Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society 2

Part 9 of series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”   -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

gal-dps-cast-jpgThe main characters of Dead Poets Society (1989) provide a perfect opportunity to observe, not only the remarkable skill of no less than three young actors (Ethan HawkeRobert Sean LeonardJosh Charles) on their way to Hollywood greatness, but also a profound illustration the various array of practice shifts involved in the worldview of Existentialism  (See, Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society).

Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts

A worldview is a lot like an iceberg in at least two important ways: First, only their uppermost levels are visible to the naked eye.  Second, that visible tip is not the even close to the most dangerous part of an iceberg or a worldview. It is that proverbial 90% lurking beneath the waterline that can sink your ship… and maybe even cost you your life.

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You cannot “see” the strategies, values, or stories guiding a person or society. Unless they are reflected in actions, words, or “cultural artifacts”—art, architecture, literature, technology, institutions, etc.—ideas remain hidden under the surface. Like mounting pressure on tectonic plates, no one knows how much power is really stored up until the ground begins to shake.

Many anthropologists, therefore, make a distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “practice shifts.” A paradigm shift is change in the unseen world of ideas of an individual or society, while a practice shift is a change in actual behavior. For instance, in Casablanca, we had no idea what a profound paradigm shift Rick was experiencing until the moment we saw his practice shift in putting Ilsa on the plane with Victor. Or in Fiddler on the Roof, it was impossible to know if Tevye had actually shifted his paradigm for marriage from a business contract to a romantic covenant, until he applied his daughters’ paradigm in his own practices by asking Golda, “Do you love me?”

The critical moment that ultimately leads Keating’s students from paradigm shift to practice shift

The relationship between invisible paradigm shifts and visible practice shifts is a critical element of all good filmmaking. Whether it is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting computer, because he has finally put his faith in “The Force,” or George Bailey asking God to make him live again, because he has finally reinterpreted his life as “wonderful,” the clearer the connection between a main character’s paradigm shift and their practice shift, the better.

Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations

Dead Poets Society offers the unusual pleasure of following the transformation arc of multiple characters, four of who get their own complete storylines. And while their paradigm shifts are similar, their practice shifts are radically different.

While Mr. Keating implores his students that “words and ideas can change the world,” it is Knox Overstreet who gives voice to the counter-balancing truth, “I’ve got to do something!” And do something is exactly what the young DPS members set out to do.

Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris

For Knox Overstreet applying Mr. Keating’s worldview to his own life story begins with the inciting event of Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) coming into his life. What begins as obligatory dinner at the home family friends—the Danbury’s—turns into the beginning of an epic adventure. The Danbury’s football star son, Chet, is dating cheerleader Chris whom Knox decides is “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Instead of accepting the script written for him by his family and school, he invokes “Carpe Diem!” in his headlong pursuit of the girl of his dreams. The new plausibility structures of his new worldview open up the possibility of engaging in behaviors that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier.  He sneaks off campus to see Chris.  He writes poetry about her.

Chris Noel, the Goal of Knox’s Quest

Finally the internal pressure of his newfound love and newly expanded worldview reach a boiling point. Standing by the phone with the entire DPS watching, he rewrites his life story from the Welton/family worldview to his newly chosen existentialism in a single moment:

Knox: She’s going to hate me. The Danbury’s will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Looking at the group.) All right, God damn it. (Inserts coins.) Carpe diem!

Once committed—the “midpoint” of his story arc—there is no turning back for Knox. He kisses Chris at a party, reads her poetry at her school, and just when all hope seems lost, he wins a date and the heart of his true love.

Mr. Keating’s teaching has shifted his paradigm in such a way that his practice shifts with it. Knox rejects his Welton/family story that social structures must be followed and embraces a new story where he is free to think for himself and find his own meaning for his day-to-day existence. The ideas found in Mr. Keating’s Existentialism have serious consequences for Knox. His life is clearly changed and enriched from the experience.

Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda

Charlie Daulton’s (Gale Hansen) life story, on the other hand, isn’t so much transformed by Mr. Keating’s worldview as it is confirmed. As the film’s steadfast character, Charlie really doesn’t change much at all. He is a charming rebellious hedonist at the beginning of the film, and a charming and even more rebellious hedonist at the end. From bringing pornography, and later girls to DPS meetings, interrupting a school assembly with a phone call from God (also about girls), to painting a virility symbol on his chest and adopting the name “Nuwanda,” Mr. Keating’s Existentialism functions primarily to free Charlie to act on impulses he had previously restrained.

Mr. Keating attempts to reign in Charlie’s character with the warning: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone. There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”  Yet he never really succeeds in actually transforming Charlie’s girl obsessed life story.

On a more positive note, his new worldview also helps Charlie to stand against external pressure. He is perhaps the first Dead Poet to “get” Mr. Keating’s courtyard marching lesson on conformity when he tells his teacher, “I’m exercising the right not to walk.” In the end, Charlie alone is the only Dead Poet willing to endure both paddling and expulsion without ratting out his friends or betraying his teacher.

While Mr. Keating’s worldview doesn’t really change the direction of Charlie’s life, it does help strengthen his character. While not exactly a heroic character, his exposure to existentialism certainly hasn’t hurt his life.

Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!

Perhaps the most moving transformation in the film is that of Todd Anderson. At the start of the film, Todd’s identity is buried so deeply in that of the Welton/Family worldview, he functions merely as a sub-plot of his older brother’s story.  Something inside him is so stirred by Mr. Keating’s message that he writes “Seize the Day” in bold writing in his notebook.  Then we watch as the Welton/Family story wins out and he crumbles the paper and tosses it in the waste basket.

But Mr. Keating is not finished with Todd yet. When Todd refuses to even admit that he has written a poem to be read aloud in class, Mr. Keating steps in:

Keating: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd. Isn’t that your worst fear?  Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”

Visions of a sweaty-toothed madman

In perhaps the film’s most moving scene, Mr. Keating writes Walt Whitman’s adage on the blackboard—“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”—and demands that Todd YAWP! Suddenly the paradigm shift that has been lurking beneath the surface of Todd’s life breaks into the open in his “sweaty-tooth madman” speech.

Todd: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold… Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

Keating: [long pause then class applauds] Don’t you forget this.

He never does. In the climactic final scene it is Todd who finds his voice in leading the Dead Poets in their final act of heroism. As the bagpipe music closes on a freeze frame of the boys standing on their desks, you FEEL the incredible power of existentialism to free these young men from the bondage of the gravity of Physicalism and send them soaring into the invisible world of Ideals.

Todd is the first one on his feet, er, desk, in a final DPS salute to their “Captain”

O, if that was all there was to the story. But there is another major character, and it is his story that points us to the second similarity between worldviews and icebergs—what you don’t see is what is most likely to kill you.  Was there something lurking just beneath the waterline of the iceberg of existentialism that ultimately led to Neil’s tragic Titanic ending?

If so… was Mr. Keating at least somewhat responsible for Neil’s death?

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Next post in series:

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories 

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See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

 

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“Carpe Diem!  Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

posterDead Poets Society, 1989 Oscar winner for best original screenplay, boasts an impressive Hollywood lineage. In addition to the best screenplay win for Tom Schulman,  Dead Poets earned a best director nomination for Peter Weir, a best actor nomination for Robin Williams. It also helped launch the careers of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunset), as well as Emmy-nominated actors Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Not bad for a small budget film few imagined would grow into culture-shaping cinema.

It is also one of the best films ever made on the vocation of teaching. I rarely meet any teacher, professor, or youth minister who wasn’t deeply moved by their first encounter with Dead Poets Society.  It deftly touches a nerve for anyone entrusted with the thrilling, yet delicate art of shaping young lives.

Mr. Keating’s brief sojourn at the fictional Welton Academy captures both the highest hopes and greatest fears of anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom. As it turns out, worldview formation is as dangerous as it is fulfilling. Which brings me to my real point.

