Over the last few decades, the realms of American higher education have experienced a fundamental shift. What was originally envisioned by the Founding Fathers as a crucial asset for our national welfare—Thomas Jefferson was so devoted to the cause of public education that he demanded his tombstone eschew mention of his time as president in favor of his having founded the University of Virginia—has been retrofitted into a money-making machine. Or, as Steve Mims’ exhaustively titled documentary Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities puts it, what were once institutions providing an investment for the public good have become businesses providing a service. Students were re-envisioned as consumers, not future citizens; the value of a student’s education belonged to the student themselves, not to society and the world at large. If they wanted an education, they would have to pay for it. Nowhere is this more apparent than the realms of state funding for higher education: whereas in 1980 60% of university funding came from state governments, in 2015 that number had dwindled to 12%. But despite funding shortfalls, universities rapidly grew to accommodate more students. These same students were expected to pick up the slack via tuition and assorted fees. Now American students are collectively responsible for well over $1.2 trillion in debt, a figure one news site pointed out was greater than the combined GDP of Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.
How did we get here? Mims’ film points to several different causes. One is the rise of “disruptive innovation”—an economics theory that claims that industries that produce high-quality goods and services will inevitably lose out to start-ups willing to produce lower-quality materials for less money—thanks in large part to the lobbying of Jeff Sandefer, a rabble-rousing entrepreneur-turned-teacher who buddied up to the Texas government. Another is the spread of Grover Norquist-backed anti-tax pledges signed by Republican governors which has forced many states to defund public education in order to close budget shortfalls. One of the most telling examples was Bobby Jindal taking the state of Louisiana from a massive budget surplus to such a disastrous deficit in the wake of mismanagement of federal funds for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction efforts that he slashed funding for higher education by 80%.
The film makes many more points, most of them compelling, some even outraging. Why then did I leave Mims’ film feeling uninvolved and empty? I found Starving the Beast a simultaneous triumph of content and a failure of form. It simply didn’t engage me. Perhaps it was the pompous soundtrack of blasé strings and synth noodling. Maybe it was the droning, sententious narration. And maybe it was the incessant use of dramatic, white-text-on-black-screen title cards. There are literally dozens of them; they appear so frequently that they lose any and all weight. The film seems to assume its audience has a general knowledge of the workings of higher education and advanced economics. I’m not asking for Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to break down these concepts into layman’s terms. But a few basic explanations would have helped me feel like I was watching more than a glorified grad school lecture.