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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 8, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Classic Films, Back to College

In our ongoing program to make sure our thirteen-year-old knows all the great films in American culture (and we don't care if she never watches Citizen Kane; we use a different standard of greatness), it was time, last week, for us to watch The Sting.

After all, if she could see Redford and Newman -- two superb actors, besides being so huggably cute -- then she'd have some perspective when seeing actors of today. And there is a whole cast of superb character actors. Plus amazingly good writing -- smart dialogue, good characterization, and a plot to die for.

She fell asleep.

OK, it was late at night. She was tired.

But the real problem was: She couldn't follow the story.

My first thought was: I was in my twenties when I first saw this film. I simply hadn't realized it was for grownups only.

But that wasn't the entire explanation. Part of it was this simple: Our daughter had never seen a poker game and knew nothing about what was going on in the poker game on the train. Nor had she any idea of what the numbers racket was, or how the Mob worked, so that none of the early scenes had any connection with anything she knew about the world.

When we stopped the playback and explained (a) the Mob and (b) poker, then she got it and stayed awake through the rest of the film. But she didn't love it.

This is a smart kid who can follow weirdly convoluted, alien plots of Japanese Anime movies and series. But The Sting was an artifact of its time, and she is not of that time.

For me and my wife, it's still a great movie. It still managed to surprise us, delight us, move us. And the whole encounter with the waitress in the diner is still one of the most poignant sequences in all of film.

It was a nostalgia piece from the start. But The Sting took for granted that its audience would know things.

Our generation grew up on television and movie westerns. I must have seen a hundred poker games by the time I was fifteen, even though my family was not one to tolerate gambling games. But our daughter has hardly seen any westerns -- certainly not enough to learn how poker is played.

It may seem a trivial cultural point, but let's face it: Our kids are not growing up in the world we grew up in. It's not just the new things they have -- our kids don't remember a time before videogames, and our youngest doesn't remember a time before DVDs and the internet.

But likewise, there are old things they've lost. Westerns, slower-paced scenes, talking -- these things were still part of the shared experience of theater-going in the 1970s.

So we tried another film on the must-see list: Die Hard.

This is a film we did not expect to regard as a classic. Indeed, when it first came out, I saw it with other guys because my wife knew it was not for her. She only saw it in snatches on cable, a year or so after it came out in the theaters.

But it is not just a good first-time movie, it has staying power. Even though the writing is shallow (can you believe some of the maudlin lines the actors have to say?) the film becomes a classic because of three things:

Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia.

It certainly wasn't the director. Yes, he was very good with action -- but about character and story, he has no clue, as his later films testify. He is always competent, but if there's magic in the film, it comes from somebody else.

I credit these actors with the greatness of the film precisely because their parts were written so awkwardly -- and they made these smarmy, cardboard characters seem real.

But then, Bruce Willis has always been an actor who was better than the movies he was in. What critics at first saw only as wise-guy charm was actually something much deeper -- something that resonates with the audience.

What was fun was watching our daughter, who knew Rickman mostly as Snape in the Harry Potter films (plus his turn in Sense and Sensibility), realize who the bad guy was!

Die Hard and The Sting are both, in our view, part of what educated Americans should have in their experience of our film culture.

But our daughter has grown up in a world of films that were already influenced by these movies. So she will never experience them as we did -- fresh, creative, smart, surprising. For nearly twenty years we've been watching Die Hard clones (few of which measure up); for thirty-four years, nobody has even tried to match The Sting because, sadly enough, the audience simply may not be there for something that good.

Instead, for caper movies, we get Ocean's Whatever.


Now this is science! A fifty-year-old anthropology professor, who has done fieldwork in primitive societies in faraway lands, realizes that she knows almost nothing about the lives of undergraduate students at the American university where she teaches.

So she quietly applies for admission to her own university as an over-age freshman, using only her high school transcript. She is accepted, and thus begins a year of fieldwork as a freshman.

In My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, author "Rebekah Nathan" treated the American university exactly as she would have treated any other alien society.

Including her recognition of the limitations of her study. First, there was the simple fact that even though she lived in the dorms, she was still in her fifties. It was obvious she was not "one of them" -- but then, it's obvious that anthropologists are never truly citizens of the society they study.

She also took the ethical obligations of her scientific work very seriously. If anyone asked her, she told the truth. (It rarely came up, however -- the undergrads weren't usually all that interested in her background.)

And later in that year of study, she began doing interviews, in which she freely stated her purpose. It's not her fault that the students, having tagged her as an odd middle-aged lady getting her bachelor's degree, did not really believe that yes, indeed, she did have the clout to get her study published.

