This week I’d like to step back from Washington scandals and abortion trials to give a salute to college graduates. While too many have received a substandard education that hands them a five- or six-figure debt along with their diploma, a few have had their minds opened like a window to the fresh spring air. Fewer as the years go by, it seems, but that’s apparently what happened to TV star Josh Radner, who returned to Ohio’s Kenyon College to make a movie about his alma mater.
Liberal Arts, now available on DVD, is the kind of quiet, talky little film introspective types (like me) enjoy curling up with on a Friday night (see trailer below). I didn’t expect more than a clever screenplay, but it turned out to be an hour and a half of sharp observation and cautious optimism about what higher education is meant to be. Not job training, but life shaping.
Traditionally, liberal education meant education for the “free man”—an individual with the leisure to study disciplines that had no immediate practical application. The corruption of “liberal arts” into trendiness and cynicism has ruined the general understanding of what a college education is supposed to do: to give a developing adult tools to think, and ideas to think about. With the loss of purpose, it’s no wonder college has disintegrated to a marathon frat party for many liberal arts majors.
But for Radner’s main character, Jesse, college was the golden age when he fell in love with a book and was blown away by the romantic poets. After years of a disappointing job and equally disappointing relationships, he’s thrilled to receive an invitation to the retirement party of his favorite professor. Back in the ivy-covered halls, he meets Zibby, a quirky sophomore with the same questing spirit he remembers in himself. She can even stand up to him when he questions her literary tastes: “You think it’s cool to hate things but it’s not. It’s boring.” When he returns to New York they become pen pals, sharing fleeting impressions and transcendent moments in longhand. Obviously, he must see her again.
That visit leads to the inevitable bedroom, but when it’s time to cross that line Jesse finds he can’t do it—not just because of their 16-year age difference, but also because of her virginity. This comes as a shock to him (because it’s so rare), and he doesn’t know how to articulate his sense of the forbidden. To her pleas and accusations he can only answer, “Guilt before we act is called … morality.”
Which doesn’t mean he’s immune to older women, or “age-appropriate” women, and the movie is rated PG-13 for a brief sex scene, as well as some language. It’s not “Christian,” but it’s deeply human, with positive things to say about poetry and responsibility and impractical pursuits and growing up—even growing old. They don’t make them like this anymore, or not too much. It’s a good way to spend a Friday night.