Academic Films Academic Novels

10 More Academic Films

Cross-posting the full article from the Academic Affairs blog at the GC Advocate

In a pre­vi­ous GC Advo­cate arti­cle I pre­sented my list of Top 10 aca­d­e­mic films. I received some insight­ful feed­back from var­i­ous peo­ple who read the list. (And I heard from a cou­ple of friends who chas­tised me for includ­ing John Singleton’s Higher Learn­ing.)

To recap: I am inter­ested in the aca­d­e­mic film as an exten­sion of the “aca­d­e­mic novel.” Sev­eral of the works listed below were adapted from such nov­els. As the critic John Lyons sim­ply put it in his 1962 crit­i­cal study, The Col­lege Novel in Amer­ica: “I con­sider a novel of aca­d­e­mic life one in which higher edu­ca­tion is treated with seri­ous­ness and the main char­ac­ters are stu­dents or pro­fes­sors.” Extend­ing this basic con­cept to film, my objec­tive here is to find works that seri­ously exam­ine the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion in some way. (And I do believe that humor is cer­tainly a valid way to exam­ine higher education.)

Con­sid­er­ing the lit­er­ary form of the novel, it comes as no sur­prise that so many aca­d­e­mic nov­els are set in Eng­lish depart­ments and deal with lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sors. And con­sid­er­ing that sev­eral films have been adapted from this pool of aca­d­e­mic nov­els, that dom­i­nance extends into aca­d­e­mic films. I’ve tried to iden­tify a few more films out­side of lit­er­a­ture, and I’m always on the look­out for more. Appar­ently David Cro­nen­berg is at work on an adap­ta­tion of Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, a novel about an aca­d­e­mic physi­cist, so there is some hope on the horizon.

Lim­it­ing my pre­vi­ous list to 10 films meant exclud­ing a num­ber of other wor­thy exam­ples in this genre. So here are some brief com­ments on 10 more aca­d­e­mic films I con­sid­ered for the pre­vi­ous arti­cle. Just the for the fun of it I’m rank­ing these as well, from 20 to 11. I am also includ­ing a short list of sev­eral other notable films that fit the cri­te­ria, though this is cer­tainly not a com­pre­hen­sive list. If any­one has any more sug­ges­tions, we’d love to read your comments.

20. Pos­ses­sion (2002) – This film is based on the novel by A.S. Byatt. The direc­tor Neil LaBute is known for some appallingly awful male char­ac­ters, but the clos­est we get to that here is the faint whiff of crass Amer­i­can­ism in the char­ac­ter of Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eck­hart), a lit­er­ary scholar from the U.S. study­ing in Eng­land on a fel­low­ship. The film fol­lows the story of Mitchell and British lit­er­ary scholar Maud Bai­ley (Pal­trow) as they research a romance between two fic­tional Vic­to­rian era poets. Rarely has any film dealt with the intri­ca­cies of lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship at this level of detail, (though, yes, all the sleuthing is a tad exag­ger­ated). The period set­ting and cos­tumes in the over­lap­ping his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive were quite lovely. That said, I imag­ine this film is pre­cisely the kind of dry, pre­ten­tious exer­cise that most peo­ple have in mind when I tell them that I’m inter­ested in films about higher edu­ca­tion. Still, this is just too much of an aca­d­e­mic film to dis­miss entirely. Unfor­tu­nately the rich mate­r­ial in Byatt’s novel just did not seem to trans­fer well to the screen.

19. The Squid and the Whale (2005) –  Directed by Noah Baum­bach (who has made a name for him­self chron­i­cling the lives of dis­con­tented yup­pie intel­lec­tu­als) The Squid and the Whale is a fam­ily drama cen­tered on a cou­ple of PhDs rais­ing a fam­ily in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the 1980s. Bernard Berk­man (Jeff Daniels) is a pompous lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and nov­el­ist who is obliv­i­ous to the fact that his lit­er­ary star is rapidly fad­ing. His wife Joan (Laura Lin­ney) is grow­ing tired of his can­tan­ker­ous atti­tude, and has lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions of her own. Their two young sons (Jesse Eisen­berg and Owen Kline) get caught up in the mix of their divorce, start act­ing out in var­i­ous ways, and are forced to accept that their father may be more of an intel­lec­tual bully and manip­u­la­tor than they real­ized. As for the aca­d­e­mic con­tent, there’s a sto­ry­line where Bernard takes up with a young female grad­u­ate stu­dent. His lit­er­ary opin­ions also make for some bit­ing moments of dry humor (in one din­ner table con­ver­sa­tion he dis­misses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dick­ens”). How­ever, much of the story cen­ters on the emo­tional fam­ily drama which is why, as much as I like it, I rank this one lower than other films that deal directly with higher edu­ca­tion. Still I find it a won­der­ful film oth­er­wise, espe­cially if you hap­pen to be famil­iar with this par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hood and its lit­er­ary denizens.

