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“Ivory Tower” explores the future of liberal arts education

“Ivory Tower” is a documentary about the rising cost of college in the United States — a high-stakes and intensely personal topic for many members of the Stanford community. Through interviews with students, administrators and faculty members at schools around the country, director Andrew Rossi explores a wide range of topics, including student debt, classroom diversity and pedagogical potential of new technology. While “Ivory Tower” feels meandering and unfocused at times, the film complicates our visions of universities as stalwart pillars of the American dream.

Rossi sheds light on the essential function that higher education serves in American society as a vehicle of social mobility and a rehearsal ground for democracy. According to Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, “College is a way of trying to preserve cultural memory. It is an effort to cheat death, so it’s a struggle against time and mortality.” Unsurprisingly, Delbanco’s philosophy finds an echo in Harvard president Drew Faust, who claims that a liberal arts education is essential preparation for leading a flourishing life instead of the acquisition of a “first job.”

Of course, learning for learning’s sake is difficult to justify during trying economic times, as more students are graduating without jobs and bearing onerous student loans. Student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, and the price index for college tuition rose more than for any other good in the U.S. economy (by almost 1,200 percent) from 1978 to 2014. A college degree is increasingly failing to protect 20-somethings from protracted struggles to get footholds in the job market. Americans everywhere are reconsidering the utility of investing in higher education.

At the same time, “Ivory Tower” shows that colleges are under financial pressure themselves. Dramatic decreases in state funding have left schools in tremendous debt and caused increases in tuition. The University of Virginia, for instance, has lost $100 million in government funding and replaced one-fourth of that money by upping tuition. In the context of these financial pressures, the line between school and business begins to blur. By investing in high-end amenities, such as state-of-the-art recreation centers, bigger football stadiums and luxury housing complexes, colleges hope to draw students with dollars.

To illustrate the effect of these financial pressures on students’ lives, Rossi takes viewers to Arizona State University (ASU). In an interview, president Michael Crow says that it is ASU’s responsibility to “take a broad cross-section of talent from across our society and provide a world-class learning experience at the lowest possible cost.” There is a gulf, though, between Crow’s ideals and student culture at ASU, which was recently ranked one of the nation’s top “party schools.”

In a new book called “Waiting for the Party,” authors Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong argue that large, mid-tier state schools like ASU use the party culture and build new “party pathways” to attract out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition rates. Schools are incentivized to market and grow via the image of a “beer and circus” instead of a rigorous academic experience.

While Rossi portrays certain student bodies as academically adrift, he also goes to lengths to represent the diversity in college experiences nationwide. At Deep Springs College, for instance, young men take a two-year pledge to live, work and study together on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in California’s High Desert. The 26-person student body is charged with defining its own curriculum and community norms. Rossi also spends time exploring the role of historically black colleges, such as Spellman College, and follows first-generation Harvard freshman David Boone as he negotiates the academic and social challenges of his first year in college. In putting these stories together, Rossi captures the range of what “college” means across the U.S., both inside and outside the classroom.

Given this diversity in the very definition of college, it seems odd that the film ends up focusing on a series of rallies at Cooper Union in New York as students and faculty advocate to keep the school tuition-free. Debates and interviews regarding the tuition controversy that culminate in a student sit-in serve as a narratological backbone for “Ivory Tower.” While the film seems to expect and promote sympathy (or solidarity) with the protestors, the issue is not clear-cut. Cooper Union is on the verge of bankruptcy due to misguided investment in a new building. In fact, a tuition-based approach may be its only chance at survival.

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at Cooper Union’s 2013 commencement, “The debate you’re having isn’t about whether or not education is ‘free.’ It’s really about who can and who is willing to pay for it.” While “Ivory Tower” successfully elucidates the financial duress of colleges in the United States, the movie does not begin to address Bloomberg’s point: Is the government in a position to foot the bill?

In some ways, the film locates hope for higher education in new information technologies, which seem poised to democratize access to the fruits of college. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, is the first to argue that “college has been sold and oversold as the key to a better future” and that many of the resources that colleges offer are now accessible on the Internet. Thiel’s namesake fellowship gives college-age students $100,000 over two years to work on startups, science research or social movements in lieu of attending college.

At the same time, universities like Stanford are trying to anticipate and shape the role that technology will play in distance education. Stanford is leading the charge in running Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. Short videos, interactive chat sessions and robot-graded assignments allow versions of classes to be taken by people all over the world for free.

According to the film, though, courses facilitated by companies like Coursera, Udacity and Edex are not yet viable replacements for classroom experiences, even if they are cost-effective. Vulnerable students who need remedial attention tend to struggle, manifesting in lower retention and pass rates in online courses.

In his effort to explore the past, present and future of higher education in this country, “Ivory Tower” covers a bit too much ground. That said, Rossi is right to point out that the campaign to provide the best education possible to the largest number of people is essential to the very notion of America. The future of American democracy — and our potential to achieve more equitable and sustainable economic growth — is inextricably linked to the future of higher education in this country. Rossi’s film reminds us that any effort to address the education system begins with educating ourselves about the system.