An Academic Utopia

Last weekend I was in need of some silly summer movie fun. Coincidentally, I was thinking about academia and the institutions of higher education. On a lark I went to see Accepted. I read the plot synopsis - rejected high school student creates his own ‘fake’ college to convince his parents that he is really going to amount to something - and thought it’d be a mild summer diversion. To my surprise it was a revolutionary reaction to current academia.

I admit that I may be reading too much into this modest summer comedy. But in comedy there is often a large grain of truth as Lance Mannion so eloquently described. Comedy often shows us what we don’t want to hear. Mannion writes about a review of Ann Coulter at the New Republic.

The outrageous lies, vulgarity, and plain, open hatred that define Coulter’s schtick are ok in Reeve’s book because everything Coulter says is “kind of true.”

That’s why Liberals can’t stand her, Reeve thinks, because we’re uncomfortable with that little bit she says that’s “kind of” true.

Reeve is accepting a definition of humor and satire that would have it that a joke is funny because it’s kind of true.

But the mark of great humor and satire and a good joke is that they are wholly true, true through and through. Swift, and Hogarth, Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Kelly, and company didn’t draw and write stuff that’s “kind of” true.

The reviews I’ve read have been mediocre.

Ethan Alter at Premier magazine.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the film is its attitude towards higher education. While it’s true that the idea of a core curriculum can seem outmoded, the “do-whatever-the-hell-you-want” model praised by Accepted is both impractical and a little frightening. Whether intentionally or not, the filmmakers wind up reinforcing the stereotype of Americans as selfish me-firsters who want the world to conform to our desires.

MaryAnn Johanson at FlickPhilosopher comes closest to my own reaction to the movie.

This is almost like a lost movie from my teenhood, a forgotten relic of the late 70s, early 80s, when even summer comedies came with a touch of social commentary and a bit of class consciousness – when they ate the rich instead of aspiring to be one of them. If Accepted is part Caddyshack, part Breakfast Club, then its star, Justin Long – the “I’m a Mac” guy from the computer commercials and the best thing in The Break-Up and Herbie: Fully Loaded – is Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd and Emilio Estevez rolled into one charming package. With his dash of snark and his off-kilter good looks and his appealingly huggable vulnerability, his Bartleby Gaines is an anti-everyman hero, a literal freedom fighter railing against the chains of societal expectations that can drive even the best of us to succumb to one-note conventionality. And though so many movies pretend to be about unusual or oddball characters, this one really feels like it is – it feels like it doesn’t give a crap if you agree with it or not, because it knows it’s in the right. There’s a commanding confidence to Accepted that is entirely unlike anything many mainstream films are able to pull off. It doesn’t have to beg you to like it, as it grooves along from one funny moment to the next, self-assured and totally self-possessed – it believes in your ability to see that what it’s saying makes sense, and if you don’t see it, that’s your loss, man.

So can a college where students create their own curriculum really be an academic utopia? Most film critics seem to think this is a silly idea, just another formula that we’ve seen so many times before. My question is why then do we keep seeing this formula so often? Surely if it’s so easy to lampoon the college establishment it must be because we hope for something better, something different.

Accepted is telling us that there is a great big gap between the educational aspirations of college and the reality of learning. I don’t think anyone who has been to college to learn would disagree with this. Just read academic blogs or Inside Higher Education. There’s a great deal of doubt about the effectiveness of college education. A recent article in the New York Times proves this.

Over the weekend more evidence came from an interview with Ken Robinson. You can see him speaking at a recent TED conference about the same ideas.

His basic argument is that education stifles creativity and creativity is what we will need more than ever to solve the problems of the present and the future. Other people have made the same argument before but we still don’t seem to be getting the message. I know changing large institutions is difficult but come on. Let’s get started.