18. A Sin­gle Man (2009) – Based on the novel by Christo­pher Ish­er­wood, the film was directed by fash­ion designer Tom Ford and it cer­tainly has its share of pretty peo­ple, in pretty clothes, in pretty set­tings. How­ever the film also calls atten­tion to the homo­pho­bic polit­i­cal cli­mate of the 1950s and 60s. Isherwood’s ironic title is mean to invoke the lack of social valid­ity for homo­sex­ual rela­tion­ships dur­ing that time. The main char­ac­ter, George (Colin Firth), is a British pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture teach­ing in Los Ange­les in 1962, but he is far from a sin­gle man. He has in fact just lost his part­ner of 16 years in an auto­mo­bile acci­dent, but he is not even allowed to attend the funeral. (It’s for “fam­ily only” a sym­pa­thetic rel­a­tive of his part­ner explains to him over the phone.) Claude Sum­mers at has writ­ten an exten­sive and insight­ful arti­cle com­par­ing the Ish­er­wood novel with the film adap­ta­tion. As Sum­mers put it: “If the film lacks the polit­i­cal edge and spir­i­tual pro­fun­dity of Isherwood’s novel, it com­pen­sates to some extent for these fail­ings by its intense feel­ing, as well as its sen­sual and ele­gant style.”

17. Won­der Boys (2000) – Adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel of the same name, Won­der Boys fea­tures Michael Dou­glas as Grady Tripp, a pot-smoking cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor and nov­el­ist at a uni­ver­sity in Pitts­burgh who has been work­ing on an inter­minable novel for seven years and is deal­ing with a recent divorce. Two of his stu­dents are James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a socially awk­ward young writer who is obsessed with the details of celebrity sui­cides, and Han­nah Green (Katie Holmes) who is infat­u­ated with Tripp. The main set piece for the film is the university’s annual Word­Fest, a lit­er­ary event that brings pub­lish­ers and lit­er­ary agents, among oth­ers, to the cam­pus. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy is strik­ing, fea­tur­ing lovely gothic cam­pus scenes in the win­ter. I have not yet read the novel ver­sion, but the film seems to work wellon its own as an enter­tain­ing satire of the obnox­ious eccen­tric­ity one some­times finds among the stu­dents and pro­fes­sors in the nation’s MFA programs.

16. Tenure (2009) – This film came out in 2009 but appar­ently didn’t get much of a the­atri­cal release. It fea­tures Luke Wil­son in the role of Char­lie Thurber, a young Eng­lish pro­fes­sor up for tenure review at the fic­tional Gray Col­lege. Unfor­tu­nately for him he has spent his time becom­ing an engag­ing and effec­tive teacher rather than padding his resume with bor­ing peer-reviewed jour­nal arti­cles. The film is far from an accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how the tenure process actu­ally works, but its heart is in the right place. It humor­ously addresses a very real and seri­ous issue in acad­e­mia: that devoted teach­ing is often val­ued less than aca­d­e­mic star­dom. Among the fun­ni­est bits in the film is the sto­ry­line with Thurber’s best friend (played by Jay Hadley), a wacky anthro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor who spends his time comb­ing the woods for evi­dence of the elu­sive Sasquatch. The online reviews of the film are mid­dling, which might scare peo­ple off. And yes the film indulges in roman­tic com­edy clichés (Gretchen Mol plays the hot young pro­fes­sor from Yale who is hired to replace Thurber, and they fall in love.) Still, I think the film has spirit and por­trays the aca­d­e­mic life with humor, thought­ful­ness and a refresh­ing lack of pretention.

15. Dis­grace(2008) – Here is another novel adap­ta­tion, this one based on J.M. Coetzee’s Dis­grace. John Malkovich plays white South African lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor David Lurie. Lurie is a lit­er­ary scholar in his soul, and a lover of Wordsworth and Byron, but in a cor­po­ra­tized higher edu­ca­tion sys­tem that has become dis­mis­sive of any­thing but the most imme­di­ately mar­ketable sub­jects he is rel­e­gated to teach­ing dull “com­mu­ni­ca­tions” classes to dis­in­ter­ested stu­dents. (Hon­estly, I can­not recall how well that dis­tinc­tion is dri­ven home in the film, but it cer­tainly res­onated in the novel.) The story begins with an ill-advised rela­tion­ship between Lurie and a “coloured” female stu­dent, a scan­dal which forces Lurie out of his teach­ing post. He leaves Johan­nes­burg to visit his daugh­ter Lucy in the coun­try­side where they end up being the vic­tims of an unre­lated bru­tal attack by three young black men. The attack and Lucy’s com­pli­cated response to it, which is con­tex­tu­al­ized in the novel, really needed more historical-political back­ground than the medium of film could allow. But oth­er­wise it is a com­pe­tent, well-paced adap­ta­tion of the novel, and a haunt­ing and res­o­nant piece of work on its own.

14. Edu­cat­ing Rita (1983) – In this film Michael Caine plays Frank Bryant, an apa­thetic and alco­holic lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor who tutors Rita (Julie Wal­ters) a spunky 26 year old work­ing class stu­dent tak­ing Open Uni­ver­sity courses. (The British equiv­a­lent of our adult edu­ca­tion pro­grams here). In this Pyg­malion inspired screen­play Bryant takes a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in Rita and intro­duces her to the world of lit­er­a­ture and ideas. As Rita takes to her lit­er­ary inter­ests she finds that her newly dis­cov­ered intel­lec­tual curios­ity unex­pect­edly dri­ves a wedge between her­self and the work­ing class com­mu­nity she came from. At the same time she does not feel at home in the priv­i­leged world of the acad­emy either. The film is a won­der­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a student’s evolv­ing con­scious­ness and self-confidence, and is ulti­mately a com­pelling story about the kind of lib­er­at­ing self dis­cov­ery that can come through an edu­ca­tion in the human­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly among stu­dents for whom such high-minded pur­suits are con­sid­ered mate­ri­ally “impractical.”

