By William Deresiewicz
JUNE 19, 2014
While I was watching Ivory Tower, a documentary about the state of college in America that appears in select theaters this month (the movie also airs on CNN this fall), it occurred to me that of the many problems with higher education these days, not the least concerns the way we talk about it. “Efficiency,” “art-history majors,” “kids who graduate with $100,000 in debt,” “the college bubble,” the whole rhetoric of crisis and collapse: The public discourse is dominated by sound bites, one-liners, hearsay, horror stories, and a very great deal of misinformation.
Higher ed is not unique in this respect, of course, but it is particularly bad. College, as the movie points out, was always treated as a black box: 18-year-olds were inserted at one end, 22-year-olds came out the other, and as long as the system appeared to be working, no one bothered to inquire what happened in between. Americans, as a result, have very little understanding of what college is about—how it works, what it’s for, what larger social benefits it offers—and those employed in higher education have had very little practice in explaining it to them. The debate has been left to the politicians, the pundits, and increasingly, the hustlers and ideologues. Few who talk about college in public understand it, and few who understand it talk about it.
Ivory Tower, for the most part, is an honorable exception. The movie, directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), covers a lot of territory, and it covers it patiently, clearly, and thoughtfully. The headline issues of ballooning tuition and student debt are placed in their historical context: institutional competition, expansion, and borrowing; administrative bloat; the rise of the “party track” and its concomitant amenities as public universities have turned to full payers from out of state to deal with budgetary shortfalls; and the long-term withdrawal of public funding—the shift from taxes to student loans—that has been the fundamental factor in creating the entire mess.