8.9

Ivory Tower

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<i>Ivory Tower</i>

Andrew Rossi’s 2011 film, Page One: Inside the New York Times, takes a year’s worth of footage shot in the titular daily’s newsroom and condenses it all to a brisk hour and a half (and change) of running time, showcasing the rapidly changing landscape of media in the Information Age. It’s never boring, never slack and endlessly informative, the rare documentary that makes its subject matter pop without dumbing itself down. His new venture, the more succinctly named Ivory Tower, follows much the same pattern as its predecessor in its chronicle of the rapidly changing landscape of college education in the Information Age. It is, however, more apt to stir the “moral outrage” center of your brain.

Ivory Tower makes a number of separate, compelling points, perhaps the most important of which is that Rossi—himself a graduate of both Yale College and Harvard Law School—is no slouch. Ivory Tower is a thorough, impressively researched film, one that both satisfies the basic demands of its category and yet refuses to be ploddingly dull. More importantly, though, it’s an essential film. By comparison, Page One feels like a special interest project, a movie that caters to a more niche audience with a particular fascination in media matters. Ivory Tower, on the other hand, has a broader appeal and a greater sense of cultural impact.

This sense of wider relevance stems from Ivory Tower’s concerns with the American dream, or at least one facet of it: education. Specifically, Rossi is hot on the tail of higher education, investigating in immense depth the rising costs of the college experience and the slowly fading possibility of seeing that dream realized. Summarizing the film adequately is a challenge in and of itself; Rossi doesn’t content himself simply with examining the spinning gears in society that have allowed the cost of education to ratchet up to such astronomical levels as they’re at today. He’s out to uncover the very purpose of college, its function in society, how we’ve gotten to a point where college even has a price tag on it to begin with and how we are, as a nation, willfully allowing these institutions to be devalued.

So the film has a lot on its plate, especially considering its lean framework. But Rossi knows how to do a lot with a little, or more accurately how to get a lot out of a little, and he weaves a narrative that takes us all the way back the America’s mid-1800s, when Vermont Senator Justin Morrill’s legislative effort, the Morrill Land-Grant Act, was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, laying the groundwork for state-funded education that has been one of the country’s pride and joys since 1862. A lot has happened in the realm of higher learning in the intervening years, a great deal of which has been orchestrated by boring men who utterly lack imagination or principal. One can only imagine that Morrill wouldn’t approve.

Rossi’s lens puts quite a few of them in the forefront, particularly Jamshed Bharucha, who amazingly still serves as president of Cooper Union, one of the few remaining colleges in the country that offers full tuition scholarships for every admitted student (though thanks to Bharucha’s efforts, not for much longer). If Ivory Tower must have a villain, then it can only be him. (Ronald Reagan comes a close second, though.) But competition is also a source of our collegiate ills, seen in the oft-referred to “arms race” between establishments to out-do one another by providing outrageous student amenities (rock-climbing walls, tanning beds, luxury housing ripe for hardy partying) instead of enforcing academic rigor. College, we’re told in the film’s opening scrawl (delivered by Columbia professor Andrew Delblanco), is how we preserve cultural memory and achieve immortality. Each furtive glance Rossi gives us of the bacchanalian shenanigans we’ve come to associate with college living suggests that these kids are dancing to their graves.

Rossi is too delicate and intelligent a filmmaker to draw such a morbid conclusion, of course, and despite the sheer volume of alarming information that he provides us, Ivory Tower never actually feels alarmist. There’s no easy solution here, no silver bullet, and yet there’s hope here, hope that educators, lawmakers, students and entrepreneurs can collectively find a way out of the trillion-dollar hole of debt we’ve dug for ourselves. Maybe change is on the horizon even as we speak; maybe the entire history of college will be wiped out and forgotten as people slowly come around to the notion that college isn’t worth the financial burden. Either way, Rossi never presents a big idea for ending the problem himself, but nobody should reasonably expect him to; what he does do is articulate all of his data clearly, using engaging and compelling filmmaking. In a film about the myriad ways that college has let down its students, Rossi winds up being the best teacher of all.

Director: Andrew Rossi
Writer: Andrew Rossi
Starring: N/A
Release Date: June 13, 2014

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