at middleton

At Middleton is a bad movie, and one I would never have watched hadn’t it been for a scathing write-up in The Atlantic. The title of the piece, by Noah Berlatsky, is College Is Not A Playground.

The movie tells the story of two parents who show up for a campus tour, with their respective kids, at a small, pretty, liberal arts college. The parents let themselves be separated from the tour, get to know each other, and spend the afternoon together. They run in sprinklers, smoke pot, steal bikes, and generally “let loose”. Their behavior is contrasted to that of their kids: The young woman (the daughter of the female parent) is high strung and focused on being a linguistics major. She meets her linguistics idol and is disappointed. The young man, the son of the male parent, didn’t want to come and doesn’t want to be there, but meets the aging campus DJ, and gets to pick and announce a song. He loves the experience, and, it follows, the college. One tiny detail from the visual story telling: In the process of the afternoon both father and son untie their bow-tie and tie. (“Letting loose.” Get it?)

In his piece Berlatsky calls out the parents for irresponsibility towards their kids, and the movie for being classist. (The mom avoids her daughters calls, and lies to her all afternoon. The cost of “Middleton”, and many liberal arts colleges, runs in the tens of thousands of dollars per academic year.) Berlatsky ends his take on the film’s message with this sentence: “The college experience is not in books, or lectures. Instead, it is a dream of freedom and possibility, for some.”

The question is what you are supposed to gain in college. A broad, general, education, skills for a profession, or something more diffuse; life skills and “experience.”

At the private college where I teach we aim for the first. A broad education that will prepare students for both life and a professional life. When talking with students it sometimes seems to me that what they want is the second, and the third: A set of specific skills to prepare them for a well defined profession, and a “college experience” of travel, trips, clubs, and parties.

I think travel, trips, clubs, and parties are great. Everyone should have them. But universities don’t need to be responsible for offering them. Just because they’re part of life, or part of being in your twenties, your college shouldn’t be required to set up the sprinklers you want to run through. To portray college as a main sprinkler (if you have patience with that analogy) provider is doing everyone a disservice. It’s making higher education look frivolous, and it’s making those who go there look stupid.