Sundance 2014: 'Ivory Tower' Highlights Inefficient University System
by Ethan Anderton
January 19, 2014
Last year, student debt in the United States hit a milestone $1 trillion, with no signs of slowing down as admission and tuition are steadily increasing and have been for decades. Enter director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) and his documentary Ivory Tower, which looks at the inefficiency and shortcomings in university education, more specifically, the lack of government funding causing a rise in tuittion, but also the unwise spending on amenities that seem to hinder, more than bolster, their students' education, and the quality of it too. While the documentary seems one-sided to the point of beating a dead horse for the first half, it does move into more neutral and analytical territory. More below!
Initially, Rossi uses a variety of experts who have criticized the flawed university systems in a world where self-made entrepreneurs and increasing young people are educating themselves in the age of information. The documentary seems to trounce on various universities and their shortcomings as far as spending millions on recreation centers and luxurious residential accommodations to attract students while their standards on the education themselves seem to fall. These students are falling over themselves paying exorbitant student loans, in an economy that isn't hiring them for jobs, not even janitorial work. But there's still respect for the institution of college and its history as it focuses on the modern problems as society evolves.
After the audience understands this idea, the continued criticism feels a bit excessive and it seems like this is a rather bias documentary. But it takes a fantastic turn by analyzing various alternatives to standard higher education; free schools like the all-male Deep Springs College (similar to the Quest School for Higher Learning in the film Admission with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) with a two-year program where students decide the focus of their classes, and also learn valuable labor skills.
But the film then shines a light on the more traditional Spelman College, a historically black, all-female university where African-American students find themsevles adopting a more unique identity, as opposed to white-dominated schools where they are just the minority. It pushes the idea that a university environment like this helps students figure out their identity and stand out. These segments are enlightening, informative, and should be mandatory viewing for anyone considering college.
Then the film explores less traditional options like UnCollege and The Peter Thiel Fellowship. While each is give their due diligence and paints a portrait full of positives, they are followed up by experts explaining the shortcoming and negatives on the other side. It's the latter half with both sides of this argument that makes the documentary a great examination of this issue. And scattered throughout is the story of a student revolution of sorts at New York's Cooper Union, which has offered free higher education for 150 years, but has recently decided to charge tuition under the school's new president. The chronicle of the students' demonstration against the move is inspiring, powerful and necessary.
Ivory Tower initially takes what seems to be a singular approach to an increasing dangerous issue for young people and higher education, but thankfully Rossi decides to explore the options outside of traditional universities. Conflicting experts offer a wide breadth of knowledge and stances that moreso shine a light on the problem as opposed to offering a solution. Ivory Tower aims to inform, and let's the audience, especially students, decide how they want to be educated and what kind of future they wish to see. Ivory Tower is eye-opening, urgent, and full of knowledge on the subject of debt and education.
Ethan's Sundance 2014 Rating: 8 out of 10
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