But she still took steps to protect their identities. It means that at times the book is not as candid as we readers would have appreciated -- but it does mean that none of the students who confided in her were compromised.

She played it straight, in other words. Decent human being first, scientist second -- but still a good scientist.

Outsiders' Views

Some of her best informants, oddly enough, were the foreign students. They, too, were studying American university life from both inside and outside at the same time. They were there, fully legitimate students, but the Americans, no matter how friendly they seemed, didn't really include them.

They didn't exclude them, either -- they just didn't think to invite them into their lives as genuine friends. As a French student said, "It's so easy to meet people here, to make friends....

"Well, not really friends.... It is easy to get to know people, but the friendship is superficial. We wouldn't even call it a friendship. In France, when you're someone's friend, you're their friend for life."

Monocultural "Diversity"

That's one of the odd things "Nathan" found: Even though she was at a state university with about ten thousand students, most of the students had a social life that had nothing to do with the dorms and nothing to do with their classes.

In fact, most of them had arrived with at least one close friend from their home town, and built their small circle of friends around that core.

So despite the best efforts of the administration to create a "diverse and inclusive" university community, in fact people mostly stuck to their own kind -- people they were familiar with.

This translates into an explanation of what it meant to be black or "minority" at this university. About a quarter of the students at the school were classed as "minority" by federal standards. In her interviews, she was being told that white students and black students all had friends of other races.

Then she realized that her question order was biasing the sample. She changed it around. She first asked them to name their closest friends. Only then did she ask what their friends' ethnic identity was.

"Five out of six white students I interviewed in this way about their networks had no members of another racial or ethnic group in their close social circle" (p. 59). There were several reasons for this.

The biggest one was that students continued preexisting social circles when they got to the university. Since among her contacts only one cross-racial friendship had persisted from high school, it was hardly surprising to find that college continued, at the friendship level, exactly the same divisions that prevail in our general communities.

Predictable? Yes. But not at all what university diversity policies were meant to achieve. Different races and nationalities and ethnicities meet in the classroom -- but the classroom is not where the students live.

So when she looked at the "social networks" of the students, she found that minority students generally belonged to mixed groups, with only one in an otherwise-all-white network, and only one in a network consisting only of her own ethnicity.

But "five of the six white students had networks that were solidly white; only one white student had a mixed network, and none was the only Caucasian" (p. 63).

Instead of college expanding social horizons to include new and different types of people, college seemed mostly to duplicate exactly the kinds of associations that people already selected for themselves at home before they came.

Who Cares About Class?

But the failure of diversity was not really a surprise, except to stat-loving administrators. The shocker for her was how little a part the classroom experience played in the students' lives.

"This was disconcerting to me as a professor," she says, "because I have always shared the professor's worldview that what we do is regularly mind-altering and life-changing. Surely, I thought, there are many courses that truly 'make a difference' in students' lives" (p. 103).

What she found was that in most classes, the reason students don't engage in the kind of freeform discussions professors long for is that there is intense social pressure against intellectual involvement. Students are resented if they raise topic-related questions. What students approve of is "equality," which amounts to a pact of invisibility.

That means the only legitimate questions you can ask are those that are of practical value to the entire class: "What will be the form of exams?" "Are the quizzes on the internet?" "What is the minimum number of sources that should be on the final paper?"

But for a student to say, "I don't know what that term means. Can you explain it?" is almost unheard of.

(And that, by the way, is what I discovered myself upon grading my students' finals in what I thought was an excellent class last winter. It was obvious to me that certain key terms, which I had been using all semester, were understood by only two-thirds of the class.

(None of the others, openly or privately, had ever asked me to explain them further, and the result was disastrous failure on several sections of the final.)

"Nathan" had found this in her own anthropology classes, though she hadn't fully understood it. She would announce to her students after a week of classes that, while she did not believe in witches, and assumed her students did not, either, she wanted them to name the two or three students that they would name if they had to choose who the witches were in their class.

The "winners" would not be punished. She just wanted them to name those that they thought would be the leading candidates for the title of "witch."

When she first did this, she expected them to name the most oddly dressed or reclusive or weird. But the results were shockingly otherwise.

Invariably, the overwhelming majority of the students selected the handful whom the teacher would consider to be prize students: Those who asked meaningful, on-topic questions. Those who seemed actually to care about the subject matter and wanted to learn it.

In other words, the college students named, as probably "witches," the students who acted the way students are actually supposed to act!

