Scary monsters and super creeps

With my six-year-old son in tow I had the perfect excuse to view on Sunday what promises to be the the Higher Education film of the summer – Monsters University.

Meanwhile, David Willetts was writing the foreword of the Higher Education Wonk strategy of – lets be honest – the morning, “International Education Strategy: Global Growth and Prosperity

So on the one hand a knowingly grotesque fantastical parody of a higher education system based equally on fear and wishful thinking, mashed into an unrealistic linear plot and driven by non-human entities for non-human ends – and on the other hand (yes, you’ve guessed it…) Monsters University.

But, cheap LOLs aside, there is more to link the two than you may think. In Joseph Campbell’s terms – both focus on a particular facet of the monomyththe crossing of the first threshold. As “Hero with 1000 faces” puts it:

“With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in four directions — also up and down — standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the members of the tribe. The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.”

Mike Wachowski (the little green one with the eyeball)  marks this with a fermata a pause at a clearly marked threshold, usually a visible line or change in terrain. It’s a beautiful, character-defining shot which is repeated again and again throughout the film. He takes a moment to reflect – almost to say “I can’t believe it!” at each stage of his journey. He’s genuinely awed to have gotten as far as he has.

What was interesting in a storytelling sense was how little personal growth Mike demonstrates during the film. He arrives pretty much fully-formed at the start of the prequel – he’s already thoughtful, diligent and supportive of others. In that sense the viewer is led to believe that he sees higher education as an opportunity for hard work.

Sullivan – the blue hairy one – starts the film with a broader sense of entitlement due to a natural talent and family connections. He sees higher education as a simple threshold, one where a completion affords him entry to the lifestyle he desires.

David Willetts, yesterday...
David Willetts, yesterday…

For David Willetts (the beigey-pink one with the glasses and the bald head), higher education is also a threshold. It is a gateway through which one must pass in order to succeed. Paragraph 2.2 focuses on the value of UK qualifications to overseas students – in essence the “payload” of the UK education offer. People apply to UK education because they value the qualifications they get – it’s another “crossing of the first threshold moment”.

In a way it is an example of linear thinking, education as a narrative arc, where you pay for a qualification which offers you certain benefits on completion. But as Joseph Campbell (or Mike Wachowski) would tell him, crossing the threshold is only a starting point, not an end point.

Sticking with Campbell’s terms, you could see higher education as a belly of the whale moment, through initiationroad of trials and atonement with the father. 

The idea of paying for a qualification is manifest nonsense.  And advertising UK education as the best place to buy a qualification doubly so. Only twice in the BIS strategy does the student experience merit a mention – once in reference to studying in Australia, the other as a possible issue of incorrectly using student visas.

For all the “students at the heart of the system” rhetoric, what we are left with customers at the heart of the market.

Nowhere is money an issue in “Monsters University”. Status – yes. Students with a certain pedigree or certain “look” are afforded a  level of respect from others – but – as Sullivan finds out, this is not a substitute for academic effort, and the expectations of academic success end up weighing heavily on him.

Paying for a place in a course gets you precisely nothing, apart from a limited amount of status which is easily lost at the first point you actually have to do some work. Cartoonist Winston Rowntree illustrates this perfectly in an article about online dating on which is better than it has any right to be.

Cartoon by Winston Rowntree
Cartoon by Winston Rowntree (links to article)

Mike Wachowski passes the initial threshold and keeps working – he’s the epitome of a lifelong learner. But everything in the BIS strategy is aimed at the Sullivan approach to education – the consumer, the entitlement, model.

I wrote a while ago around the model of student as labourer-consumer. What we see in the BIS strategy is proof that the purchase model of education is not just an aberration, but a deeply flawed ideology that goes right to the hearts of those charged with supporting and improving our universities.

In Monsters University, neither route is seen as the correct one, with both protagonist monsters being rusticated for contact that brings the university into disrepute. The implication is that the institution itself needs to change, to accept students as individuals rather than matching them to a profile. And, as Monsters Inc, made clear – the basis of the entire society, which is situated in the exploitative use of natural resources and a fear of outsiders, is open to question.

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