“I don’t have a clue what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Bartleby Gaines, an Average Joe-type high school senior, explains to his parents after they’ve learned that several of his classmates have gotten into prestigious colleges. He’s already received seven rejection letters that he hasn’t told them about. Maybe, he wonders aloud, he should take some time off after graduation….
Mrs. Gaines stares intensely at her son. “Are you high?” she asks.
Mr. Gaines soon pipes in: “Society has rules…. You will go to college.”
The exchange occurs early on in the new campus comedy, Accepted, which opens in wide release today. The film features hundreds of Bartleby-like students who end up secretly creating their own bogus college, the aptly acronymed South Harmon Institute of Technology, where they can major in whatever they want. In their impressively impossible effort, they create a believable Web site and logo, remodel an abandoned psychiatric hospital to become the centerpiece of their new campus, and hire a fake dean (played by a ranting Lewis Black, from “The Daily Show” fame).
What’s the driving force behind this scheme?
Not to disappoint their parents.
Many past college-focused flicks have sarcastically explored adolescent forays into college life -- Animal House, Van Wilder and the American Pie series among them. But parental involvement in such pictures is usually kept to a minimum. The parents in Accepted provide plenty of chuckles, but they also happen to highlight the well-reported trend of overly enmeshed, yet sometimes painfully blind, “helicopter parents” -- those busybody caregivers who just can’t stop hovering around to provide their special brand of caring and giving.
At one point, Rory, a somewhat jittery redhead, explains to Bartleby that every minute of her life has been scheduled for her since the first day of elementary school. She says that she can’t tell her parents that she didn’t get in to Yale out of fear of disappointing them. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks in desperation before deciding to become a main player in the mock-educational venture.
“For many kids, their parents have smoothed things out for them all their lives,” says Helen Johnson, author of Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money and a former director of parent programs at Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They’ve been robbed of the capacity to learn that they can solve the problems they face.” While she hasn't seen the film, she says she's happy to hear that it raises the issue.
James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, is concerned that the term “helicopter parents” has taken on a pejorative meaning. "I try to encourage parents to be mentors," he says. “There are appropriate levels of parental involvement,”
Still, Trudy Putteet, director of parent relations at Texas Tech University, believes that parents are increasingly becoming overbearing managers of their grown-up children’s daily lives. “Students are independent at a later age than they used to be,” she says. “It’s kind of alarming.”
The alarm is well-expressed in the film as fictional parents regularly check in on their beloved kids, trying to ensure that they’re getting the best education South Harmon Institute of Technology can provide, while footing a semester’s $10,000 bill. (Too bad they never thought to ask about the institution’s mascot: an S.H.I.T. sandwich.)
Soon after Bartleby's “acceptance,” his parents request a meeting with Pseudo Dean, a former professor who most recently worked as a shoe salesman. “We’re breeding a whole generation of buyers and sellers -- pimps and whores,” he initially tells Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, much to the horror of Bartleby.
But then he hits a home run: “There's only one reason kids want to go to school -- to get a good job and a great starting salary.”
And the parents beam. “It’s so refreshing to hear someone approach education so rationally,” chirps Mr. Gaines.
Johnson believes that Accepted reflects a parental culture that she predicts will last long into the future. “I wonder, though, if parents will pick up on it,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of denial among the overly enmeshed.”