13. Some­thing the Lord Made (2004) – As you may have noticed, most of these films are about the human­i­ties (par­tic­u­larly Eng­lish pro­fes­sors) but here is a great aca­d­e­mic film that deals with the sci­ences. This HBO film tells the story of Vivien Thomas (won­der­fully por­trayed by Mos Def), a black sur­gi­cal assis­tant who assisted Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rick­man) in devel­op­ing an open heart pro­ce­dure to cure “Blue Baby Syn­drome.” Much of the film takes place in uni­ver­sity research hos­pi­tals, at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity where Blalock first hired Thomas, and then later at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity. Though he pos­sessed a rare gift as a sur­geon and was a self-taught med­ical researcher, Vivien Thomas was never able to afford to pur­sue his own med­ical degree. (The Depres­sion of the 1930s exac­er­bated his finan­cial trou­bles.) Thomas was hired and paid under the title of a jan­i­tor even though the work that he did for Blalock was that of a research assis­tant. The film sub­tly por­trays the insti­tu­tional and cul­tural racism of its time, such as one scene in the film when Thomas and a black friend are walk­ing down a side­walk chat­ting, casu­ally stop their con­ver­sa­tion to step aside and let white cou­ples pass, then pick the con­ver­sa­tion back up again with­out miss­ing a beat. That Thomas did all this ground­break­ing research while work­ing in uni­ver­sity hos­pi­tals where he was not even allowed to walk through the front door is just one of the many sto­ries of injus­tice and insti­tu­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.

12. Back to School (1986) – Rodney Dan­ger­field stars in this film as the buf­foon­ish street-wise mil­lion­aire Thorn­ton Melon, pro­pri­etor of a suc­cess­ful chain of “Tall and Fat” stores. To encour­age his son Jason (Keith Gor­don) to go to col­lege and acquire the for­mal edu­ca­tion he never had, Melon decides to enroll in school with him. This film is cer­tainly a silly com­edy chock full of Dangerfield’s sig­na­ture one-liners, but it also cap­tures some­thing essen­tial about the Amer­i­can atti­tude towards higher edu­ca­tion. On the one hand we see col­lege as a demo­c­ra­tic means of upward mobil­ity, but we also scoff at the col­lege as a bas­tion of elit­ism and unearned priv­i­lege. Par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing in Back to School is the con­flict between Thor­ton Melon and Dr. Bar­bay, a pompous eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor with whom Thor­ton is com­pet­ing for the affec­tions of Eng­lish pro­fes­sor Diane Turner (Sally Keller­man). From Bill Gates to Kanye West we revel in our sto­ries of rich and famous col­lege dropouts. Dan­ger­field plays this quin­tes­sen­tial arche­type, a busi­ness­man with­out a col­lege degree who made truck­loads of money and glee­fully gives the fin­ger to all those smug col­lege dons who insist that edu­ca­tion is the only way to suc­cess, hap­pi­ness or ful­fill­ment. As much as I sup­port higher edu­ca­tion I think it’s also impor­tant to honor and cul­ti­vate that auto­di­dac­tic, do-it-yourself spirit. The film splits the dif­fer­ence by show­ing Melon encour­ag­ing his son to pur­sue an edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­nity even though he took a dif­fer­ent route in his own life.

11. Kin­sey (2004) – I have to con­fess that I really dropped the ball on this one. I saw this film in the­aters when it came out in 2004, but it took another recent view­ing for me to appre­ci­ate what an accom­plish­ment it really is. This def­i­nitely should have been near the top of my pre­vi­ous list. Per­haps more than any other film I’ve listed so far Kin­sey dri­ves home the impor­tance of aca­d­e­mic free­dom, and demon­strates how ratio­nal aca­d­e­mic inquiry can have a huge impact on the larger soci­ety. The film is a skill­fully con­structed biopic based on the life of biol­o­gist and sex researcher Alfred Kin­sey (played by Liam Nee­son) and the ground­break­ing research on human sex­u­al­ity he spear­headed at Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity. The film shows how Kinsey’s inter­est in zool­ogy and the mat­ing habits of insects and ani­mals led him to ques­tion why sim­i­lar sci­en­tific study had not been applied to human sex­u­al­ity. The film dra­ma­tizes how impor­tant it is for pub­lic health, and for the health of democ­racy, to have accu­rate sci­en­tific knowl­edge about sex­ual prac­tices avail­able in the pub­lic sphere. It effec­tively por­trays the dark ages of hypocrisy and mis­in­for­ma­tion out of which the fem­i­nist and gay rights move­ments emerged, and man­ages to do so with­out com­pro­mis­ing on all the emo­tional and polit­i­cal com­plex­ity involved.

