By now you’ve probably seen that New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, and all the rebuttals, and all the rebuttals to the rebuttals. In the article William Deresiewicz provides a rather thorough and convincing (if unoriginal) critique of elite college preparation. It’s a hyper-competitive process that begins at infancy (for kids from elite families), encourages the most cynical and cutthroat behavior from students, and, as Deresiewicz and others have argued, undermines the very purposes of college. (Personally, I liked the way the film The History Boys dealt with all this in a British context.) My biggest problem with the article (besides his swipe at race-based affirmative action) is that he had very little to say about public universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges where the students aren’t all college-prep-programmed youngsters, and where “admissions” operates under a whole different paradigm. This is by far the largest and fastest growing segment of higher education, and the one that most of us will encounter. He can critique the Ivy League all he wants, but the kind of prestige signified by an Ivy League education is one that is remarkably resilient, even among those of us who are happy with our non-Ivy League educations, or who never attended college at all. To some degree I think we all buy into and attach value to the prestige of being affiliated with an Ivy League institution, even when we should know better.
In my “Storifying the Academy” article that I posted a few months ago I made a backhanded comment about the recent academic film Admission. After viewing it again, I stand corrected. There’s more to this film than Lily Tomlin’s performance (though she does have some great lines). Admission is actually an interesting examination of the admissions process, this ritual of rejection and acceptance that millions of students put themselves through each year. The film dramatizes what this process means for the administrators and students involved, and what this process says about the way higher education functions, particularly at its most elite levels.
Like most academic films and novels, this one has been judged according to how well it represents the real-life academy. Suffice to say there are exaggerations and embellishments, but not all of them are bad. When the film was released in theaters in 2013, Inside Higher Ed hosted a discussion with some actual admissions officers about the veracity of the film. Vulture published an interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of the novel upon which the screenplay is based, and screenwriter Karen Croner. Korelitz and Croner provide an interesting discussion about the process of bringing this particular novel to the big screen, and also about how film adaptations often differ from their novels. (And since I began with the New Republic article it is also worth noting here that William Deresiewicz himself has written about academic fiction before: see “Love on Campus”)
In her study of academic fiction The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic, Janice Rossen writes about the ways that power, inclusion and exclusion define university life. For Rossen, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is the exemplary academic novel because its main character yearns to be a part of Christ Church, Oxford, but as a working-class stone mason and an autodidact he really stood no chance to enter the hallowed walls of the university. He didn’t have the proper training and pedigree, and there was no way for him to work his way into that kind of prestige.
Admission follows the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton. The Director of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is distressed over the fact that Princeton has fallen to number 2 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (Of course, we don’t really put any stock in those rankings, do we? They’re just fun to look at, right?) And so he sends his admission team out to find the freshman class that will put them back on top.
Portia accepts an invitation from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the principal of The Quest School, an alternative high school with an eccentric curriculum, to come speak to his students about admission to Princeton. It is there that Portia meets a modern-day “Jude the Obscure” in the form of Jeremiah, a student with a terrible academic record, who also happens to be a brilliant autodidact who has aced every AP test that he took (without taking any AP classes) and has a near perfect score on his SATs.
In one sequence Portia gives her admissions spiel to students at an elite prep school, where, decked out in uniforms, they listen to her with respect and obedience. Cut to her scene at Quest, however, and Portia finds herself giving the same talk in a barn (part of the school’s hands-on learning environment) and facing a barrage of snarky questions and comments from a bunch of smart-aleck students such as: “Why should I apply to an elitist institution with a history of anti-black, anti-gay and anti-female oppression?” and “Wouldn’t you be better off sitting in your room reading books?” and “Don’t people just need a college degree if you want to pursue the societally approved definition of success?” As one student puts it, “what we want is to leave the planet better than we found it.” The questions and comments are certainly valid and refreshing to hear, but they also represent a certain sarcastic and cynical attitude toward formal education that has become all too cheap and easy. Portia finally fires back at them with a spirited defense of her profession. “I have a question for all of you. Just how will you leave the planet better? Do you want to eradicate disease? Well, you’re going to need a medical degree. If you want to create new drug therapies, that’s a Ph.D. If you want to defend the innocent and secure justice for all, I regret to inform you that you will have to go to law school!” And I think she was right to push back against their knee-jerk sarcasm. It’s easy to lapse into this snarky attitude about higher education. Yes, higher ed has certainly earned those doubts with its constant tuition increases, expensive textbook extortion schemes, and its massive student loan debt system. But I doubt any of us really wants to have surgery performed by a self-taught doctor whose only training came from reading Gray’s Anatomy and studying biology and chemistry MOOCs on Academic Earth.
Portia soon finds out (MAJOR SPOILER) that Jeremiah may be the son that she gave up for adoption years ago when she carried out an unexpected pregnancy while a student at Dartmouth. And then on top of that emotional bombshell, she experiences an embarrassing and humiliating breakup in a hilarious bit where her nebbish English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her in the middle of a dinner party by confessing that he’s impregnated a colleague who Portia describes as “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar.”
It’s obvious why Portia’s judgment about Jeremiah is skewed when it comes to his chances for admission. The breakup has left her emotionally out of sorts, and learning about Jeremiah brought back so many difficult questions about her life choices. Portia is so intent on him getting into Princeton because she feels he deserves it, because she wants him close to her, and because in her worldview, this is the best thing that she can do for him. In the process she fails to consider one simple idea: Maybe it is Princeton that doesn’t deserve to have Jeremiah. Maybe he would be better off somewhere else – say a liberal arts college like Reed College – where his eccentricity would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.
The film deserves credit for its portrayal of women in positions of authority in the academy. There’s an interesting give and take between Portia and her colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben) who are both vying to be the new Director of Admissions. Throughout the film we see women having to negotiate child-rearing and babysitting, the difficulty of getting “emotional” as a woman in a professional setting, and jokes about the need for “sisterhood” even as they are in fierce competition for the same positions.
Mostly the film worked for me because it shows the irresistibility of these hierarchies of prestige. Getting into Princeton means something. Winning an appointment as an Ivy League professor means something. Even for those of us who claim we don’t believe in such hierarchies, we still lapse into celebrating that prestige, when say, an Ivy League school happens to hire a scholar whose work that we really like, or when one of our own children or family members or friends gets accepted or hired by one of these schools. Being admitted into those halls is incredibly validating, a powerful signifier of status and success, and that kind of prestige has been centuries in the making. Admission makes the case that even when we’re at our most critical of Ivy League prestige, it can’t easily be shaken, least of all by those who are deeply embedded within it.