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How Do We Feel About Higher Education? Look to the Movies

They're just summer blockbusters, sure, but they present a rather dim view of the importance of the classroom.
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Monsters University. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF PIXAR)

Monsters University. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF PIXAR)

At a time when policymakers are debating the value of higher education, it's interesting to look around and see just how the public perceives our college and university systems. And if recent films are any guide, higher education doesn't necessarily have a great image. So, with apologies for some spoilers, I'd like to describe the depictions of higher education in several recent summer films: Monsters University, Man of Steel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. (Yes, these are basically the only films I've seen in the theater this year.)

Let's start with Pixar's Monsters. This is a pretty bleak view of the modern university; indeed, it doesn't seem terribly modern. As Kieran Healy notes, the pedagogy there is pretty old school and uninspired:

Instruction is resolutely “chalk and talk”, with faculty members presenting dull lectures to (often very large) classes of obviously disaffected students. The campus has a machine shop devoted to manufacturing doors, but that seems to be about the extent of its capital investment in anything other than faux collegiate gothic buildings. Lecture theaters are ill-suited for anything but the most direct sort of instruction, and the physical plant has clearly failed to keep pace with the diversity of the student body.

Nor does the University seem interested in pursuing any sort of egalitarian vision. The dean of students blatantly ignores academic achievement and instead determines which students will succeed and which will be drubbed out of school based on their performance in Greek system sporting events. This would be an outright scandal at most universities; at MU it's the MO.

But beyond that, recall what happens at the end. (Here comes the spoiler.) Sully and Mike Wazowski are kicked out but still end up with their dream jobs as scarers at Monsters Inc. Yes, they have to work their way up from the mailroom, presumably over several years, but many of those years were years they would have spent in college anyway. So what was the point of the college education? If the university isn't the gatekeeper to the elite jobs, why attend? Just to pay tuition and get humiliated by high status kids?

OK, let's jump over to Man of Steel. One of the film's notable departures from the Superman canon in general, and from the 1978 Superman film specifically, is Clark Kent's life after high school but before the Daily Planet. In the earlier film, he spent 12 years at the Fortress of Solitude being tutored by a hologram of his dead father, learning about physics, history, chemistry, etc. No, Clark never had a formal degree, and Superman was never really supposed to have been as educated as, say, Iron Man or Batman, but he still had some serious training, and he knew what to do and how to do it before donning the blue suit.

In Man of Steel, however, Clark is basically a drifter, learning about the world by working as a commercial fisherman, a restaurant busboy, and other odd jobs. He starts trying to save the world literally hours after learning how to fly. This is Sarah Palin's Superman, guided by his gut instincts and his decent midwestern upbringing rather than any sort of expert training. Superman's foe, General Zod, mentions his own superior education, and of course he (spoiler coming) loses in the end.

Finally, Star Trek. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the earlier Star Trek reboot film from 2009 had a dim view toward higher education, in that the topic of Christopher Pike's dissertation clearly didn't matter. That is, he ended up with the exact same job in both timelines even though his dissertation subject necessarily changed. Meanwhile, Jim Kirk ends up captain of the Enterprise despite not even having finished at Starfleet and despite him being accused of cheating on a crucial exit exam.

The new film, Into Darkness, has a somewhat more nuanced view of education. Pike is clearly concerned that Kirk has advanced too far too quickly, and in the early part of the film, he demotes Kirk from captain and sends him back to Starfleet to learn some humility. But Kirk ends up back in the captain's chair within half an hour, running the ship with his usual bravado and recklessness. He does ultimately learn humility, in a deeply painful way, but again, he learns it outside of the academy.

So maybe I'm watching the wrong films, but it seems to me that the message that is being conveyed from summer blockbusters is that college is capricious, outmoded, and unnecessary. If you want to know why your kids don't seem that interested in applying a few years from now, remember the films that they saw in the summer of 2013.