A documentary that questions the cost -- and value -- of higher education in the United States.
Once upon a time in America, a college education symbolized achievement and opportunity. Though the cost was always acknowledged (mindful students recognized the importance of “saving up for college” at a young age), the end investment was rarely disputed in open circles. In the twenty first century, however, the long-held assurances that a college education would offer job security have now been second-guessed with increasing student competition and rising tuition. ‘Ivory Tower’ attempts to address those issues in a thoughtfully presented and well-made 90 minute film. While it will obviously appeal to those who aspire to more than just a high school education, ‘Ivory Tower’ also examines the broader social and economic value of earning a degree in exchange for unforgiving debt.
Written, directed, and produced by Andrew Rossi (whose impressive academic background includes degrees from Yale and Harvard Law, and whose prior work has gained considerable acclaim), 'Ivory Tower' is a documentary clearly meant for a mainstream audience. Audiences demanding a viable cure for the financial herpes that is student loans may be disappointed by the film’s lack of a definitive, editorial point of view, but such expectations would be wildly unrealistic in the first place.
‘Ivory Tower’ holds the viewer’s attention with historical narratives and statistical data presented at a rather brisk pace and covering costs, practical results and higher learning alternatives. All of this is punctuated by bright graphics and panoramic background images, and highlighted by brief but insightful interviews by students and professors. Along the way, the movie demonstrates how a once noble and ideal institution has now become compromised and perhaps corrupted as a business. For example, early on, ‘Ivory Tower’ addresses a school’s competitive need to attract and impress new students by spending millions on extravagant upgrades and flashy improvements to the campus. These scenes immediately recalled my own experience from a few years ago, where I paid a visit to my alma mater and was stunned to see that my old stomping grounds were now unrecognizable. New, modern buildings had put to shame simpler architectural designs of yesteryear, and an expansive modern sports arena -- complete with rock climbing wall, racquet ball courts and commercial cafes --- had now replaced a quaint but effective, 1950’s-style gym. Only now does it dawn on me how many past and future graduates would help pay for such bragging rights, and how this kind of spending would be ongoing and relentless.
Even at its most revealing moments, ‘Ivory Tower’ avoids any button-pushing hysteria and shameless political agenda, and treats its subject critically, but respectfully. I was especially drawn in because of my personal familiarity with the focus schools, including Stanford, Harvard, and San Jose State. (Even UC Davis got a quick mention, which prompted cheers from my couch!) Of course, teaching methods as it relates to hands-on practical experience, unconventional instruction, and online media are also explored, though their effectiveness and longevity are as yet unknown. Needless to say, “Ivory Tower” definitely engages the viewer emotionally: there were times where I felt genuine sympathy for those hard-working students (especially when it came to confronting their crippling student loan payments), and a moment or two where I felt like pouring my derision upon anything they did, and exposing every weakness however carefully hidden by those kids (or so to speak). In particular, the film at several points focuses on New York’s Cooper Union College, a school which changed its fundamental policies of providing “free” education for over a hundred years to imposing tuition to new students as of 2014. The protest and outrage which followed struck an angry old man chord in me where I began mumbling obscenities at those spoiled slackers on my TV screen. (Of course, imagine my dismay when I discovered that the Blu-ray’s bonus Question and Answer session following the film’s premiere was co-hosted by the same student whom I previously derided!) I guess there are some age-related behaviors which a four year degree can’t change.
Overall, 'Ivory Tower' presents a thoughtful and orderly look into an institution which we all honor, but only recently have questioned seriously. If it does not espouse radically new ideas or advocate a revolution in cultural change, it’s because that such ambitions are unrealistic in our evolutionary society and outside the scope of this documentary. Yet at the very least 'Ivory Tower' promotes a level of thinking and analysis which, as pointed out by several professors, all higher education should encourage. I would be very interested in seeing an update on this topic five or six years from now
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Ivory Tower’ and its bonus features occupy a single disc in a standard Blu-ray eco case, with no booklets or inserts, and no accompanying diplomas or even letters of recommendation. The main menu is non-animated, but reproduces the front cover illustration which spotlights a figure in graduation garb, and “shackled” from behind by a rolled up piece of paper as he stands on a ledge which is crumbling apart. It’s conveys the kind of cynicism and wit I appreciate in promotional art.
‘Ivory Tower’ is MPEG-4 AVC encoded and presented in 1080p widescreen at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The movie boasts some beautifully photographed images, even when the camera remains static during interviews and when graphics dominate. Given how recently this film was produced, with certain depicted events occurring in the last year, the high picture quality should be of no surprise. Bright, natural colors dominate especially during the outdoor scenes where the fall season is obvious. Those used to seeing documentaries full of shaky, blurry images with little or no detail, that it is almost startling to see faces fill the screen without the benefits of airbrushing or soft focus. Excerpts from archival sources such as newscasts, stock and dated footage, and material apparently shot by third parties including the question and answer bonus material, naturally take on a less vibrant look. There are no defects or artifacts that would otherwise compromise the viewing experience.
Presented in Dolby Digital and DTS-HD Master Audio for 5.1 systems, the movie’s sound stage is primarily limited to the center channel, with occasional activity in the surround channels during crowd scenes and at times when the background music is prominent. As expected from most documentaries, all the talking heads and disembodied commentary and narration make up for a monophonic experience. Therefore, any difference between the Dolby Digital track and the DTS-HDMA may be discernible only to the most golden of ears. The dialogue is clear and intelligible, and suitable for your watching the film through low fidelity television speakers or an average soundbar. After all, his movie is about providing information, as opposed to sound and fury signifying nothing. Still, deep bass can be heard (and felt!) during the opening scenes as a pop song plays, but the remainder of the score subdued yet still dramatically effective. In fact, I detected a few musical passages which suggested a Hans Zimmer influence (namely, his “Man Of Steel” score), which work quite well during the film’s concluding moments.
Bonus features include two deleted scenes described as “Clayton Christensen and Andrew Delbanco debate disruption in higher education” and “Anthony Carnevale discusses college and social inequality.” Each segment runs for about four minutes and are a worthwhile supplement to the main feature, especially when Mr. Carvenale (a member of Georgetown University) comments on the SAT and other admission tools. The disc also offers a “Q & A’s On Opening Weekend” which is hosted by the director and a student who is prominently featured in the film. As its own title explains, the nearly sixteen minute featurette is an audience involved discussion on the subject matter at hand and is a welcome recap and extension of the documentary.
As the father of two kids who have a good eight years before financial aid applications and personal checks from dad and mom become commonplace, I was anxious to review a documentary which might clarify all the anecdotal information, and give an up-to-date perspective on an institution which has now become a nostalgic memory to me. I can speak from experience that back in the olden days (when laserdisc and Super VHS Hi-Fi were the elite formats for home video, just to give you some historical reference), a four-year education from a California university for California residents was easily affordable and absolutely worthwhile. Times have now changed. There is no doubt in my mind that ‘Ivory Tower’ is required viewing for families of college-bound kids who may need a bit more real-world education before making that kind of investment.