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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


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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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Your last comment is true. People should evaluate what kind of return they can expect for their investment in education. One needs to be smart because of the costs of education these days.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      19 months ago

      You make some very good points. I had a coworker who grew up in a college town. He didn't go to college. He once said of a college degree he didn't see how 4 years of getting drunk qualified somebody to do anything. He also pointed out in our office the best performers were the ones who weren't academically inclined.

      The best advice I've heard about college is it should be viewed as a business transaction. How much is the money spent on college going to yield in future employment. While all credits may cost the same some yield a much better return than others.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      19 months ago from North Texas

      When I was growing up back in the 50s/60s intelligence and education were appreciated and respected, but that doesn't seem to be the case these past 35-40 years or so. Now intelligent people are looked down on.

      Having a university degree is no guarantee of a job, or of someone who has actually learned anything while in attendance. I know plenty of people who should in fact have certificates of attendance and even that is questionable, frankly. Many were always late to class when they bothered to show up at all.

      Most of the time people are more successful when they fit in than when they have a doctorate degree from any university in anything. Back in the 60s/70s one was all but guaranteed a good paying job if they had even a bachelor's degree.

      The majority of people in the U.S. are not well educated, but since they are the majority, they rule. Several people have told me they don't want to learn. Even basic knowledge and skills that one might use every day, like figuring 10% of any number, which is pretty easy, is beyond the ability of many of todays U.S. citizens. I tried to teach a woman in her late 30s how to figure this out about 2 years ago and she told me she couldn't get it, and really didn't want to know.

      I have had several people tell me they don't want to know various things. They prefer to be uninformed -- then they complain because our politicians take advantage of their ignorance! I think everyone should have to pass the test required of immigrants to the U.S. who want to become naturalized citizens, in order to qualify to vote, even if they were born here.

      I've noticed that most people who pay their own tuition and other expenses take their time at the university more seriously than when their parents foot the bill.

      These movies you describe seem to fit well into today's mindset regarding higher education, but I have never seen any of the movies you describe.

      It is unfortunate, I think, that many people who attend university do not take their presumed goal seriously, and just as sad that so many people nowadays have no respect for knowledge and learning.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Sports is a good way to bring things to a head. As the TV show "The Wide World of Sports" use to say there is, "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • pinto2011 profile image


      2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Humor is always welcome but inculcation of sports is also win win situation for movies, as it floods the adrenaline.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      I can understand that. Often times humor is time or geographically specific.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      Very entertaining. The only one I've seen is Monsters University which was very enjoyable.

      There are some very good inspirational movies about college life and 'beating the odds' as well, one starring Gene Hackman as a basketball coach (Hoosers I think) and Denzel Washington (Remember the Titans) but I tend not to watch the comedy movies as I don't really 'get' the humour.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, Animal House is a classic. A number of other movies copied the concept of college students gone wild. There was also a short lived TV series based on the movie.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      I haven’t seen any of these but have seen Animal House, a real classic. I’d most like to see Monster University.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you both for reading and commenting.

      Monster University does have a number of advantages. It is a film made in this century. It is one you can watch with younger relatives.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      2 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I have not see any of these though have watched the original Monsters Inc. will look out for them now

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Like Liz, I have not viewed any of these movies. Thanks for your synopsis of each of them. I think from what you wrote that the Monster University movie would be the one I would wish to watch.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liz Westwood - Should you decide to see these movies I hope you find them entertaining.

      Mykola - You bring up a good point. These movies are comedies, although Breaking Away also has drama. Study is of course what college, and all school, is all about. Though it's difficult to make an entertaining movie about study. One movie I would suggest is The Paper Chase. It covers the pressures of law school very well.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 years ago from UK

      I don't think I have seen any of these. This is a helpful introduction to them all.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Hi, Robert! As I see from your article life in colleges is a real subculture with its laws. Sport is milestone in forming youth characters. But when do they study? How do they study? And what? I don' see intelectual efforts in it. It't pity. Yours.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you both for reading and commenting.

      Larry Slawson - I don't know whether to advise you to see Monsters, Inc. first or not. Not seeing Monsters, Inc. first will give you more of a surprise I think. In any case seeing them both is recommended.

      Mary Norton - Breaking Away was made in a different time. I think it does a good job of reflecting American thinking at the time and the feelings of the young local men in a college town.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I wish I have seen these movies so I could comment much more sensibly. I was really struck by the builder's feeling around the university he helped built...that it was too good for them. The barrier to higher education is often in the mind.

    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      2 years ago from North Carolina

      I've seen a few of these. Still curious about Monster University. Definitely need to see that one soon haha. Thanks for sharing.


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