Starving the Beast

Studio: Violet Crown Films
Directed by Steve Mims

Sep 26, 2016 Web Exclusive
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The snarl of James Carville to open Starving the Beast, as he addresses his alma mater of Louisiana State University, frames the appropriate degree of impassioned opposition to the commoditization of America’s public higher educational institutions. LSU is one of the schools at the center of the debate illuminated by this important film, and so the matter is especially meaningful for Carville. To some, higher education is like any other free market, shareholder based industry. “They say education is a commodity”, scoffs Carville. “It’s just another thing out there, a barrel of oil, an ounce of gold, a stock.” The problem pulled into plain sight by filmmakers Steve Mims and Bill Banowsky, is that the people evaluating education through this “market lens” have power. This film is a means to raise awareness to the dangers of such power, should it go unchecked.

Attentive viewing leaves you with no question as to the influential rise of private, political bodies in a movement to reform public education with a business approach, applying principles of efficiency in cutting programs and redistributing cost and labor. Through exemplary interviewing of figures embroiled in this upheaval, founding traditional values of public higher education are espoused and defended, shaping the countermovement. This film has a clear purpose – to distill a matter of tangled complexity for the average citizen that may be unaware of “one of the Nation’s most important and least understood fights”

By and large, Mims and Banowsky succeed and anyone who believes in the sanctity of knowledge, and the role of public schools to make its pure pursuit accessible to anyone so willing, will feel blood start to boil. There’s a notion taken for granted, that universities as esteemed as Virginia or North Carolina or Wisconsin will always be dedicated to delivering higher education through comprehensive and egalitarian curriculums. The important message here is that unless you follow closely the contest on state and local levels and tap into the dissent, you wouldn’t know the very real threats that have already undermined this provision.

A statement of what ails the current system is put forth right away, setting the table for the discussion. The last thirty five years has seen a precipitous drop in federal funding to public higher education institutions, concurrent with a shift to outsourcing and privatising operations. The most visible, and protested result of this has been steep hikes in student tuition to make up for the shortfall, leading to insurmountable student debt. Starving the Beast examines the lesser known consequences for the classrooms. It is proposed that the “scramble” for funding has forced public institutions to seek private money. Politically driven, consumer oriented organizations have stepped in, seeking to gear curriculum towards a positive return on their investment. For them, this means curriculum that produces skills that yield a “demonstrable demand in the economy.” Stipulations on how a school operates are given from those private investment groups. and you can see where it goes from there.

One issue highlighted is the attack on tenure, where professors are being evaluated on the basis of how much money they make the university, a phenomenon sending the best to private schools free from worry about whether their syllabus will get them fired. Another is the legislation, politically spearheaded by the likes of Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, leading to  independent alternatives to accreditation that can’t measure the intellectual value of classes or professors, and cripple funding to pure research.

The interviewees are all intellectually and emotionally invested and well informed on these issues which makes for engaging takes from both sides of the argument. Honestly, while it’s inspiring to hold on to the ideals of class and campus and to picture Robin Williams in the center of a huddle of young romantics hungry for knowledge, there are sensible questions being asked by reformists who see higher education as a bloated and stagnant system that costs too much to produce not enough. Yet while the filmmakers have arranged for a balanced platform for the expression of opposing views, persuasive lean is found in the stance of the traditionalists wishing to protect the integrity of educational values in this country.

There is a density of information passed along, forming a web that can feel overwhelming, but the significance of the matter makes you pay attention throughout. What emerges is the ethical problem with the conservative (though in this case, “progressive”) reformist position which, as always, sees no compromise short of its proposals nor consideration of preserving integrity on its way to corporately streamlining a traditional norm that gives each citizen fair opportunity. There’s real irony in this; Conservatism as it has come to be known in debates over gun control and birth control is being turned on its head in the debate over education. “Evolution”, not tradition in this case, is valued.

www.starvingthebeast.net

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