A few more films:

(Here are just a few more aca­d­e­mic films that I iden­ti­fied but did not include in the Top 20)

Another Woman and Hus­bands and Wives. Both directed by Woody Allen. Another Woman is based on Ing­mar Bergman’s Wild Straw­ber­ries, and fea­tured Gena Row­lands as a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor on sab­bat­i­cal in New York writ­ing a book. Hus­bands and Wives includes a sto­ry­line with Allen as a nov­el­ist and cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia University.

A Beau­ti­ful Mind– Directed by Ron Howard the film stars Rus­sell Crowe as Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor John Nash.

Elegy – Based on Philip Roth’s The Dying Ani­mal fea­tur­ing David Kapesh (Ben Kinglsey) a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture and “pub­lic intel­lec­tual.” Much of the aca­d­e­mic con­tent of the novel is absent in the film, but there’s plenty of naked Pene­lope Cruz, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Gaudy Night – Tech­ni­cally not a “film” but a 1987 three part BBC mini-series based on Dorothy Sayers’s 1936 mys­tery novel, set in an Oxford women’s col­lege. Beyond the mys­tery plot, the story also deals with the pol­i­tics of women’s education.

The Great Debaters – Pro­duced by Oprah, directed by Dentzel Wash­ing­ton who plays Melvin Tol­son, a poet and pro­fes­sor who directed the debate team at his­tor­i­cally black Wiley Col­lege in Texas and led them to a pio­neer­ing debate against Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. (It was actu­ally against the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern California).

Iris — Based on John Bayley’s mem­oir about his life with the nov­el­ist and pro­fes­sor Iris Mur­doch. Mur­doch and Bay­ley met, and both taught, at Oxford. Judi Dench gives a heartrend­ing per­for­mance of Mur­doch as she strug­gled with Alzheimer’s in her later years.

A Seri­ous Man – The most auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal film from the Coen Broth­ers so far. The story cen­ters on Larry Gop­nick, a Jew­ish physics pro­fes­sor in 1967 sub­ur­ban Min­nesota who is beset by a series of Job-like calami­ties. Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in Min­nesota by two aca­d­e­mic par­ents. (Their father was an econ­o­mist and their mother an art historian).

Stomp the Yard – Like Spike Lee’s School Daze, this was also filmed on my alma mater’s cam­pus. But unlike Spike Lee this film­maker seemed to think that black col­lege stu­dents are inca­pable of any intel­li­gent com­mu­ni­ca­tion beyond snarling, scowl­ing, fight­ing and danc­ing. Dis­ap­point­ing.

The Sav­ages – Indie film stal­warts Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man and Laura Lin­ney play sib­lings who reluc­tantly have to care for their estranged father. Hoffman’s char­ac­ter is a the­ater pro­fes­sor in Buf­falo, NY strug­gling to write a book on Bertolt Brecht.

Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf – A clas­sic film (based on Edward Albee’s play) star­ring Richard Bur­ton and Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor. The film is more about an aca­d­e­mic couple’s mar­i­tal drama than about acad­e­mia itself, but at least one other critic found it an iconic work of aca­d­e­mic fic­tion. (“Who’s Afraid of the Cam­pus Novel.”)

Even more films

(I haven’t seen these yet, but GC Advo­cate edi­tor James Hoff has already been on my tail to hurry up and get some­thing posted to this blog, so per­haps I’ll write about some of these in future posts.)

The Absent-Minded Professor


Dark Mat­ter

Love Story

Mona Lisa Smile



Revenge of the Nerds

Spin­ning Into Butter

Academic Films Academic Novels

Academic Affairs: Higher Education in Popular Culture

This is the start of a blog I’ll be doing for the GC Advocate.  I’ll cross-post the articles that get posted there:


Wel­come to “Aca­d­e­mic Affairs.” I am start­ing this blog with a sim­ple idea in mind: the sto­ries that we tell about aca­d­e­mic life can shape and influ­ence the way that all of us (aca­d­e­mics and non-academics alike) think about the place of higher edu­ca­tion in our soci­ety. Here at The GC Advo­cate we already have great reportage on some of the most press­ing issues in higher edu­ca­tion. In the past two months we’ve had arti­cles about the ongo­ing strug­gle to pre­serve pub­lic edu­ca­tion here in the CUNY sys­tem, arti­cles about the teach­ing job mar­ket for PhD’s through­out the nation, and cov­er­age of the recent stu­dent strikes in Puerto Rico, just to name a few exam­ples. I’d like to come at the topic of higher edu­ca­tion from a dif­fer­ent angle. I believe that those of us with a vested inter­est in higher edu­ca­tion have to make the case for its impor­tance by telling com­pelling sto­ries about what the acad­emy means to us and what place we think the acad­emy should have in a plu­ral­is­tic, demo­c­ra­tic society.

This is an out­growth of my dis­ser­ta­tion project, which is on aca­d­e­mic nov­els. Now I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds rather nar­cis­sis­tic and elit­ist. It is per­fectly rea­son­able to assume that aca­d­e­mic fic­tion is only about the insu­lar, closed world of ivory tower aca­d­e­mic life. And yes, there are many nov­els in the genre that amount to lit­tle more than bour­geois come­dies of man­ners set in uni­ver­si­ties, and who gives a flip about that? How­ever, there are also aca­d­e­mic nov­els that look beyond this enclosed world of the uni­ver­sity, and I am most inter­ested in the nov­els (and films) that draw con­nec­tions between the uni­ver­sity and the world beyond it. In the May 2010 issue I shared my Top 10 list of aca­d­e­mic films. I’ll be con­tin­u­ing with that theme by writ­ing short arti­cles about some recent films and nov­els that depict aca­d­e­mic life, while also revis­it­ing some older works that I think are still rel­e­vant to things that are hap­pen­ing now.

