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Laramie Movie Scope:
Starving the Beast

Higher education, devalued, made into a commodity

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 27, 2017 -- This documentary film about the deterioration of land grant universities in the United States is part of a larger movement in the United States, funneling more money upwards to wealthy people, in return for declining services like education and research. These policies amount to short term gains which can cause long term national declines.

Wisconsin is on the cutting edge of this movement, not only cutting back state support for higher education, but cutting back tenure protections for professors at state universities. Governor Scott Walker said the move was made to get rid of non profitable professors. He said it would enable the state to hire the “best and brightest” professors. Instead, according to the film, the best professors are leaving to other universities that have tenure protection, and higher salaries.

So how did modern universities change from places of education and research to glorified vocational schools that treat students as mere consumers, to be molded into compliant workers for the corporations who now call the shots?

Political strategist James Carville, speaking at graduation ceremonies at Louisiana State University, opens the film talking about how higher education has gone from being a service provided by governments, to a commodity sold to students (consumers). Carville frames the debate as being between the commodity education proponents like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and low tax proponent Grover Norquist on one side, and Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and Abraham Lincoln (who helped to found land grant universities) on the other side.

The film points out the obvious, as well as harder-to-grasp philosophical arguments over how colleges and universities should be funded and operated. First, the obvious, as state support for universities declines, the tuition goes up. The film shows many instances where the state support declined as a direct result of tax cuts for the wealthy. Cutting taxes for the wealthy to stimulate the economy is an idea with a long history, being championed by wealthy, powerful people and such politicians as President Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan, and many Republicans since 1980.

Cutting taxes leads to budget shortfalls, and an easy target for cutting budgets are educational institutions, like universities. These institutions tend to house a lot of liberals, where unpopular people like intellectuals and scientists teach unpopular ideas like liberal politics, evolution and human-caused climate change. Not only that, but they teach subjects like literature, history and philosophy that don't necessarily lead to high-paying jobs. These are easy targets for conservative governors and legislatures.

The film goes into some of the philosophical underpinnings of the current movements to reshape universities into vocational educational institutions, the first being Clayton Christiansen's book, “The Innovator's Dilemma” a book which turned a parable about the decline of the U.S. Steel industry into a simplistic analysis of innovation in business. His ideas about “distruptive innovation” became very popular in the fast changing tech industry.

According to the film, Christianson's ideas were also applied to higher education in the form of cutting costs by offering online educational courses. Those ideas were also included in Jeff Sanderfer's seven points to improve higher education, some of which were adopted by Texas under the leadership of Governor Rick Perry. Sanderfer advocated splitting research funding from education funding, and putting the funding of universities in the hands of the students, in the form of tuition. That, combined with using student ratings to evaluate professors, and a “cost benefit analysis” of each professor, changes the dynamic between professor and student. Education becomes a commodity, and college courses are judged by how much money they are worth in terms of student careers.

As students became consumers, college tuitions were skyrocketing at the same time due to declining state support for universities. This increases the appeal of cost-benefit analysis for students, who have to pay off ever higher student debt. Universities also started building costly resort-like facilities to attract more students (who stopped being students and are now “customers”), further raising the cost of education.

The upshot of all this, is that with less research, the economy declines. As the cost of higher education goes up, fewer people can afford it, including people who would have, given the chance, become the future businessmen and scientists and leaders of the nation. As fewer people find themselves unable to access the education needed to advance their position in society, they become more frustrated, leading to political instability.

This is the little-known national battle shown in this film, between the idea of education being a service to the nation, or education being a commodity sold to the few who can afford it. There are plenty of examples of this battle in this film, which is troubling to those of us remember a time when education was easily affordable by almost everyone. This film rates a B. By the way, Wyoming is one state that has maintained high funding for higher education, and where the tuition cost to students is the lowest in the nation. Wyoming state government is entirely controlled by Republicans, by the way.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)