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Different Aspects of Higher Education in the Movies

Updated on August 18, 2018
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Breaking Away original release posterTheatrical Release PosterBack to School film posterMonster University Theatrical Release Poster
Breaking Away original release poster
Breaking Away original release poster | Source
Theatrical Release Poster
Theatrical Release Poster | Source
Back to School film poster
Back to School film poster | Source
Monster University Theatrical Release Poster
Monster University Theatrical Release Poster | Source

Overview

A popular movie topic is college life. Many of them are comedies. One could make the argument it’s difficult to make a movie about college life that isn’t a comedy. These college movies have as their climax a team athletic competition where the main characters compete with everything stacked against them. These movies also show different perspectives about college education and how it fits into later life. This article contains some spoilers.

Breaking Away

This 1979 movie revolves around four recent high school graduates who live in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town. These boys didn’t go on to college. Their future will be to grow old seeing ageless college students who have bright futures ahead of them. The college students refer to the local boys as ‘cutters’. After a couple of confrontations with the students the university facility decides if the students competed with the local boys in sports that might prevent such altercations. The ‘cutters’ are allowed to form a team and compete with the students in a bicycle race. Dave (Dennis Christopher) is an excellent cyclist. The other members of the cutter team were just on the team so Dave could race. Early in the movie Dave caught an expert Italian team in a race. The Italians knocked him out of the race with a vicious trick. This gave Dave a life lesson his dad (Paul Dooley) had been trying to teach him, “Everybody cheats”. The night before the race Dave’s father explained the origin of the term ‘cutter’. He, and many of the local boys built the University, they were stone cutters. He explained after the construction was completed; “It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.”

This film does a good job of explaining the feelings of young men[i] who live in a college town but don’t go to college.


[i] The main protagonists were men.

Revenge of the Nerds

This 1984 comedy spawned 3 sequels. There was an attempt to make it into a TV series but the pilot never aired. Many comedies followed this movie’s formula. Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) are going to college. They weren’t popular in high school but they believe college will be different. When they arrive at college Ogre (Donald Gibb) from the football fraternity sees them and yells “Nerds.” Lewis and Gilbert assume he is referring to someone else. Everyone in the audience knows better.

The football players have a wild frat party and burn down their frat house. Football Coach Harris (John Goodman) intimidates Dean Ulich (David Wohl) into letting the football players stay in the freshman dorm. The freshmen must live in the gym, which is still used for practice, until they join fraternities. The freshmen join fraternities except for Lewis, Gilbert, and a couple of other “nerds.” The nerds decide to form their own fraternity. One fraternity, Lambda, Lambda, Lambda, or Tri- Lambda[i], doesn’t reject their application. Through a loophole in the Tri-Lambda’s by-laws, which the “nerds” found, Tri-Lambda had to provisionally accept them. This gets them out of living in the gym but doesn’t end their troubles. The football fraternity played some cruel pranks on the Tri-Lambdas. The Tri-Lambdas also played a prank of their own. The Tri-Lambdas thought they could earn some respect in a fraternity “athletic” competition. The Tri-Lambdas won the competition by using the great intelligence of their smarter members to counter the brute strength of the other teams. After the competition their nemesis fraternity trashed their house. In a speech before the students and alumni the nerds said and demonstrated there are many more nerds than “beautiful people.”

Much of this movie’s humor would probably be unacceptable today. These days “geeks” are so cool a computer support company is named The Geek Squad. The movie doesn’t make an issue of it but the “nerds” include students that are geniuses and non-genius, non-mainstream people.


[i] In in Greek alphabet - ΛΛΛ

Back to School

This 1986 movie stared Rodney Dangerfield as self-made millionaire Thornton Melon. Melon never went to college. His son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t want to go to college. Thorton tells his son if he doesn’t go to college he would never be respected. Thornton makes a deal with his son that they would enroll in college together.

In Thornton’s business class after Professor Paxton Whitehead (Philip Barbay) goes through the steps to start a business Thorton points out critical things Professor Whitehead left out. Thorton pointed out in order to start a business one must bribe politicians and pay off gangsters. In Thorton’s History class a young woman gives Professor Terguson (Sam Kinison) a textbook answer on why South Vietnam fell. Professor Terguson says he’d like to believe that but he can’t because her was there. Professor Terguson then goes on a tirade about his wartime experiences. When Thorton asks Terguson to take it easy on her Terguson goes into a tirade on how why we didn’t win in Korea. Terguson gives a “bomb them into the stone age” response. This pleases the professor. Thorton and his English teacher, Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), are sweet on each other.

Jason is doing well academically but his having trouble socially. Derek Lutz (Robert Downey Jr.) is his only friend and Derek doesn’t have any friends. Derek is a radical who is taking courses in dead languages. Derek leads a protest against football because he views it as “a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war.” Derek’s actions during the protest get the football players mad at him. This by extension makes the football players mad at Jason.

Thornton has the time of his life and uses his connections to have others do his school reports for him. Among his projects is a paper on Kurt Vonnegut. He had Kurt Vonnegut come by to write the paper. The teachers accuse him of cheating. This includes Dr. Turner, who also told him whoever did the Kurt Vonnegut paper for him doesn’t know a thing about Kurt Vonnegut. Thorton has to pass a verbal exam from a board of professors or get expelled. He crams for the exam and passes. Then he wins the diving competition for the school by performing a trick dive called “The Triple Lindy”. The movie ends with him giving a comedic commencement speech in typical Rodney Dangerfield style.

A highly successful businessman telling his son people need to graduate from college in order to be respected is an adequate premise for a comedy. The head of a large business empire, or any other financially successful person, could give their child a better reason to go to college. Hopefully Derek taking a bunch of useless courses is something left in the last century. If not, it should have been.

For College Students and Recent Graduates

Derek Lutz

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For Those Who Haven't Attended College Recently

Derek Lutz in College Today

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Monster University

This 2013 animated movie is a prequel to Monster, Inc. The setting for the story is when the monsters from the original, Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sullivan (John Goodman), were in college. The premise is in this monster universe energy is derived from children’s screams. Specially trained monsters, called “scarers”, would come into our universe via children’s closet doors and scare children.

Sullivan is a scary looking monster. His problem is he doesn’t study and relies on his look and a standard roar. Mike is a very studious monster who has it down pat which scaring technique to use on each type of child. Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) eliminates Mike and Sullivan from the “scarers” program. Mike’s new major is in cylinders that hold the obtained energy. Cylinder studies is boring to Mike, and apparently everyone else. Mike attempts to get back into the “scarers” program by forming a team of rejects to compete in the school scaring competition. Mike’s team through meticulous planning and excellent team work perform at least as well as any team. It ends with an interesting twist.

It could be a sign of the times that the movie proposes that college is a road to success but not the only road. Monsters, and presumably people, can achieve just as much success through effort.

A college education

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© 2018 Robert Sacchi

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