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College Is Scary

June 21, 2013

If you’ve seen the mock college website for "Monsters University," which opens today, or viewed any of the mock promotional videos, you probably have high expectations for the film’s portrayal of a modern college. And since it’s made by Pixar, you expect them to get the small things right.

From the campus’s Gothic architecture, glee clubs and Greek status hierarchies to the high-stakes finals, hypocritical instructors and the misplaced hope that randomly assigned freshman roommates will prove lifelong friends, there’s a lot in the film that you may well recognize.

And the film even makes some surprisingly astute observations about college, including the fact that the most important learning may take place outside the classroom and that peers are more often influential than professors.

But more than a comment on college, Monsters University is a film about diversity, the innate differences between individuals, and the institutions and situations that help foster connections and understanding between those individuals. Which makes it fitting that the film is released today in the shadow of a potential landmark Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action expected to come next week.

The movie is about the challenge of limited talent and the realization that hard work can only take one so far – and sometimes not even as far as people who are just “born with it.” But it's also about what students in the social and intellectual crucible of college can learn from each other and how those interactions shape worldviews and change lives.

One can walk away from the movie with the impression that the administrators and faculty at Monsters University would happily join in the amicus brief filed in the affirmative action case by a group of private university administrators who said “a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world. This larger understanding prepares … graduates to be active and engaged citizens wrestling with the pressing challenges of the day, to pursue innovation in every field of discovery, and to expand humanity’s learning and accomplishment.”

The film’s plot centers on Mike Wazowski, the short, one-giant-eyed green monster from the original film, voiced by Billy Crystal. Mike’s dream, established as a wide-eyed child on a visit to the Monsters Inc. facility, is to become a scarer – the monsters who sneak into children’s rooms and frighten them to provide the energy to power the monster world. For monsters, scarers are the equivalent of professional athletes or movie stars. Children know all the most famous names, collect trading cards bearing the likenesses of their favorites, and shower them with adoration.

Mike is a classic “striver,” a student without much innate talent who has out-worked and out-hustled his peers to get to Monsters U. His textbook knowledge of scaring strategies and techniques is unparalleled in his class, but because of his diminutive stature and the fact that he’s essentially a giant eyeball, he just isn’t all that scary. “What you lack is something that can’t be taught,” he’s told at one point. Not only do other students doubt his potential, but faculty and administrators do as well.

His foil, initial rival and eventual partner is James P. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), a prototypical legacy who goes by “Sulley.” He’s the son of a well-known scarer, endowed with an immense natural talent for scaring, including an imposing physique and guttural roar. He’s large, easygoing and likeable, initially getting picked to join the top campus fraternity. But he doesn’t work hard, coasting by on favoritism from his professors. “You don’t need to study scaring, you just do it,” he says at one point. But his lack of motivation causes problems for him early in the film.

(The fact that Sullivan’s mannerisms betray a certain eastern American upper-class ethos and that Wazowski’s name is Eastern European shouldn’t be lost on anyone who knows the history of admissions and legacy preferences at American higher education institutions.)

On a campus where few monsters look similar, the differences in aptitude and outlook between Mike and Sulley form the backbone of the movie's plot. The two become fierce rivals in the entry-level class of the university’s competitive and prestigious scaring program.

Their rivalry continues as they end up in the same fraternity, Oozma Kappa, along with a ragtag group of misfits, including a “mature student” returning to college after his company was downsized, a “new age philosophy major” whose ambitions are unclear, a two-headed monster and a wide-eyed sophomore who lives with his mother. From there the plot is reminiscent of classic college films like Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds, with the brothers of Oozma Kappa competing against the more popular fraternities (like Roar Omega Roar, Eta Hiss Hiss and Jaws Theta Chi) in the annual “Scare Games.”

And while the games move the plot along, it is in the dynamic between Sulley and Mike that the film comes closest to exploring what college administrators say people actually get out of a residential campus experience. The two challenge each other in ways that an assignment or professor likely couldn’t.

And the dynamic also produces Mike’s hard realization that he’s never going to be the kind of world-class scarer that Sulley has the potential to be, no matter how much work he puts in. “I thought that if I wanted it enough I could do it,” Mike laments near the end of the film. The only way he’s going to be successful is if he and Sullivan work together. (The lessons for Sulley are somewhat less earth-shattering, notably that he might need some help from other people and might need to put in a little effort.)

Mike's lesson is one that many in higher education might find unsettling, since it echoes some of the current challenges to university admissions practices and the prevailing understanding of merit.

The other surprising lesson from the end of the film (Spoiler Alert) -- and where it arguably makes its biggest departure from the current understanding of higher education – is that, after getting expelled from MU, Mike and Sulley manage to achieve success without earning their degrees, by working their way up the bureaucracy at Monsters Inc.

That notion certainly plays into the popular zeitgeist that questions the value of a college degree, reinforced with the Gateses and Jobses and Zuckerbergs that have captured public imagination. But it is an ending that certainly runs counter to the data. While several prominent college dropouts have made names for themselves by starting companies and creating innovative products, the idea that, in the modern economy, a pair of college dropouts could work their way up from the mailroom to the scaring floor in the world's largest corporation strains credulity.

 

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