According to his filmography, director Andrew Rossi likes to narrate the crumbling of great institutions. He’s investigated the tumultuous traditional newspaper business, followed the demise of formal dining culture through a legendary New York restaurant, and recorded the effort to reshape traditional marriage in Massachusetts. Now Rossi’s attention turns to American higher education in Ivory Tower, a documentary that hits select theaters starting June 13.
Rossi himself is a graduate of Yale and Harvard. In researching this topic, however, he plays devil’s advocate to the “mythology” that higher education is a guaranteed pathway to social mobility and career success.
Expect the typical apocalyptic vocabulary that’s almost synonymous to “higher education” today: We’re in a “crisis” of heaping student loan debt, which by 2011 had exceeded $1 trillion—higher than credit card debt. The “unsustainable” growth of tuition prices is a “cost disease” spawned by universities that act more like big businesses than educators. “Sticker shock” is no longer a shock, but resigned stress for parents who scrape and beg for funds—yet some are paying for their children to waste away at “party schools.” Students from both top and mediocre schools fail to graduate or find a job.
The film presents all sorts of education models: elite research universities such as Harvard, huge public schools such as Arizona State, community colleges, innovative online courses, and offbeat anti-college programs. One featured niche school is Deep Springs College, a work college nestled within a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in California’s Death Valley, where 26 young men provide ranch work in exchange for two years of free liberal arts education.
Ivory Tower also goes back to history, when college was an “offshoot of the church” and lectures were a “version of sermons.” College was a molder of purpose and direction that transformed students into informed agents of social change. Then came the lure of prestige and money. Throw in economic recessions, tight-fisted state dollars, and rapid technology upheavals—and our nation’s ivory tower is falling down. Well, at least most of it.