I hope you will enjoy this col­umn and I hope that you will be encour­aged to chime in and share your own ideas and make this a col­lab­o­ra­tive project.

Academic Films Academic Novels

The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in May 2010)

The cam­pus novel has been around in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for quite some time. Some crit­ics have pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fan­shawe, pub­lished in 1828, as the first piece of Amer­i­can fic­tion that deals with cam­pus life. More recently, British writer David Lodge has made a career out of pen­ning aca­d­e­mic nov­els with thinly veiled depic­tions of well known British and Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, as well as fic­tional ver­sions of actual pro­fes­sors. (One recur­ring char­ac­ter in his nov­els, Mor­ris Zapp, is clearly based on lit­er­ary critic Stan­ley Fish, and Fish has appar­ently embraced the car­i­ca­ture.) Amer­i­can author Philip Roth has also writ­ten sev­eral nov­els set in acad­e­mia, two of which have been adapted into films. The aca­d­e­mic novel has even started to grab the atten­tion of lit­er­ary crit­ics in books such as Elaine Showalter’s Fac­ulty Tow­ers: The Aca­d­e­mic Novel and Its Dis­con­tents.

Like the aca­d­e­mic novel, the aca­d­e­mic film also pro­vides a venue for using the mimetic device of fic­tion to explore cer­tain aspects of higher edu­ca­tion. When most peo­ple think of Hollywood’s depic­tions of acad­e­mia they are more likely to think of frat-house come­dies such as Ani­mal House, Old School, and Amer­i­can Pie Presents The Naked Mile, or maybe sports films like Rudy, The Pro­gram, or Glory Road. How­ever, there have been sev­eral films made about the uni­ver­sity envi­ron­ment that go beyond fra­ter­nity par­ties and sports. In this par­tic­u­lar list I eval­u­ate some films that in some way try to address the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion. These films explore issues such as the pres­sures of achieve­ment, the promise of higher edu­ca­tion as a means of social mobil­ity, and the chal­lenges and joys of col­lege teach­ing. Henry Kissinger famously stated that “uni­ver­sity pol­i­tics are vicious pre­cisely because the stakes are so small.” That state­ment leaves many of us who work in acad­e­mia nod­ding our heads in recog­ni­tion. How­ever, these films sug­gest a dif­fer­ent story. They show the inter­ac­tion between “town and gown,” as stu­dents and pro­fes­sors encounter the com­mu­nity out­side of the cam­pus, with vary­ing results. They also illus­trate the evo­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity over the course of the 20th cen­tury. With legal mea­sures such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, and the Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion of 1954, stu­dents from work­ing class back­grounds, women, and racial minori­ties have entered into insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing in greater num­bers. The ten­sions cre­ated by those changes appear in sev­eral of these films. While these may not nec­es­sar­ily be the most art­fully made or com­pelling films over­all, I do think they are the ones that are the most com­mit­ted to tak­ing a seri­ous look at higher edu­ca­tion. Viewed crit­i­cally, they may even con­tribute to improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing fit into Amer­i­can life and culture.

10. The Human Stain (2003)

This film is based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Cole­man Silk (played by Anthony Hop­kins) is a clas­sics pro­fes­sor at the fic­tional New Eng­land school Athena Col­lege. Silk ends up being accused of dis­crim­i­na­tion by two black stu­dents after he makes a com­ment in class that gets mis­in­ter­preted as a racial slur. Through flash­backs to his early life, we dis­cover that Silk is actu­ally a fair-skinned black man born in New Jer­sey who left home after high school and decided to live the rest of his life “pass­ing” for white, which adds a thick layer of irony to the dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­ceed­ings. Roth’s novel was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an obses­sion with “the cul­ture wars” in aca­d­e­mic nov­els of the 1990s. These nov­els are lit­tered with sto­ries of dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual har­ras­ment and “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” on cam­pus. The film ver­sion of The Human Stain man­aged to keep some of that polit­i­cal con­tent in the story, while also sat­is­fy­ing the Hol­ly­wood appetite for tales of love and romance. In this case, Silk takes up with groundskeeper Fau­nia Far­ley (Nicole Kid­man) and their rela­tion­ship aggra­vates the scan­dals brew­ing around him. Many peo­ple quib­bled with the choice of Anthony Hop­kins as Silk (Went­worth Miller played the young ver­sion), but he turns in a solid per­for­mance. I was ready to dis­miss the glam­orous Nicole Kid­man as a col­lege groundskeeper, but she also gives the char­ac­ter believ­able depth. To devoted novel read­ers, films can never sat­isfy the nuances pos­si­ble in a long novel, but in this adap­ta­tion I thought the film­mak­ers made some good strate­gic choices about which parts of the novel to include to give it con­ti­nu­ity on screen.

