Documentary Review: ‘Starving The Beast’

Greetings again from the darkness. Our founding forefathers have been the focal point of many conversations during this political campaign season, and now Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (along with Abraham Lincoln) are keys to one side of the debate explored by director Steve Mims’ latest documentary. The movie kicks off with James Carville’s commencement speech at LSU as he reminds the graduating students of the vision each of the three iconic Presidents had for public higher education … visions that are now under attack.

The debate in question boils down to a contrast of philosophies: should public higher education continue to be treated as a societal investment in its citizens, or should students be considered consumers of a commodity (education) with public universities being self-sustained profit centers? It’s the ultimate clash between politicians struggling with state budget shortages and those in the world of academia, which has remained mostly unchanged for almost 150 years.

Five highly-respected state research universities form the basis of this research: University of Texas at Austin, University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson), and Louisiana State University (LSU). We learn about the Morrill Act of 1862, a 500% tuition increase in the thirty years 1980-2010, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on a fundamental core of the education system … tenure for professors. Other topics include CATO Institute, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and “the disruptor” Jeff Sandefer (founder of Acton School of Business) and his “Seven Breakthrough Solutions”.

This is a documentary designed to prompt awareness and discussion. Both sides of the debate receive a fair shake, though the filmmaker’s stance is pretty obvious. An example of “disruptive innovation” is shown with US Steel and its refusal to adapt to market demands for cheaper, lower quality steel. The point being … market change occurred, but the change made things worse, not better. Pan Am airlines is also a case study in how a company can refuse to adapt to market changes … they held tight to “old ways” until Pan Am no longer existed. Such examples are why there is no easy solution to the question being posed. Arguments can certainly be made that our education system has fallen behind that of other countries, but do we really want a populace where the humanities become a relic of the past since they don’t readily fit into the equation for a valuable and productive profession?

Disruption for the sake of reformation can be a good thing if the exchange of ideas and beliefs is done in a logical and precise manner. Of course, in our world, logic is often overridden by emotion … money and profit vs. a societal investment in each generation. Is it “immoral” to rob the next generation of this opportunity, and is that even what’s happening? Numerous interviews (with some smart folks) and clips are offered to drive home just how complex the topic can be … and the strong mindset for each side.
Producer Bill Banowsky was on hand for a post screening Q&A. He was the founder of Magnolia Pictures, and his father was a University President – so the topic is important and personal to him. Well made social issue documentaries such as this are crucial sources to those of us attempting to cut through the tabloid-style journalism that has overtaken mass media. Conflicting ideologies can make for some terrific discussions, and in this case, it’s a subject vital to our societal approach to future generations.

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