Ivory Tower (Samuel Goldwyn Films, PG-13)

ivorytower sqIvory Tower is at its best when it highlights specific, particularly-focused colleges, such as Spelman College in Atlanta or Deep Springs College in Death Valley.

 

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Frank Zappa once said that “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” The new documentary Ivory Tower might expand upon this argument as such: If you’re a privileged teen who wants to get laid at a party presided over by a grossly overpaid president, while in and around unnecessarily large and opulent buildings that house unnecessary programs, go to college. If you want an education, you’re out of luck.

Of course higher education’s many failures have been in the news a lot lately, most especially with regard to the insurmountable student loans many acquire to go to get a degree of negligible use, so in that regard Ivory Tower is a timely film. As directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), the film offers many criticisms and few to no answers, which is fine—I for one am tired of the recent trend of documentaries that tell you what you “should” do over the end credits.

The problem with Ivory Tower, though, is that anyone who keeps up with this problem won’t learn anything from the film, and those who go to this film in an effort to understand something they haven’t kept up with will be subjected to some boneheaded filmmaking decisions and questionable points of view. At various point the film alternates between either MOOCs or Peter Thiel as having the answer to the rising cost of higher education, both of which are questionable. The film eventually doubles back on the MOOCs thing, but Thiel and his “I’ll pay you not to go to college” plan is never really questioned, and sometimes is made to look outright heroic.

Ivory Tower is at its best when it highlights specific, particularly-focused colleges, such as Spelman College in Atlanta or Deep Springs College in Death Valley. The best part of the film covers the recent arc of Cooper Union, a college in Manhattan that has been totally free for over 100 years, until recently when its overpaid president decided to start charging tuition, inciting near-riots on campus.

Full disclosure: My day job is as an adjunct college professor, so I’m in some way part of the system Ivory Tower is attacking. That said, I’m sympathetic to its thesis, and think a film more credible and thought-out than this one could be very useful. Among other things, it just isn’t very thorough—while exploring MOOCs, the film pays no attention to regular, direct-interaction online college courses, which are gaining a big foothold in the industry. More glaringly, it doesn’t pay any attention to for-profit schools at all, such as University of Phoenix or Full Sail University, which are a much bigger problem than anything Ivory Tower looks into. The film wastes no time in pointing out that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are all college dropouts, as if that’s the only path to being a billionaire these days.

So while Ivory Tower is about an important topic, you’re better off learning about said topic from other sources. To paraphrase Zappa, if you want your intelligence insulted, see Ivory Tower, and if you want an education, go to the library. A good place to start is the essay “College is for Suckers,” written by Ted Rall in 1996, which covers most of the same material as Ivory Tower, but is a lot more concise about it. | Pete Timmermann

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