9. School Daze (1988)
school daze

I can’t even pre­tend to be objec­tive about this one. In the sum­mer of 1996 I rented this film from the local Block­buster and pored over it in the days before I started my fresh­man year at More­house Col­lege, where direc­tor Spike Lee attended school, and where much of the film was shot. Many of the nation’s his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (or HBCUs) were founded in the years fol­low­ing the civil war and eman­ci­pa­tion. The film’s open­ing mon­tage (accom­pa­nied by the famous More­house Glee Club) func­tions as sort of a photo essay that sit­u­ates the his­tory of black higher edu­ca­tion within the larger black polit­i­cal strug­gle in the US. “Mis­sion Col­lege” (and all the HBCUs that it is a stand in for) is rep­re­sented as the prod­uct of these years of polit­i­cal progress. School Daze fol­lows the exploits of a small clique of stu­dents over a long Home­com­ing Week­end. Lau­rence Fish­burne plays “Dap” the res­i­dent cam­pus rad­i­cal who wants the col­lege to take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa. The sto­ry­line calls atten­tion to the com­pli­cated social pol­i­tics of black col­leges where uni­ver­sity lead­ers sub­scribe to stuffy prin­ci­ples of respectabil­ity and uplift and thus dis­cour­age the kind of pro­gres­sive activism seen on major­ity white cam­puses. While School Daze rubbed some black col­lege alums the wrong way with its depic­tion of sex­u­al­ity, color con­scious­ness, gen­der pol­i­tics, and class elit­ism, the film helped to push black col­lege life into the Amer­i­can main­stream, and spawned the tele­vi­sion series A Dif­fer­ent World, with sev­eral cast mem­bers mov­ing on to star in the show.

8. Good Will Hunt­ing (1997)

Focus­ing on the story of a reluc­tant genius who works at MIT as a jan­i­tor, Good Will Hunt­ing explores, among other issues, the “town and gown” phe­nom­e­non which is par­tic­u­larly preva­lent in Boston with its con­cen­tra­tion of elite uni­ver­si­ties. (School Daze also explored this phe­nom­e­non in Atlanta in a hilar­i­ous encounter between Jheri-curled local Samuel L. Jack­son, and a group of ide­al­is­tic black col­lege stu­dents.) Will Hunt­ing is a jan­i­tor at MIT who is har­bor­ing a secret rare intel­lec­tual tal­ent beneath his tough South Boston exte­rior. Good Will Hunt­ing was one of those Oscar sea­son films, and it has its share of corny Oscar bait moments. For­tu­nately Robin Williams sal­vages it from com­plete sap with his poignant por­trayal of a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor who fore­goes the cut­throat world of the research uni­ver­sity for teach­ing at a com­mu­nity col­lege. (Though com­mu­nity col­lege pro­fes­sors rarely have time to sit in the park hav­ing heart­felt one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions about life and love.) It was Robin Williams’s char­ac­ter who was finally able to get through to Will and con­vince him to make the best of his rare tal­ents. Though in usual Hol­ly­wood style the film devolves into just another banal story about how love con­quers all, and its fee­ble attempts at class pol­i­tics are under­cut by its depic­tion of Will as an almost super­hu­man tal­ent. How­ever, the film also explores the some­times fraught place of the uni­ver­sity as a val­i­dat­ing mech­a­nism for knowl­edge and tal­ent. And in his con­ver­sa­tions with Will, Williams’s char­ac­ter warns us against the excesses of intel­lec­tual arrogance.

7. Higher Learn­ing (1995)

Higher Learn­ing, directed by Boyz in the Hood direc­tor John Sin­gle­ton, is an ensem­ble drama set in the fic­tional Colum­bus Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cam­pus issues includ­ing such hot but­ton top­ics as alco­holism, date rape, homo­sex­u­al­ity, racial balka­niza­tion, affir­ma­tive action and the exploita­tion of ath­letes. Ice Cube’s per­for­mance as the black mil­i­tant Fudge (replete with Afro and fist-pick) was espe­cially inspired. Fudge is a proud auto­di­dact who snubs his nose at the edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment and embraces knowl­edge as a tool of lib­er­a­tion rather than a ticket to a job on the white man’s plan­ta­tion. In many ways his depic­tion is, right or wrong, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chip-on-their-shoulder arro­gance that some attribute to black stu­dents on major­ity white col­lege cam­puses in the affir­ma­tive action era. Ice Cube’s char­ac­ter rev­els in the role, and pushes the enve­lope by antag­o­niz­ing his white class­mates with all night par­ties and lec­tur­ing the young track star Omar Epps on how he is being exploited for his ath­letic tal­ents. Michael Rapa­port plays an awk­ward white kid from Idaho who is out of his depths at the school and gets taken in by Neo-Nazis who teach him of his true iden­tity as a white male vic­tim of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism run amok. The shoot­ing spree that ensues hits a lit­tle too close to home given the spate of recent inci­dents of gun vio­lence on col­lege cam­puses and beyond. But then again, it’s just another exam­ple of John Sin­gle­ton hav­ing his fin­ger on the pulse of what’s hap­pen­ing in the nation.

