“Would you mind telling me what those four years of college were for?”
So asks the father of Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of "The Graduate." A half-century after Mike Nichols made this film, it remains popular at "senior week" events and other end-of-college rituals. And that's because we still haven't answered its central question: what are we doing here, and why?
When Nichols died in November, obituaries inevitably depicted "The Graduate" as an emblem of youth alienation in postwar America. In the 1967 film’s most iconic line, a family friend gives young Braddock a single word of advice: “plastics.” The term became an ironic rallying cry for a rising generation of rebellious Americans, who rejected their elders’ bland conformity and empty consumerism.
But Braddock simply repeats the phrase — “plastics” — in a glassy-eyed stupor. As Nichols told an interviewer after the film’s release, Braddock is “a kid drowning among objects and things, committing moral suicide by allowing himself to be used finally like an object or thing.” Young Benjamin knows what he doesn’t like, but he has no idea how — or even whether — to change it.
That’s why Nichols decided to give the role to an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman instead of to an established star like Robert Redford, who also campaigned for the part. When Hoffman read the book on which the film was based, he told Nichols that Braddock should be played by Redford or by another classically handsome white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
But Nichols had something very different in mind. He saw Braddock as an anti-hero, a loser who sleepwalks through life instead of awakening to its challenges. So the director chose a Jewish actor — with dark, ungainly features — instead of the “walking surfboards” (as Nichols mockingly called them) who usually won the big Hollywood roles.
Braddock has an ambivalent and depressingly passionless affair with one of his parents’ friends, Mrs. Robinson, whose name would be immortalized in the song that Paul Simon wrote for the film. (The other Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack, including “Sounds of Silence,” predated the movie.) Then Braddock falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.
Conventional to his core, Braddock resolves to win Elaine in the most predictable, socially acceptable fashion: by marrying her. He drives his sportscar up to the Bay Area, where Nichols treats us to the famous shot of Hoffman speeding across the Bay Bridge (but in the wrong direction, as film buffs often note). The budget-conscious Nichols shot most of his college scenes at the University of Southern California, which was much closer to his studio, although we do get a few glimpses of the neighborhood abutting Cal-Berkeley.
What we do not get is a sense of the Free Speech Movement, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, or any of the other political passions that enveloped Berkeley in the late 1960s. The only hint is an exchange with a hostile boardinghouse manager, who inquires whether Braddock is an “agitator"; a few scenes later, a young tenant (played by Richard Dreyfuss, in one of his first roles) asks the manager if he should call the police to arrest Braddock.
On what charge? Braddock isn’t a threat to anyone at the university, where he follows Elaine through the humdrum rhythms of college life — to a class, to the library — while a clock chimes from the tower overhead. There’s nothing here to engage either of them, except the fact that Elaine is herself engaged to be married — and not to Braddock. So he has to win the girl from his rival, who looks very much like Mike Nichols’ walking-surfboard stereotype.
The film’s courtship rituals feel altogether dated in today’s era of student hook-ups and delayed marriage. But the aimless ennui of college should be familiar to anyone who works or studies at one. We have millions of students who are simply drifting through college, just like Benjamin Braddock does in his parents’ pool. As my colleague Richard Arum and his co-author Josipa Roksa have shown, the average undergraduate studies 12 hours per week, and more than a third report studying less than 5 hours a week.
On the other end of the spectrum are the so-called Organization Kids, who have been programmed to climb the social ladder at all costs. They do hit the books, early and often, but there’s something soulless and depressing about their grim quest for grades, connections, and jobs. They’re “excellent sheep,” to quote the title of William Deresiewicz’ recent book, going along in order to get ahead.
In the years since Mike Nichols made "The Graduate," we have transformed our universities into truly mass institutions. Soon, we are told, we'll have "college for all." But college for what? Asked that by his befuddled father, Benjamin Braddock replies simply, “You got me.” We've got to come up with a better answer than that.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which will be published in the spring by Princeton University Press.
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