Rejecting the University

Higher education is in a rocky place, you may have heard. More and more, colleges are placing the burden of cost on their students, raising tuition in astronomical amounts. Increasingly, public colleges are recruiting out-of-state students (who pay higher tuition), abandoning their mandate to educate the citizens of their state at low cost. Departments are absorbing each other – or closing completely – and new PhDs are becoming adjuncts rather than tenured, all while new vice presidents are hired and massive buildings are erected. Colleges are increasingly exclusive and costly, and they are continuing to move away from the purpose of educating young minds.

In the 2006 film Accepted, Bartelby Gaines, a high school graduate who failed to get into eight colleges, decides to start his own fake college to fool his parents. An entrepreneur by nature, he takes the ruse all the way: renting out an abandoned psychiatric hospital to serve as a college facade. The plan blows up as other people apply and end up enrolling in the institution that Gaines decides to run. There are two questions worth exploring when watching this movie: what problems does the film have with academia? And what does it really take to run a college?

Reject rejection – and all the exclusivity, cost, and waste that it symbolizes.

When Bartleby tells his parents he didn’t get into any colleges, he spins it by telling them that it is fiscally irresponsible for him to go to college. “We could spend $80,000 over the next four years, or I could make $80,000 over the next four years.” And it’s true – college is expensive and the cost is difficult to bear for many. Regardless, his parents are irate. “Society has rules,” his father argues, “first rule is you go to college. If you want to have a happy, successful life, you go to college. If you want to be somebody, you go to college. If you want to fit in, you go to college.” College is a social need above all else.

When Bartleby hatches the plan to mail himself a fake admissions letter – to the South Harmon Institute of Technology – he is joined by a cast of conspirators who help him renovate the hospital in preparation for his parents’ visit to school. What ensues is a glimpse into what the film accuses academia of doing wrong – and what the film views as education’s purpose.

When the Gaines family meets with the Dean of the college, a former professor recently fired from a job at the mall, he lambastes the entire notion of higher education. “A lot of people say that college is the time when young men and women expand the way that they look at their world, when they open their minds to new ideas and experiences, and when they begin that long journey from the innocence of youth to the responsibilities of adulthood. Now isn’t that a load of horseshit?”  When pushed on the view, he describes the school’s philosophy: “We throw a lot of fancy words in front of these kids, in order to attract them to go to this school, in the belief that they’re going to have a better life. And we all know that all we’re doing is breeding a whole new generation of buyers and sellers,  pimps and whores, and indoctrinating them into a lifelong hell of debt and indecision.” When the family is left speechless, he continues: “Do I have to spoon-feed it to you? There’s only one reason that kids want to go to school: to get a good job. To get a good job with a great starting salary.”

The uncomfortable silence is, naturally, broken by mom’s comment that it is “so refreshing to hear someone approach education so rationally.”

There’s a rejection of college’s enlightening promise, seeing the process of higher education as merely feeding capitalism.  And the parents gobble it up because that’s how more and more people are viewing education now.  The learning isn’t important, it’s the degree that will give you a well-paying job. It echoes all the parents that harp on their English-major sons and Philosophy-major daughters and praise the niece that’s pre-med or the neighbor’s kid that’s getting an MBA. It’s all around us, and it’s not just our families feeding it to us. Our school administrations and our politicians agree. More and more, university administrators are advocating for more “professional” degrees rather than traditional academic ones. When Florida Governor Rick Scott advocated shifting state funds from humanities and social sciences towards science and technology, he referenced anthropology majors when he argued, “we don’t need them here.” This mentality is everywhere. Even South Harmon’s new fake dean spouts it to degree-hungry parents.

How strange, then, that South Harmon Institute of Technology seemingly rejects the shit out of this notion. When faced with over a hundred newly accepted students later that day, Bartleby chooses not to own up to his lie. Standing before the new students, he bemoans college exclusivity and decries “isn’t it time you’re said ‘yes’ to?” and proceeds to let everyone into his fake college. In the very next scene the President of nearby Harmon College, the region’s elite academy, explains that selectivity and exclusivity are integral to a school’s stature.  While this is traditionally a reference to the admissions process, the President lays out his plan for a physical manifestation of this exclusion: a massive, gentrifying gateway “to keep knowledge in, and ignorance out.” Meanwhile, in order to craft a plan, Bartleby pays a visit to Harmon College to figure out what higher education is supposed to be. The ensuing montage is one of highly structured, stifling curricula, a lack of individuality in massive classrooms, and really goal-oriented, grade-driven students.

