”Whither higher education in America,” asks Steve Mims’ latest foray into social-issue documentary filmmaking, or maybe that’s better phrased as “wither higher education in America.” The latest from the Austin-based filmmaker zeroes in on a disturbing trend affecting universities across the country, mainly the escalating battle between those who see colleges and universities as ways of making profits, either corporate or for personal gain, and those who continue to hold the cherished view that institutes of higher learning were created to and should remain places that instill intellectual rigor in students for the benefit of all society, as opposed to those who would push a particular political agenda or dogma. It’s an ongoing argument that’s happening across the country and given the ultimate stakes, Starving the Beast is no less fiery in its social urgency than the director’s previous non-narrative film, the award-winning Incendiary: The Willingham Case
Given the complexity of the issues Mims covers – generally Republican gambits to shift the funding of universities from the state to the student chief among them – he’s wisely chosen to break up the film into explanatory chapters of varying length. As a University of Texas RTF lecturer, Starving the Beast naturally covers a fair amount of local skirmishes, but the fact of the matter as laid out here is that America’s public research universities – UT, University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin, University of North Carolina, among others – are being savaged by small-government politicians eager to slash their state’s education budgets, crush unions and collective bargaining, and generally work against the Jeffersonian ideal of higher learning. The humanities – and those who teach them – are being felled not by a lack of interest on the part of students but by state governments who are vehemently against raising taxes, which have traditionally been used to take some of the financial burden of attending a state university off of the backs of students. But this is the norm less and less so, as James Carville – first seen giving a commencement speech at LSU – pointedly illustrates throughout. Other players in the anti-higher education game include, unsurprisingly, the Koch brothers and their various misleadingly named think tank allies.
All of which likely sounds more than a little wonky to most people, but Starving the Beast does an admirable job of making even the most arcane of arguments and abstruse alliances plain and clear. It’s not just a battle of ideologies, it’s a battle for the hearts and (literally, in this case) minds of the future of America.
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