DVD Review: Ivory Tower

Ivory-towerIs college worth it?

The question is posed and then answered in “Ivory Tower,” a 90-minute documentary that rings a lot of bells, especially as the University of Maine System goes under the microscope.

The opening volley in “Ivory Tower” is close to overwhelming: Kids are graduating in record numbers with record debt — a trillion dollars at last count. And college isn’t the passport to a professional career that it once was, especially if your field of study is the liberal arts. A master’s degree in Renaissance poetry won’t get you a job in a marketplace that prizes specialization in engineering. And even Wendy’s looks askance at an overeducated egghead.

The documentary is well researched. Educators, students, professors, college presidents — even California Governor Jerry Brown — offer insights, predictions and alternatives.

We swiftly learn that the graduates aren’t the only ones with dicey futures. Colleges and universities have one foot in the grave and the other on a large banana peel known as the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). Our colleges and universities all share Harvard’s DNA — to this day the ultimate embodiment of higher ed. Harvard, we learn, was created on the University of Cambridge model, itself inspired by the church. The professor is the preacher, the lecture is the sermon and the result in either case is to be transformational.

But the transformation of young minds doesn’t bring in the bucks nearly as effectively as a gorgeous campus, a great athletic team and dorms with tanning beds. So American colleges focus of maintaining and growing the labs, student unions, faculties, robed dons and football teams, for these bring prestige. Or used to. But the cost of that academic arms race is driving up tuitions. In some cases, such as New York’s Cooper Union, a lavishly compensated president and misadventures with a hedge fund brought about the introduction of tuition. And, as state support dries up, tuition rises.

Are we having fun yet?

Because research brings in the grants, an increasing number of “faculty” members never set foot in a classroom. Teaching is handed off to adjuncts who aren’t necessarily scholars and generally have other jobs. They need the paycheck and, because they’re effectiveness and job security are often determined by end-of-semester student evaluations, the adjuncts are incentivized to go easy, to be popular, to go light on the reading and homework.

Surprisingly, the documentary extols many aspects of the college experience: discovery, critical thinking, challenging ideas, opportunity for minorities and engagement with new people and unfamiliar ways of being.

But cost inflation is cooking up a tsunami. Online courses, particularly MOOCs, are generating spinoffs that might well displace the classic, residential, four-year pursuit of a degree.

Visually rich, well edited but 30 minutes too long, “Ivory Tower” is an education.

Stephen Fay

Stephen Fay

Managing Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American since 1996, is a third-generation Californian. Starting out as a news reporter in 1974, he has been an editor since 1976, working in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont before settling in Ellsworth with his wife and two daughters. [email protected]