Like many of you, my husband and I packed up our three kids and headed to the movie theater this weekend to see the latest Pixar movie, a sequel to Monsters, Inc. called “Monsters University.” It was a delightful little film – maybe without as much heart as other great Pixar flicks like Wall-E, Finding Nemo, or Up – that the whole family enjoyed. That’s why I was surprised to read an article by Inside Higher Ed’s Kevin Kiley who portrayed the movie as leftwing propaganda:
But more than a comment on college, Monsters University is a film about diversity, the innate differences between individuals, and the institutions and situations that help foster connections and understanding between those individuals. Which makes it fitting that the film is released today in the shadow of a potential landmark Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action expected to come next week.
The movie is about the challenge of limited talent and the realization that hard work can only take one so far – and sometimes not even as far as people who are just “born with it.” But it’s also about what students in the social and intellectual crucible of college can learn from each other and how those interactions shape worldviews and change lives.
One can walk away from the movie with the impression that the administrators and faculty at Monsters University would happily join in the amicus brief filed in the affirmative action case by a group of private university administrators who said “a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world. This larger understanding prepares . . . graduates to be active and engaged citizens wrestling with the pressing challenges of the day, to pursue innovation in every field of discovery, and to expand humanity’s learning and accomplishment.”
It’s like we didn’t see the same movie. The French family felt the film was a nice send up of the modern university’s self-importance – a mockery most conservatives would applaud. [Spoiler alert!]
Mike Wazowski is the little one-giant-eyed green monster lovingly voiced by Billy Crystal. When he was a kid, he wanted to become a “scarer,” a monster who harnessed “scream energy” from frightened children. (The fact that this G-rated movie was able to pull off this plot without scaring my five year old was pretty impressive indeed.) But the university professors and administrators didn’t believe he was born with the natural talent required to become a scarer. Student James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), who goes by the nickname “Sulley,” is the exact opposite of Mike. Sulley is lazy, rude, and floats by on his good name and inherent confidence.
What I loved about the movie is what Kiley disliked:
The other surprising lesson from the end of the film (Spoiler Alert) — and where it arguably makes its biggest departure from the current understanding of higher education – is that, after getting expelled from MU, Mike and Sulley manage to achieve success without earning their degrees, by working their way up the bureaucracy at Monsters Inc.
That notion certainly plays into the popular zeitgeist that questions the value of a college degree, reinforced with the Gateses and Jobses and Zuckerbergs that have captured public imagination. But it is an ending that certainly runs counter to the data. While several prominent college dropouts have made names for themselves by starting companies and creating innovative products, the idea that, in the modern economy, a pair of college dropouts could work their way up from the mailroom to the scaring floor in the world’s largest corporation strains credulity.
I guess I should admit now that I’m one of those stories that “strain credulity.” I’ve dropped out of three colleges, my highest degree is from Henry County High School in Paris, Tennessee, yet I’ve managed by the grace of God to create a writing career with two books on the New York Times best seller lists. I almost can’t believe it either. But the idea that hard work can propel you into success is hardly leftwing propaganda. Rather, this is a deeply American idea – one that my parents taught me and their parents taught them. (In fact, my dad is another example of what I call an American success story – he dropped out of high school six times before joining the Army, getting his GED, and later getting his college degree in his fifties. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet!)
Kiley described this denigration of college as “the biggest departure from the current understanding of higher education,” which might be true. Perhaps in some circles, the “current understanding” of college is that it’s a necessary step after high school that students must take to ensure future success. However, as college costs skyrockets “beyond credulity,” many are taking a second look at actual value of higher ed. The currently bad state of the economy doesn’t necessarily suggest that people should keep spending tens of thousands of dollars at college, only to get spat out into a faltering, jobless market. Clever students might wisely choose another route. (This would have the added benefit of avoiding the rampant liberal indoctrination prevalent in colleges today.)
Far from being propaganda, Monsters University is a delightful film about believing in one’s dreams and working hard . . . and it’s a great story regardless of one’s political affiliation.