The thing that puzzles me most about Pixar’s Monsters University is its intended audience. Are little kids interested in an animated mashup of Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House, with some Friday the 13th thrown in at the end? Cartoons have always had jokes for adults, but in this case the entire plot line seems more or less inaccessible to the pre-SAT crowd. So is it for teenagers? Isn’t the conventional wisdom that teenagers turn up their noses  at PG-13, let alone a G-rated movie? Which leaves adults. A possible audience, but one thing speaks against it: there’s no Eros, let alone sexuality in the entire film. Sure, Don Carlton and Sherri Squibbles decide to get married at the end, but their courtship is pretty tame. It’s a movie for no one. Does that mean it’s for everyone?

Monsters University asks the same question of higher education. Who—and what—is the university for?

In the elaborate promotional website for Monsters University (itself a topic that warrants further discussion), the movie’s requisite hard-assed (or carapace-abdomened) dean discusses the question of universal higher ed:

“There is a plague in our scaring programs nationwide,” says Dean Hardscrabble, even before we sit down for the interview, “I want you to write about that.”
And when the Dean of the top scaring program in the world asks you to do something, you don’t say no. She continues, “It starts in the home, finds its way through early schooling and our nation’s high schools. It’s the idea that anyone can be scary. And that is simply false.”

The central question of the movie seems to be this: can scaring (the coin of the realm in Monster City) be taught?  All signs point to “no.” Sully, the hairy blue scare-factory Stakhanovite of Monsters Inc., insists (correctly, it turns out) that scaring comes from within. Not a jot of classroom learning is going to make him any scarier. Meanwhile, the studious Mike seems to be entirely self-taught. The maneuvers that get him out of trouble in the end were nothing he learned in class.

What’s the point of university then?  In a nutshell, it’s all about social life (read: Greek life). This, of course, is also the premise of Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, Old School, Back to School, and Road Trip, among others. Which would be harmless enough, except that on this point, art and life seem to imitate each other. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa claim in their disturbing study of the myriad failures of American higher education, Academically Adrift,

Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience. In a recent study of undergraduate student culture at a Midwestern public university, Mary Grigsby notes that 70 percent of students reported that social learning was more important than academics. … One student aptly summarized the sentiments: “It [social life] shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of your studies (or) the overall goal of graduation. But if you’re finding yourself where this is no longer enjoyable, then something is wrong. Take this time to have fun and enjoy your youth! Try not to take it too seriously.” Students’ reports of their time use confirm these sentiments, indicating that students spend the majority of their out-of-class time on social and leisure activities, not studying. (59)

In several studies, according to Arum and Roksa, “students reported individual orientations that emphasized social rather than academic pursuits. As one student noted: ‘Honestly, I feel like nothing I’ve learned in the classroom will help me do what I want to do in the end. I think it’s the people I meet, the friends I make, that really matter.’” (82)

This appears to be the takeaway of Monsters University. Mike and Sully seem to share with their academically adrift peer group in the real world a sense that higher education is both futile and indispensible. Futile because it is assumed to offer the student no real knowledge or skills (let alone prepare him or her for a career); indispensible because of an increasing overvaluation of the “social learning” purported to take place in college. Via this endorsement of the social benefits of college, a degree becomes not just a prerequisite for certain jobs, but a necessary marker of middle-class socialization. A Febrary 19, 2013 New York Times article with the depressing title “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk” quotes a law partner’s explanation of the firm’s hiring policy: “College graduates are just more career-oriented… Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.” He goes on to say: “There really is something sort of cohesive or binding about the fact that all of us went to college.”

Rather than an incubator of capabilities, the university represents a negation of deficiencies. It shows that the graduate is not not capable of achieving a college degree. When it shifts from plus ultra to sine qua non, the college degree becomes one facet of the phenomenon described by Giorgio Agamben in his splendid little essay “On What We Can Not Do”:

Deleuze once defined the operation of power as a separation of humans from what they can do, that is, from their potentiality. Active forces are impeded from being put into practice either because they are deprived of the material conditions that make them possible or because a prohibition makes them formally impossible. In both cases power—and this is its most oppressive and brutal form—separates human beings from their potentiality and, in this way, renders them impotent. There is, nevertheless, another and more insidious operation of power that does not immediately affect what humans can do-their potentiality-but rather their “impotentiality,” that is, what they cannot do, or better, can not do. (Nudities, 43)

In terms of higher education, the pivot from estranged potentiality to estranged impotentiality entails a new site of political contestation. Where previous struggles around higher education fought for increased access to the social and economic advancement unlocked by a degree, the new struggle will have to address the costs of not not getting a degree. Namely an average of $29,400 in student debt per graduate in 2013.

The ideology and praxis of higher education in America is caught in an aporia: one has to go to college (or at least not not go to college), but there seems to be little expectation of learning anything “useful” there. In response, institutions of higher ed scramble to provide “practical” courses of study, angling to increase the hiring rate of their graduates (a perfectly reasonable expectation for those starting out $29,400 in the hole).

Before going further, I should point out that my intention here is not to wade into the mine-strewn waters of curriculum debates. On the contrary. What I want to point out is that this “aporia” has little to do with higher education at all. It’s the job market that makes a college degree indispensible and inconsequential.

On the one hand, private companies want new hires to possess any necessary skills before being hired.  In other words, they want workers to pay for their own training (to the average tune of $29,400). Perversely, this makes the workers more expendable. There’s no sunk-cost qualms, no lost investment in downsizing the new guy. The universal replaceability of the work force leads to what Agamben identifies as the “can-do” attitude of a worker estranged from his or her impotentiality, a “reflection of the awareness that everyone is simply bending him or herself according to this flexibility that is today the primary quality that the market demands from each person.”

Sully and Mike don’t learn the skills they need for scare floor success at Monsters University. Nor, however, do they simply drop into high-status positions at Monsters Inc. Instead (obligatory spoiler alert here), in a quaint, even cynical throwback, they work their way up from the mailroom (literally). What’s interesting about this is that, in their climb up the Monsters Inc. salary ladder, they don’t become increasingly qualified for their eventual positions. As we saw in the Friday the 13th scene, they already have everything they need to be heroes of scream production. Instead of learning the ropes, they need only to earn recognition. This, then, is the ideological core of Monsters University, one thoroughly steeped in our academically adrift, social-media-mediated status quo. Why get educated, when you can be interpellated? As the serendipitously-named resume service monster.com puts it: “Let employers find YOU!”

let employers find you

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