6. The Paper Chase (1973)

I sus­pect that ambi­tious pre-law grads on their way to Har­vard Law School have prob­a­bly watched this film the same way HBCU-bound stu­dents watch School Daze. The Paper Chase depicts the fierce, cut­throat world of the Ivy League law school. James Hart (played by Tim­o­thy Bot­toms) is a first year law stu­dent who finds him­self up against the uncom­pro­mis­ing law pro­fes­sor Charles King­field (played by John House­man who reprised the role in the spin-off tele­vi­sion series that played on cable in the 1980s). It turns out that the girl who Hart has the hots for just so hap­pens to be Kingsfield’s daugh­ter. The pres­sures of law school are brought home in the sto­ry­line of a class­mate who strug­gles to keep up while try­ing to bal­ance his rocky mar­riage and ends up threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide. Mean­while Kingsfield’s daugh­ter has seen enough of the insen­si­tive law stu­dents and mocks Hart’s lawyerly aspi­ra­tions. Between the strug­gles of his fel­low stu­dents and his fail­ure to win her over, Hart ques­tions his own com­mit­ment to the pro­fes­sion. The maudlin con­clu­sion to the film ends up being that thor­oughly Amer­i­can story of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too. You can be both a blood­thirsty lawyer and a sen­si­tive human­i­tar­ian! Nev­er­the­less, the film does illus­trate some of the per­ti­nent ques­tions law stu­dents face as they try to hold their own in a highly com­pet­i­tive field.

5. Sur­viv­ing Desire (1991)

Sur­viv­ing Desire was directed by auteur Hal Hart­ley. I have to give props to my friend Robert Caputi (Adjunct Prof. of Soci­ol­ogy, BMCC) for telling me about the film and loan­ing me a VHS copy since the DVD ver­sion seems to be scarce. The film stars Mar­tin Dono­van as a col­lege lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor named Jude (a not-so-subtle shout out to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Jude is infat­u­ated with his stu­dent Sofie, played by Mary B. Ward. Like Jude and Sue of Hardy’s novel, Jude and Sofie in Sur­viv­ing Desire are unable to resist the pas­sion of doomed love. Jude is an eccen­tric pro­fes­sor who is fas­ci­nated with the work of Dos­to­evsky and who aggra­vates his stu­dents by speak­ing in lit­er­ary quo­ta­tions and ask­ing open-ended ques­tions. Sofie is an ador­ing stu­dent who “gets” Jude, and responds to him when he starts to pur­sue her. Some might find the styl­ized intel­lec­tual dia­logue in the film a bit pre­ten­tious, but it is deliv­ered with a style and humor that makes it work. It is also worth men­tion­ing that the film is pack­aged with aHal Hart­ley short called “The­ory of Achieve­ment,” which is a rather prophetic early look at the cesspool of post-college pseudo-bohemian nar­cis­sism begin­ning to take form over in the old indus­trial lofts of Williams­burg, Brooklyn.

4. The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (1930)
Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Blue Angel, The)_02

The Blue Angel is best known as a star vehi­cle for Mar­lene Diet­rich and a vivid por­trayal of Weimar Germany’s deca­dent cabaret cul­ture. Pro­fes­sor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jan­nings) is a strict and humor­less school­mas­ter who finds that some of his stu­dents are going to a local speakeasy called The Blue Angel. Hop­ing to catch the boys at the club, Pro­fes­sor Rath goes there him­self and ends up see­ing the viva­cious cabaret per­former Lola, played by Diet­rich in a per­for­mance that launched her into an inter­na­tional star. Rath’s story of being con­sumed by desire for Lola is a well-worn sto­ry­line in aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. The cere­bral uptight pro­fes­sor who has spent his entire life dis­ci­plin­ing the intel­lect finds him­self being led into ill-fated deci­sions by the pow­ers of desire and the fail­ures of the flesh. The film also shows the harsh judg­ments of moral­ism in the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­nity as the school admin­is­tra­tors denounce Rath for his rela­tion­ship with Lola, even though he intends to prop­erly marry her. Rath later leaves his posi­tion at the acad­emy and mar­ries Lola, but they soon run out of money, and things begin to spi­ral out of con­trol. Rath’s life ends in humil­i­a­tion and ruin after an awful night­club scene in his old col­lege town. He dies clench­ing the desk in the room where he once taught. The Blue Angel is actu­ally a link in a chain of aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. It is based on a 1905 Hein­rich Mann novel Pro­fes­sor Unrat. Also, Francine Prose’s aca­d­e­mic novel Blue Angel was inspired by the film, and fol­lows a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive (with the temptress being a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent instead of a cabaret per­former). Lastly, both the film and Prose’s book are name-checked in another aca­d­e­mic film, The Sav­ages (2007), fea­tur­ing Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man as a Brecht­ian the­ater professor.

3. Horse Feath­ers (1932)

Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff (Grou­cho Marx): “The trou­ble is we’re neglect­ing foot­ball for education…Tomorrow we start tear­ing down the col­lege.”
The Pro­fes­sors: “But, Pro­fes­sor, where will the stu­dents sleep?”
Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom!”

