There is a broader message within Ivory Tower of “someone has to pay” for higher education and that is absolutely true. But the documentary never really makes it beyond the platitudes or the talking heads to really get to the core of the issues confronting our educational systems. Everyone agrees that higher learning is extremely valuable; but no one can agree on how much it is worth.
Director: Andrew Rossi
Screenplay: Andrew Rossi. (Documentary)
Runtime: 90 minutes.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: With the costs of attending university within the United States increasing, and indeed throughout the Western world, the documentary Ivory Tower questions whether the existing funding models and structures within higher education have a future. Stuffed full of interviews with experts, examining alternative models, and even capturing a large-scale student protest at Cooper Union in New York, the film sets out to examine the problem from a multitude of angles.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Review: Spasms of angst have been racking the higher education community for at least the past decade, and Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower is the latest salvo in the war for and against the current higher education structures in the US. As the film is quick to highlight, courtesy of NBC’s Brian Williams, student debt in the form of college loans has now surpassed one trillion dollars (US) and keeps rising. Rossi’s argument is that, in the face of these rising costs, the traditional college degree is becoming out of reach for most Americans and is no longer value for money. He musters some powerful arguments – generally in the form of interviews with teachers, students, and administrators – to support this position. It is undoubtedly accurate, and indeed well known; where the film flounders is in presenting the alternatives to the current structures credibly or in any degree of depth. The film also never really penetrates the desire or the why people want to go to college. The usual existential enrichment arguments are trotted out (and then dismembered), but there is never a sense of what the students themselves want from the degree and an examination of the job market for graduates is somewhat beyond the scope of the film.
The most interesting material that the film does capture are the protests at Cooper Union, a New York college that traditionally offered scholarships to students to completely cover the cost of study and in many cases living expenses. It is one of the most generous programs in the country, from a well respected institution, and the then president of the university (Jamshed Bharucha) proposed a plan to start charging students tuition that attracted extended protests, with the students claiming it was fundamentally contrary to the spirit of the university. The protests are laudable, as the students currently studying won’t be affected; and the film reasonably highlights the massive expansion of administration, unnecessary but high profile facilities, increasing institutional debt, and an underinvestment in teaching as evidence of the fundamental mismanagement of modern universities. It is hard not to agree, and have sympathy with the protestors. In counterpoint, the film offers brief insights to institutions like Deep Springs, which are attempting to forge a completely different (and much cheaper) model in educating students. That said, it lets off these institutions very, very lightly – simply by inference, one can see that there are some troubling issues surrounding the ethos of Deep Springs, for example.
The film also offers a brief consideration and criticism of massive online courses, as well as a few other innovations within college teaching. But at the close of the film, it is hard to know who the audience for this film is or what they are expected to commit to. Few people are challenging the value of a full liberal arts education, or the opportunity to pursue knowledge through the sciences – and the film is bursting at the seams with saccharine lectures from passionate professors citing motherhood statement after motherhood statement. In particular, the rant meant to close the film will gall most – that professor claiming that ‘America is all about critical thinking.’ The rest of the world would beg to differ. This also highlights another central problem, for viewers from countries who are not from within this system. There are most certainly issues with the funding of higher education in Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere but they are fundamentally different issues. Higher education systems seem to evolve uniquely and with its own traditions, as well as funding models, within each country – and the film has little to offer the rest of the world in confronting their respective problems.
There is a broader message within Ivory Tower of “someone has to pay,” and that is absolutely true. But the documentary never really makes it beyond the platitudes or the talking heads to really get to the core of the issues.
Rating: Two and a half stars.