Despite his dean’s argument that college was about job-readiness, Bartleby decides to ask the new students what they want to learn. “All of our lives we’ve been told what to learn, well today the tide’s going to turn because today – we’re asking the customer.” This leads to the creation of a whiteboard covered in course ideas, and each student’s tuition is spent predominantly on those subjects. When the love-interest visits, she quickly asks Bartleby, “there aren’t any tests or required reading or any of that nonsense?”

But are tests and required reading really the problem?  When Bartleby tries to steer away from traditional higher education, it results in a broad curriculum taught by the students that relies on experiences rather than grades. No required Ancient Roman history class when you want to be a photographer, no spillover class in front of a speaker, and no recording of every word in case it’s on the test. But higher education was never supposed to be these things anyways. While a basic curriculum should provide some foundation for learning, the stifling major maps of many of today’s colleges are a way of streamlining students to make everything easier for administration. Massive class sizes save school’s money and grading systems quicken the evaluation process. And on top of all of this, the exclusivity of some universities is a part of why they are so expensive. All of this is a result of the commodification of education. It’s this type of education is the kind that treats students as customers.

So when the people at Harmon out Bartleby as a fraud, the crew decides to fight for accreditation  The state defines a college as “a body of people with a shared common purpose of a higher education,” and at the hearing, the board states that a college must have a facility, a curriculum, and a faculty. The facility comes in the form of a mental hospital with a skating ramp, the curriculum is wheeled out in whiteboard-form, and the students identify themselves as faculty (kinda like, you know, grad students).  Bartleby issues a monologue decrying college traditions of hazing outcasts, driving students crazy with stress, and robbing students of creativity. “You don’t need teachers or a classroom to learn,” he argues, “just people with the desire to better themselves.”

When the board votes to allow the school to operate on an experimental basis, the chairman states that “the true purpose of education is to stimulate the creativity and the passions of the student body.”  But what hope does South Harmon have?

South Harmon eschews everything from a proper gymnasium to tenured faculty in establishing its by-the-student-for-the-student model. It succeeds in placing decision-making with those most concerned with the education at hand – the students and the faculty. With students paying into the system with the hopes of learning something in order to better their lives, they ought to have a say in what they do in school. South Harmon makes good on this promise, using tuition funds primarily on the education of students. Today’s universities spend that same money on construction, marketing, losing $23 billion in investments – anything but teaching. Tuition dollars need to go towards education, and at South Harmon they do. At local rival Harmon College, the money is spent on gentrifying the neighborhood for an arch named after the President, by the President.

South Harmon also lacks grades completely. When visiting Harmon, Bartleby saw sleep-deprived students mumbling mnemonics and frantically scribbling down everything the professor says. Note-taking and memory strategies can help you learn, of course, but test-oriented learning isn’t learning at all. Today, education at all levels is obsessed with grades – be it standardized testing or many schools’ unspoken policy or not failing students (lest they ruin the school’s stats). But in classes of hundreds of students, grading a multiple choice test is the only way your SOC-101 teacher is going to decide that you passed. In small classes, where there is more attention paid to each student and more intensive learning rather than test-taking, grades aren’t needed. If the class is small enough, you can see who’s learning and you don’t need grades. If the class is small enough, learning will be happening, and you don’t need to fail people. South Harmon’s classes are all small – except a few lectures from the dean that seem more like a speaker series than a course. Small classes with committed faculty and engaged students mean you don’t need grades. Get rid of large class sizes, get rid of grades. Just like we need to get rid of endless spending on non-educational excess.

Another place where Gaines’ model is absolutely right is the complete lack of administration at the school. Administration is – of course – the most absurd part of higher education today. It’s the source of a host of problems we face today, like stringent curricula, tuition hikes, and lack of academic freedom and it’s the embodiment of the bureaucracy of education that we’re dealing with now. Indeed, my undergraduate years were spent at a state university with a team of over a dozen vice presidents, and I’m currently studying at a school with a dozen more. Faculty and students can run schools, and they should. After all, they’re the ones that higher education is meant to serve. Meanwhile, the effects of administrative-heavy colleges is everywhere, be it the monetary cost of administrative bloatthe disasters of appointed governing boards, or the erosion of faculty governance. And South Harmon soundly rejects its very existence.

It’s not a novel concept that institutions of higher education be run efficiently to better use resources for learning and research. Rather than fund administrative bloat, go on urban construction binges, sign deals with board members’ companies, or profit off of research patents, universities should be funding teaching and research for the public good. Universities used to be run predominantly by the faculty – whose primary concern was research and education – not full-time administrators. In the fictional world of Accepted, it took a team of would-be freshmen to build their own fake school in order to have a college not turned into a money-draining all-administrative body that saw teaching as a means to feed capitalism. What will it take for our universities to throw off the yoke of the administration and reclaim the university for those who use it?

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