In Jan­u­ary 2010 the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama Crim­son Tide won col­lege football’s national title. Its head foot­ball coach, Nick Saban, makes over $4 mil­lion dol­lars a year at the state-run school. The high­est paid state employee in many states is usu­ally the uni­ver­sity foot­ball coach. As schools begin to lay­off teach­ers, deny tenure and rely on adjunct labor to teach its stu­dents, ath­letic bud­gets and salaries con­tinue to rise, and TV con­tracts and endorse­ments for col­lege sports get big­ger and big­ger. Given this state of affairs the Marx Broth­ers look like prophets for their 1932 satire Horse Feath­ers. Grou­cho Marx plays Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff at the fic­tional Dar­win Col­lege. The col­lege is prepar­ing for a show­down with rival Hux­ley Col­lege, and Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff hears that a cou­ple of “ringer” foot­ball play­ers might be avail­able for hire at the local speakeasy. The sto­ry­line is strik­ingly pre­scient. The acqui­si­tions of ringers in the guise of “student-athletes” is pretty much the norm in big time col­lege ath­let­ics these days. The foot­ball game at the end is a gem of absur­dist com­edy stunts, the most mem­o­rable being a touch­down scored by hop­ping on a horse-driven char­iot charg­ing down the field. The Marx Broth­ers’ satir­i­cal take on the uni­ver­sity and the excesses of col­lege sports def­i­nitely makes this a film worth recon­sid­er­ing in the cur­rent aca­d­e­mic climate.

2. Oleanna (1994)

David Mamet directed this film adap­ta­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial play. Yes, it is about sex­ual harass­ment. But it is about much more than that. I’m con­vinced that few films have attempted to explore the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion with more inten­sity than Oleanna. The story is deliv­ered in a series of esca­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tions between the pro­fes­sor named John (William H. Macy), and the stu­dent named Carol (Debra Eisen­stadt). The stilted Mamet-speak that worked so well in Glen­garry Glenn Ross gets a bit aggra­vat­ing here, but stay with it. At the end of the first act is a delib­er­ately ambigu­ous inci­dent which Carol later uses to file a sex­ual harass­ment com­plaint against John. How­ever, the play has a mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­ity that goes beyond a sim­ple issue of who’s right and who’s wrong. Their dia­logue began as a dis­cus­sion about her grade which turned into an exam­i­na­tion of the place of higher edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and the evolv­ing expec­ta­tions of stu­dents who spend increas­ing amounts of time and money to attend col­lege. The con­ceit of the film is that this dia­logue on edu­ca­tion ends up being swamped and over­taken by the sex­ual harass­ment drama. This mir­rors the way in which argu­ments over polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, as nec­es­sary as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, diverted atten­tion away from the under­ly­ing sys­tem­atic changes tak­ing place in higher edu­ca­tion. The whole power rela­tion­ship between pro­fes­sor and stu­dent has changed, and John, who pos­tures as a sort of intel­lec­tual mav­er­ick, is obliv­i­ous to the ways that he is really just another con­de­scend­ing blowhard of the old school, try­ing to lec­ture his way out of the accu­sa­tions and con­stantly telling Carol to “sit down” while he explains things to her. As for Carol it is just as impor­tant that we see her as an enti­tled con­sumer of edu­ca­tion as she is a woman who has (or has not) been wronged, and part of her arro­gance comes from this newly dis­cov­ered power that she is able to wield.

1. Wit (2001)
wit emma thompson


Fair warn­ing: Wit is a bit of a downer. How­ever, beneath the sad story of the main character’s strug­gle with can­cer is a poignant tale about the mean­ing of the aca­d­e­mic life and the value of knowl­edge and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. From the begin­ning it becomes appar­ent that the main char­ac­ter, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor Vivian Bear­ing (Emma Thomp­son) will not make it out alive, and the film takes us through her excru­ci­at­ing last days in the can­cer ward of a research hos­pi­tal. How­ever, Bear­ing faces death with, well, wit. Based on a Pulitzer Prize win­ning play by Mar­garet Edson, the HBO film (the title was W;t in the orig­i­nal play) fol­lows Vivian Bear­ing as she pre­pares to under­take treat­ment for ovar­ian can­cer. Bear­ing is a John Donne scholar, and the film weaves together the sig­nif­i­cance of Donne’s poetry and his exam­i­na­tion of death in Bearing’s own strug­gle as she finds her­self fac­ing the very thing she has spent her adult life study­ing. Bear­ing is a wel­come anti­dote to the dull parade of men behav­ing badly in the aca­d­e­mic fic­tions of Philip Roth, David Lodge, and their male cohorts. Too many of these nov­els reduce female schol­ars to either objects of lust or con­niv­ing shrews. Faced with ovar­ian can­cer and the bleak diag­no­sis that she will not sur­vive, Bear­ing agrees to par­tic­i­pate in a series of bru­tal treat­ments which will be of con­sid­er­able value to med­ical research. In a twist, the young doc­tor assigned to take care of her was a stu­dent in one her classes, which were known for being among the tough­est on cam­pus. As she begins her treat­ments she is briefed about the sever­ity of the treat­ments, and told that their find­ings will be a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to knowl­edge” about ovar­ian can­cer. Vivian’s response is that when it comes to the can­cer treat­ments and to the pur­suit of knowl­edge she will gladly take the full dose. Through­out the film, as the treat­ments become more excru­ci­at­ing, the phrase “full dose” becomes an affir­ma­tion of her com­mit­ment to the pur­suit of knowl­edge in the face of dif­fi­culty, pain, and loss.