Higher (Cost) Education, by Scott Nye
Due to the nature of its subject – the entire campus of University of California, Berkeley – and its length – just over four hours – Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary inspires roughly ten thousand thoughts and points of entry. Wiseman, the ultimate example of the filmmaker as observer (his films give the impression that the cameras are totally invisible) has allowed himself to basically duck in on the latest thinking regarding nearly anything, from government to poetry to interstellar travel to robotics to economics to, of course, American education. Yet the film is far from scattershot or randomly assembled; unlike his last lengthy endeavor, La Danse, At Berkeley ultimately builds to a single event – a student protest – that suggests a more determined structure, or at least, dare I say, narrative momentum.
Beginning with a speech that outlines the history of Berkeley, both its myth and its fact, Wiseman then explores the extent to which the institution has managed to live up to its initial mission, and the picture he paints, made with the full cooperation of Berkeley though it may be, is far from a love letter, or even totally complimentary. Academic and institutional meetings are conducted with a sort of friendly ruthlessness, characterized most of all by the university’s then-chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau, who, even when cautioning faculty against overstepping their bounds or reprimanding students, wears the exact same smile every single time he’s on camera. What appears at first to be a welcoming sincerity quickly appears to be a rather uncomfortable facade.
This suggestions carries downward – meetings amongst staff members are lavish affairs while students who wish to air their grievances about rising student fees are shut off into a small room without even enough chairs for those assembled. Money is never far from the mind. The state has slashed the budget it allocates to education, and consequently professors have suffered furloughs while students are forced to pay ever more for an education that no longer guarantees gainful employment upon graduation. It’s a messy situation all around, one not unfamiliar to this 2009 graduate. The eventual protest centers around this very topic, reminding those in power that in what many older people now look upon as the golden years of higher education – the 1960s – tuition was extremely low, low enough that it could be paid off with a summer job. Now, students have to work nearly full-time while attending class to make ends meet.
Tuition isn’t the only thing that’s changed since the 1960s – protests have as well. As Birgeneau notes, when he and his cohorts protested the Vietnam War, they were putting everything on the line. The protest we see here seems downright polite by comparison, with numerous police escorts, a student body that is largely indifferent to the events (a meeting afterward gives voice to a girl who was upset that she had to miss her midterm when protesters pulled the fire alarm), and those who are engaged are perfectly willing to leave the building they’ve “occupied” once closing time comes. Everyone has bought into the notion that the best protest is the least intrusive, when history has largely shown that some measure of disruption is necessary to enact change.
And yet, the education moves ever onward, seemingly unaffected by the various factors we see outside the classroom. Students remain actively engaged, professors mount enthusiastic arguments on behalf of their disciplines, and each group builds on the other. At its best, education is a cooperative endeavor, one that can’t be entirely predetermined by the professor nor dictated entirely by the student body. The same, in fact, could be said for filmmaking, a theory Wiseman has been actively receptive towards and done quite a lot to promote as he continues to watch our changing world.