Review: ‘Ivory Tower’ offers the idea that college may be outdated

Cooper Union students protest the implementation of tuition, as seen in "Ivory Tower." Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cooper Union students protest the implementation of tuition, as seen in “Ivory Tower.”
Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

‘Ivory Tower’
Director: Andrew Rossi
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Activist documentaries love to offer rigid, shocking statements on subjects we hold dear: Meat is bad for you, we’re doomed to this or that environmental catastrophe, a terrorist strike was an inside job. Some are more convincing and rigorous than others; some of these others are outright lies. At times it seems like “Ivory Tower” is out to sell a line, namely that college is a vestigial fixture of modern life — a pointless extravagance that drives students into sometimes insurmountable debt while their dreams burn in front of their eyes.

Truth is, while “Ivory Tower” plays with this as an idea, it’s not one it’s really floating. It’s not floating any hard-line idea. This isn’t a thesis film, but one that explores an issue from as many angles as it can in the traditional documentary length of around 90 minutes. It is, as they say, just asking questions, except that the questions are the ones that should be asked, even if what the film reveals is one giant mess that has been very badly controlled.

The film’s entryway is the price of college, both in the rise of tuitions (1,120 percent since 1980, far more than even health care or food) and in student debt, which semi-recently crossed the one trillion dollar mark. This was created, director Andrew Rossi argues, by a perfect storm that found states pulling money from education — some politicians seeing college as being about mere intellectual curiosity — and the reckless spending of certain universities. Even the Cooper Union, the longtime free NYC university, has had to go implement a tuition after being put in the hole by a new, ridiculously extravagant building and the economic apocalypse of 2008. (The one charge he doesn’t make is the old line that college merely brainwashes students, which omission is for the best.)

Stanford University is one of many institutions that get analyzed in "Ivory Tower." Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Stanford University is one of many institutions that get analyzed in “Ivory Tower.”
Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

But finding alternatives is just as much of a headache. Online schooling is fraught with problems, including students who lag behind without a hands-on approach. Though it finds some hope in an “UnCollege” movement in San Francisco, such methods have not yet been proven to be equivalent to higher education at its best. And much as people tout the Internet as a great way to school one’s self, that puts too much emphasis on the veracity of what one finds on one’s own. (Perhaps not everyone’s as foolhardy at self-teaching as Jenny McCarthy, but still.)

Rossi previously made “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which took a more sympathetic — though very critical — look at another institution on the verge of crumbling, and helped inflate the popularity of David Carr and Brian Stelter. Here he ditches the fly-on-the-wall approach and token “stars” for an argumentative, essayistic style, jumping from issue to issue and institution to institution, though remaining ultimately detached and clinical. But if it doesn’t take a side, it’s clear that it’s saying colleges are not only in trouble themselves, but have created a broader set of problems that may be impossible to solve.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

NYPD looking for man they say assaulted elderly…

      The New York City Police Department is asking for the public's assistance in locating a Hispanic male 20's wanted in connection with…

Local

Three arrested after allegedly assaulting off-duty officer in…

Three men were arrested early Saturday morning after allegedly assaulting an off-duty officer at a Bronx bodega, and the NYPD is asking for the public's…

Local

Healthcare union creates vibrant West Indian Day Parade…

Volunteers worked almost around the clock through the weekend, putting the flashy finishing touches on hundreds of costume pieces 1199SEIU members will wear while marching…

National

Top 10 most hipster college campuses

Hipsters are everywhere these days. You can't walk down the anywhere anymore without seeing a pair of skinny jeans on a handlebar mustachioed 20-something, a…

Arts

Theater: Discouraging 'Poor Behavior'

Theresa Rebeck's latest off-Broadway play, about two couples sparring on a weekend getaway, repeats a few mistakes of her past.

Gossip

Chef Todd English arrested for DWI in the…

Celebrity chef Todd English is facing DWI charges after a traffic stop on Sunday.

Movies

Box office: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is 2014's…

This weekend "The Guardians of the Galaxy" passed the fourth "Transformers" movie to become the highest grossing film of 2014.

Gossip

Spears back with controversial ex?

Is Briteny Spears back with Adnan Ghalib?

Sports

Novak Djokovic feeds off US Open crowd to…

Novak Djokovic isn't a native New Yorker, but he sure knows how to use the U.S. Open crowd to his advantage.

NFL

Odell Beckham still 'weeks away,' Tom Coughlin angry…

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has fought a losing battle against the media all preseason over the status of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

NFL

3 things we learned in the Giants preseason…

The final score didn’t matter — a 16-13 win by the Giants — but it would’ve been nice to finally see Big Blue’s new-look offense get on track.

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, 49ers start…

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots start at top

Education

These college students think breakfast is the most…

  It should be no surprise that the city that never sleeps is also home to the most students who like to order food in…

Sex

When it comes to dating, height matters

Does a man’s height really matter when it comes to dating? Unfortunately - according to a new study - the answer looks like it’s yes.…

Travel

10 free apps to make traveling easier

Finding the nearest bathroom, calculating currency exchanges and locating your departure gate must have been difficult for travelers of previous generations. But we wouldn't know,…

Travel

How to get a seat upgrade to business…

It used to be much easier to upgrade your coach seat to business or even first class, but rigid rules and tighter schedules have made…