A History of the University in the Movies

How has higher education become a holiday, the professor a slacker, and students party animals?

Hollywood’s changed views of university life are best noted in the differences between “The Paper Chase” (1973) and “Legally Blonde” (2001). Both take place at Harvard’s Law School.

“The Paper Chase” tells the story of a Minnesota student named Hart (Timothy Bottoms) who comes to Harvard Law and confronts the imperious and intimidating Professor Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman). After an unfortunate classroom encounter, Kingsfield tells him, “Mister Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer.”

In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a sorority girl majoring in fashion merchandising at a Southern California university who follows her boyfriend to, yet again, Harvard Law. In this case, with the help of her manicurist and making use of her knowledge about liposuction and shoe styles, Elle triumphs in the courtroom as a summer intern and eventually graduates from Harvard with high honors. While “The Paper Chase” is driven by a hardworking Minnesota student’s feelings of unworthiness upon arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Legally Blonde” is motivated by a leveling impulse and provides a comic comeuppance to those same Yankee elites — in this case, by a pampered SoCal airhead carrying a chihuahua. Higher Education à la Paris Hilton.

And how have cinematic profs changed over those years? Charles Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase” was the Professor on the Pedestal, a mean curmudgeon but brilliant and admirable. Nowadays, the Prof has taken a tumble. We have the laughably obese Eddie Murphy as “The Nutty Professor” (1996) and the genuinely Mad Scientist played by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). Then there’s the goldbricker: Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones series, taxpayers note, hasn’t spent more than ten minutes in a classroom since 1981. And even more typical of faculty slackers is the prof played by Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys” (2000): He’s a longhaired, dope-smoking buddy to his students and a creative writing instructor whose unfinished novel exceeds 2500 pages.

“Animal House” (1978) starring John Belushi.

But if the movies’ professors seem to come from general casting, Hollywood’s university students are only one kind–Greeks. Well before the Harvard apotheosis of Reese Witherspoon (former president of Delta Nu Sorority) in “Legally Blonde,” the identification of college students with Greeks was made when John Belushi played Bluto, a fraternity brother in “Animal House” (1978). That film established the universal plot of university movies–namely, two fraternities competing with each other, losers versus alpha males–see, for example, 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds.” Indeed, although only 10% of college students belong to a fraternity or a sorority, Hollywood gives you the impression that on any night most of the student body is down at a frat house having a toga party and playing beer pong.

“Old School” (2003) starring Will Farrell.

“Old School” (2003) suggests the reason for this skewed version of higher education: grown-up envy. In this movie, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Farrell play thirty somethings who miss wild college days and decide to create their own fraternity near the mythical Harrison University. They reason: Why not give everybody, no matter their age, the chance to spend their weekends at keggers and hanging out with babes? Soon their 9-to-5 coworkers want to join.

Do we see a pattern here? If Hollywood is believed (or even just half-believed), the ivy-covered campus is now an extended pool party, the classroom not the center of attention but a locale rarely seen, the professor no longer a terrifying authority but a doofus, and students are not awash in homework but alcohol. Of course, this is fairly far from the truth but good movie fun.

Still, we might wonder: Does Hollywood’s comic vision of higher education have any effect whatsoever on the uninformed, or misinformed? The young now entering college, it is often said, are academically unprepared (but ready to party). Then, too, politicians in state after state have been reducing financial support for public universities: Is it because that’s where, moviemakers suggest, most toga parties occur?

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20. January 2017 by
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