One might interpret this as punishing conformity to the norms of the professors. But one might also interpret it as punishing nonconformity to the norms of the student society, which stresses equality and resents anything that makes one student stand out above the others.

So when teacher-evaluation forms are passed out, the questions used to judge teachers are rather a joke. "Does the teacher promote discussion?" It is assumed that a "yes" to this question would imply the teacher was doing a good job. But since the students do their best to keep any discussion from happening, what would this question mean to them?

The result, in the classroom, is that "ideas are rarely debated, and even more rarely evaluated" (p. 95).

The students themselves explain it this way: "I feel if I talk up a lot I may be talking too much." "I don't want people all upset with me if they don't agree." "The discussions are too teacher-directed -- everyone is just saying what the teacher wants to hear." "What's the good of getting all worked up about something when no one is going to change their minds anyway?" (p. 95).

Even students who are promoting a cause on campus -- feminists, Christians, whatever -- don't do it in face-to-face discussions except with people who already agree with them. They plaster the campus with posters, yes, and even hold demonstrations -- but however in-your-face those might be, they are not personal.

Only in one class did "Nathan" find that students actually let down their guard and become personally and fervently involved -- and that was a class that probably would horrify most parents: A free-for-all course in human sexuality.

Lest We Despair

But there's a ray of hope. Because "Nathan" also found something else: That the "rules" of student behavior, however they might discourage open expression of a love of learning, and promote the appearance of beer-drinking, sex-seeking conviviality as the "culture of college," this, too, is partly or mostly illusion.

In fact, there's a trajectory in college life. It's the younger students who disengage because they're all about beer, who pressure each other into silence. The older students are often disengaged because they're holding down jobs, starting to fend for themselves in the world.

They are beginning to realize that there's a connection between work and money, and between money and choices. They may not become more "intellectual," but they certainly become much more concerned about doing well in class.

And she reports something else. There was a student who took the time to study with her for a French class. They were pulling a late-night study session when the kid started asking her about imperfect tense.

Professor "Nathan" said to him, "But imperfect won't be on the exam."

And the kid, looking disappointed, said to her, "Is that the only reason you're trying to learn French?"

"Nathan" realized right then that (a) she had assimilated too much of the freshman anti-academic culture, and (b) the other student had not.

In other words, while the pressure is to appear not to care about learning, in fact many of the students -- maybe most of them -- actually do.

Student culture is probably just as hypocritical as any other -- it has its norms, but they don't express the actual desires of the students in that culture.

This Is the College Prep Book

I have only touched on a few of the key points covered in this book. "Rebekah Nathan" has a lot more to say, and she says it clearly and well. The book is short and readable.

And if you're a parent sending kids off to school, it is a sobering book indeed.

Naturally, her sample was one university -- but you're crazy if you don't think this reflects the experience of most undergraduates in most universities. A few religious schools have different norms, of course -- but chances are very good that they are different only in degree.

There will always be (and, if you read history, there has always been) a sharp divide between the university that administration and professors are trying to create, the university that students actually experience, and the university that parents are sending their kids off to.

Most parents are sending their kids to a glorified vocational school: Get a degree with a useful major! Prepare to support yourself and "succeed."

Most professors assume that students are coming to an academic institution where they will sit at the feet of wise teachers and learn how to view the world.

Most students come to a place where they can finally make their own decisions -- and then immediately conceal any decision they might make that would cause them to look "bad" in the eyes of their fellow students.

In other words, socially it's still junior high ... with beer.

Until they get older, and most of them turn it into something vaguely like what their parents expected: a meal ticket.

Few indeed are the students who actually come to learn how to get an education.

How many times have I told young people, "Be in charge of your own education!" But when I lay out a sample of excellent, well-written books for them to choose from, unless I have the compulsion of grades to hold over their heads, they will not choose anything -- at least, not in front of the other students.

Heaven forbid they should be perceived as "smart" or "concerned" or "intellectual." (Mostly because they fear being thought conceited or sycophantic or geeky.)

So if you're one of the rare parents who want their kids to be intellectually challenged at the university, who want them to learn how to think things out on their own and be skeptical, rigorous thinkers ... you'd better make sure they get all that at home before they go.

Read this book. Make your kids read this book before they get well into high school. Ask them the tough questions about what school means to them. Make them look at their own high school like an anthropologist. Then, just maybe, they might be ready to go to college and get a real education when the time comes.

They'll also be prepared to keep their heads down and prevent any of the other students from knowing that they're getting a real education.

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