students and teachers are expected to adhere to these standards. The students wear uniforms, rules are strict, the curriculum is long-established, and no one really considers exploring any other ways of thinking or behaving.
Enter Mr. Keating, a new teacher who shows his students how to think for themselves, appreciate their own creativity, and question the establishment. The boys learn to trust their own judgment about what’s right for themselves as individuals instead of blindly accepting the roles in which authority figures have placed them. Keating’s catch phrase “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) encourages them to approach life as an extraordinary adventure rather than the predictable doldrums they were raised to expect.
If you've seen the movie, you can come up with examples of how each specific character applies Transcendental ideas to make unexpected changes his own life (and how the establishment’s response causes trouble for each of them). Some of them found happiness when they followed their inspiration; for others, it ended in tragedy. Do you think the risk was worth it for all of them, regardless of what happened?
The story also serves as a metaphor for the changes in society that were just beginning at that time in the United States and parts of Europe. The 1960s saw sweeping social movements in which young adults began to object to the gender roles, racism, and economic institutions that had held sway for so long. We can imagine that after Mr. Keating’s influence, the students might have gone on to participate in these movements when they left Welton.
Over the course of the film, Mr. Keating's students embrace many ideas that can be considered Transcendentalist. To varying degrees, all of them place an emphasis on emotional notions of subjectivity as part of their consciousness. This is a Transcendentalist belief in how there is a stress on finding emotional ways of connecting with the world. Emerson's, and later Thoreau's, Transcendentalist belief of non- conformity is seen in how different students appropriate their world. Charlie's article, Knox's affairs with Chris and poetry, as well as Neil's pursuit of acting are all examples of how the boys embrace the Transcendentalist idea of finding one's own voice and reveling in it despite a world of conformity that surrounds the individual. Thoreau's Transcendentalist belief that human beings must act upon their conscience, even if it comes at the cost of being alone, is one that can be seen in the ending. Todd's standing on his table and reciting "O Captain, My Captain" to an expelled Mr. Keating over the headmaster's objection is a great example of the Transcendentalist idea of dissent that was such a part of Thoreau's thinking. In this, one sees how even the most reserved of the boys embraced Transcendentalist beliefs by the end of the film.