The ivory tower in the movies

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Judith Sebesta is blogging about “College for All, Or Just For Some?

Writing about the film “Admission” in my article has me thinking about portrayals of higher education in popular culture. The Tina Fey/Paul Rudd-helmed comedy paints a fairly positive — albeit elitist, given its Princeton setting — portrait of university life. Of course, there is also the ubiquitous party scene, if not as raucous as those in “Animal House” or “Revenge of the Nerds.”

The “gold standard” in the university film genre is “Paper Chase,” or perhaps “Good Will Hunting,” but I have to confess a fondness for “The Mirror Has Two Faces” and “Legally Blonde.” While also in elite settings, all of these seem to get at the heart of the potential for inspiration on both sides of the teacher/mentor-student relationship.

More recently, “The Social Network” offers a peek into Harvard, continuing the general privileging in media of portrayals of the Ivy League — although in this case that was obviously unavoidable given the lead character. Perhaps this is why I find so much to like in the television series “Community,” in which a group of lovable losers — students, faculty, administrators and staff alike — look to simply better their lives, not necessarily achieve big dreams. I also like that the academic setting is at the foreground as opposed to a mere backdrop, as in, say, “Friends” or “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Community” is a much more holistic exploration of academia, reminding me of Jane Smiley’s 1997 novel “Moo.” We need more balanced portrayals of all the complicated relationships, the frustrating politics, and the challenges behind the pursuing of dreams and inspiring successes. Academic novels — like “The Human Stain” and “Disgrace” — often delve into darker corners, but at least they tend to avoid the stereotypes of much pop culture portrayals of university life.

A recent personal favorite is Chad Harbach’s novel “The Art of Fielding,” a tragicomedy of manners, like “Moo,” that melds an affectionate portrayal of a fictional small liberal arts college with baseball. It effectively explores the sometimes competing but not mutually exclusive imperatives of “action” (in every sense of the word) and “thinking” at the heart of any campus.

I invite readers here to name a favorite film, television show, or novel set in academia.

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