Starving The Beast


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Starving The Beast: The Battle To Disrupt And Reform America’s Public Universities
"Gets to the heart of what some have called the battle for America's soul."

What is higher education for? Should it prepare people to enter high paying jobs, or should it teach them how to conduct research and how to use their minds more effectively, enabling them to contribute to society in more flexible (but perhaps less profitable) ways? There's a lot of interesting research out there showing how these different approaches can impact economies over the long term, but Steve Mims' documentary is less interested in resolving the question than in analysing the debate itself. This enables it to engage with its subject in a way that is immediate and tangible, looking at not just at the goals of the main players but also at the tactics used to try and force through agendas which most members of the public - despite being in potentia both funders and beneficiaries - have been given little opportunity to understand.

Whilst focused on the US, Mims' film has plenty of relevance for the wider world, and especially for the UK, where similar debates are ongoing. It opens with a celebration of earlier US ideals - the notion that university education should be as widely available as possible so that all young Americans could reach their full intellectual potential and carry the country forward. Over the next few decades, US society would change, moving away from a focus on community to a focus on the individual, and somewhere along the way people would lose sight of the advantage of living in a country with an educated populace and start to resent the idea of their taxes paying to provide others with advantages as individuals. Mims doesn't pinpoint this turning point but instead zeroes in on one of the men who, wittingly or not, came to exploit it. Jeff Sandefer, a former University of Texas professor inspired by Clayton Christensen's liberally applied theories in The Innovator's Dilemma, found his Seven Breakthrough Solutions for education widely criticised by others in the field but managed to win a powerful ally in State Governor Rick Perry. it was an alliance that would have dramatic results.

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Imagine you're a politician keen to win votes by cutting taxes, and you're presented with the notion that you can actually improve education by reducing its public subsidy - what's not to like? It's hard to tell whether or not Perry really believes in Sandefer's ideas, but that hardly matters. Sandefer seems to believe he does and goes on to promote them more widely. Could it be that a less educated populace also has an innate appeal to people whose fortunes depend on manipulating voters? This, too, is a shadow in the background as university staff struggle to work out what they can cut without severing something vital. Classes on politically challenging subjects like gender relations and black rights are difficult to support when places like Louisiana State University are wondering if they can keep their doors open at all.

With implications for other public services as well, this gets to the heart of what some have called the battle for America's soul. It's richly detailed, and though it suffers from being overly academic itself at times - it needs to reach beyond that if it wishes to reach fresh ears - newcomers who succeed in connecting with it will find it fascinating. Mims has a diverse range of subjects to cover in order to elucidate the core arguments, but successfully manages to demonstrate their relevance and interconnectedness in a way that might in itself constitute an argument for a broad approach o education. That he is personally positioned on that side of the debate is left in little doubt, but this is not just another run of the mill left wing documentary bent on preaching to the converted. Sandefer gets the chance to speak freely, as do others who endorse his opinions. Viewers are free to assess them on their own merits.

By taking this expansive approach, Mims brings the debate itself out of the shadows and makes it publicly available. Whilst it may not reach a wide audience, his documentary provides invaluable reference material for newcomers to the subject and has the potential to start important conversations - or at least to democratise existing ones.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2016
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A documentary about controversial issues around the funding of higher education in America.

Director: Steve Mims

Writer: Steve Mims

Year: 2016

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


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