Re-Cap of Ivory Tower Film Event

Marilee Turscak

In an age when tuition prices have risen 553 percent since 1950 and when 53 percent of recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed, is college worth it?

That was the question that filmmaker Andrew Rossi posed in his documentary Ivory Tower, hosted at a private screening in Midtown Manhattan by the NAS last Thursday. There were 67 audience members present at the event, including students, instructors, and alumni from Columbia, Cooper Union, NYU, Brooklyn College, The King's College, and Bowdoin College. Columbia Professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, who is featured in the film, also attended. After the screening, NAS president Peter Wood held a 40-minute Q&A session with Delbanco and Columbia Professor Roosevelt Montás, director of the Center for the Core Curriculum there.

In the documentary Delbanco recounts the history of the college system growing out of traditional church education: robes to signify position, lectures to efficiently spread the knowledge housed in books, colleges and courtyards constructed to fit the performance of church rituals and devotions. Much has changed since then. When asked in the Q&A if he thinks higher education is in for yet another revolution, this time due to the swelling “college bubble” and the rival educational power of the Internet and free MOOCs, Delbanco countered that he “doesn’t have a crystal ball,” but does think some changes are to come.

Rossi, the filmmaker, is less cautious. The documentary gives visual depictions of climbing tuition rates, student debt rates, ballooning numbers of college majors (many of them esoteric), astronomical growth in college administration (and relatively less growth among the ranks of professors). Rossi also shows examples of outrageous college construction projects—rock wall climbing gyms at NYU, a student “leisure pool” at Texas Tech—that fuel college costs as institutions compete on offerings and amenities rather than on price. Meanwhile, Richard Arum, author of Academically Adrift, comes on screen to describe the troublingly low rates of study among many students: his research has showed that college students spend an average of only 12 hours a week studying outside class.

In the Q&A session, Delbanco and Montás answered questions about the purpose of college, the nature of a liberal arts education, college costs, the tension between classroom-centered (English) and research-centered (German) education models, and the viability of college alternatives. Montás defended the need for a Great Books Core at colleges, using Columbia’s Core as an example of a rigorous program. (Columbia has 5 courses every student must take, including a year-long intro course in which the students begin by reading The Iliad.)

The NAS staff with Andrew Delbanco and Roosevelt Montas

Montás recalled the 1965 Higher Education Act, which put the federal government behind the notion that those who could go to college would not be denied because they could not afford it.

“That is an extraordinary achievement of our civilization, and I think we are at a point now where that expansion might be contracting” he said. “I think it is a collective responsibility to continue to expand rather than contract that access to higher education.”

Right: The NAS staff with Andrew Delbanco and Roosevelt  Montás 

The film presents a case study on the MOOC, posing the question of whether the MOOC could be the saving force in making higher education free and available to all. The findings, however, do not allow for a conclusive judgment on whether the MOOC is a viable classroom alternative. Though these courses have become more and more popular, drop-out and failure rates are high, and students have expressed an urgent need for face-to-face instruction. Online courses make education open to everyone, but the effectiveness of this education remains open to debate.

At a time when information is more readily accessible than ever before, those seeking an education have wider opportunities and greater challenges.

Image: Jenny Payne, the Columbia Spectator

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