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'Starving the Beast' Review

October 5, 2016, 12:00 am

Should students and the private sector bear the financial burden of sustaining the publicly funded universities in the United States because individuals and businesses are the beneficiaries? Or does the benefit and responsibility of education fall on our society as a whole?

Starving the Beast, a documentary about higher education funding policy’s dramatic shift toward disruption and reform, proposes dozens of other big-thinking questions with these at its heart.

Maybe it’s just the right PR stance when you’re trying to deliver a message. Considering that the opening salvo speech in the production is a fiery one delivered by James Carville, and that his pithy and poignant perspective takes center stage in much of the film’s storyline, also hints where this is leaning.

“You can have the Koch brothers draw up your curriculum for you,” Carville says in the documentary. “They’d be happy to do that.”

Yet, there’s more to drink than the Carville Kool-Aid. Banowsky is not exaggerating when he points out that the subjects who provide the Beast narrative are diverse, as we get to look into the cold eyes of the director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy as he explains how it just doesn’t make sense to help poor people learn stuff that doesn’t make money and that tenured teachers are mostly bad apples (we paraphrase).

Much of the impetus of the reform effort comes from the idea of “disruptive innovation,” explored by Clayton Christensen in a series of publications that became gospel for conservative politicians and their business-minded (read: wealthy) allies. They want education institutions to prove that what students are learning has a value in the marketplace. Other voices, including that of University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, have a more liberal leaning, arguing that letting those voices decide what’s valuable is a toxic ideology for the nation.

Banowsky—the founder of Magnolia pictures and the owner of the Violet Crown chain of cinemas with locations not coincidentally in Austin, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Santa Fe Railyard—says he’ll give any policymaker a free ticket to the film and hopes everyone who sees it gets motivated to weigh in because—and we all agree—we can’t afford to not invest in the next generation. 

Starving the Beast
Violet Crown
95 min


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