Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie Review: Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower
Directed by: Andrew Rossi.
Written by: Andrew Rossi.

How much is a University education worth – and what exactly are you paying for when you pay them? Over the past few decades, tuition has skyrocketed, as state governments have cut the funding that universities received – and they need to make up that money somewhere, and tuition is the only place left. The universities are in fierce competition for students, so they end up spending a lot of that money on ways to entice students to come to their universities – recreation centers, upscale student housing, etc. In addition, many universities don’t seem to be challenging their students academically, but rather focus on their life. As a results, students are paying more and more money to for their university education, and get less and less value for that money – they end up going in massive amounts of student debt, that compound exponentially over time as more of them have trouble finding a job than ever before.

The new documentary Ivory Tower asks a lot of questions about the value of a University education, points out many of the problems with how it stands now, but never really attempts to answer any of those questions. It presents what it sees as both sides of the question – as well as some alternatives to a higher education, and the positives and negatives inherent in them as well. It spends a lot of time on the fight at Cooper Union – a small university in New York City that was supposed to remain free for students forever, thanks to an endowment by its founder, but because of some questionable decisions made by its board and President in regards to risky investments, now has to start charging tuition. This angers current students – even if they themselves will not have to pay – and they organize a sit-in in the University President’s office – a President with a salary nearly equal to that of the President of Harvard, despite the fact that Cooper Union is a tiny fraction of its size.

Ivory Tower is a well-made a documentary – in the typical talking heads style, by Andrew Rossi – whose last film was also about a venerable institution in trouble in a changing world – the New York Times. Like that film, Ivory Tower isn’t as interested in answers as it is in asking questions. This makes the film both fascinating and frustrating. Watching the film, you are almost left with the sense that no matter what you do – whether you go to university or not – you’re screwed.

But the questions the movie asks are worth asking – and are asked all too infrequently in our society. The system is setup to encourage people to go to university – and that is a worthy goal for all – but the system is also setup for the universities to simply be money generating businesses – with no real incentive to provide the type of education people expect. This doesn’t mean that higher education is worthless – but it does mean it needs to be re-examined – at least on some levels. Ivory Tower will hopefully spark some conversations about what it all means.

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