Worldview Transformation

Gather ye rose buds while ye may…

Dead Poets is also a tremendous film for anyone interested in the art of worldview formation in film and in life. First, it illustrates the power of mentors, texts, and communities in shaping worldview. Second, it gives soaring testimony to the power of Existentialism in the quest to escape the gravity of Physicalism into the intoxicating heights of Idealism.  Finally, it provides a troubling warning as to the power of nihilism to crush the dreams of the unsuspecting idealist. (For and explanation of Physicalism versus Idealism, see, It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece.)

The Welton Worldview

Both in movies and real life, worldview change never comes easily. Human beings are insanely committed to maintaining the societal traditions and personal strategies we’ve carefully developed for managing our lives, even and especially when those strategies are counter-productive. Dead Poets does a wonderful job of detailing how good teachers expose the counter-productive flaws in their students’ worldview. And no worldview seems quite so flawed as that of the mythical Welton academy in which Dead Poets Society is set..

As a highly traditional 1950’s college preparatory academy, Welton is rooted in what appears to be a highly Physicalist (if somewhat religiously Deistic) worldview. (For and explanation of the four levels see, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)  In other words, the hard, pragmatic realities of the physical world are the only things that are “really real” at Welton.

The underlying story of Welton Academy is financial success, not personal exploration

Level 4—Story/Basis: The underlying story of Welton is success, or more specifically, the financial success and social status available to those who get into prestigious schools in order to gain entry into prestigious careers.

Todd Anderson’s (Ethan Hawke) disengaged parents may forget what they got him for his last birthday, but they know they want for his life–Valedictorian honors and a National Merit scholarship like his older brother. (Hint: The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) helicopter father may not listen to his son’s desires to write for the school newspaper (or become an actor), but he already has his son’s life planned out for him whether he likes it or not:

“You’re going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Welton faculty and administration oblige their moneyed parents by creating an academy rooted in the values of “tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.” They celebrate “the light of knowledge” with religious trappings and a strong classical sense of morality, giving Welton a rather Deistic slant. All we really know about this distant God is that he doesn’t want girls at “Helton” distracting the “boys” (not men) from their studies. (The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

“Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.”

Level 2 — Strategies/Culture: Accordingly, Welton’s academic culture is devoted to a highly traditional curriculum, and educational methodology.  We are offered brief glimpses into the strict world of “normal” Welton classrooms marked by rote memorization of Greek, Biology, and Calculus.

These are not the kind of classrooms a creative personality would cherish, but that’s just fine with most Welton students. They are just going through the motions doing whatever is necessary in order to gain parental approval and Ivy League admission.

Level 1—Action/Behavior: By the end of Act 1, it is clear that while Welton students may not particularly like the school, enjoy belittling its values, and despise their parent’s transference of their success stories upon their lives, they still go along with the flow in overall daily decisions.

The Keating Worldview

Enter the transformation artist

All this changes when the students enter the classroom of Welton’s newest teacher—Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Like a character in Plato’s cave analogy, Keating has broken free of the bondage of Welton’s limited perspective, and returned to enlighten students still chained to the wall of shadows. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Keating is determined to “free the minds” of his students in order to help them enter a larger, richer world of the liberal arts.

It is a beautiful story of how great teachers foster worldview change in their students. Keating employs a dizzying teaching arsenal of texts (Walt Whitman, etc.), music (The 1812 Overture), mentorship (“O Captain, my Captain”), learning exercises (standing on desk), challenge (“A sweaty-toothed madman”), and community (The Dead Poets Society) to captivate his students’ imaginations. While at first his classroom is merely, “Weird, but different,” it gradually becomes the focal point of their universe.

The worldview Mr. Keating wants his students to address is robust form of romantic Existentialism, rooted in Physicalism, yet rejecting its pragmatic pessimism.

Make your lives extraordinary!

Level 4—Story/Basis: Walt Whitman and the other romantic poets teach us that even though Physicalism may be scientifically true in that “we are all food for worms,” we can strive to make meaning out of our own brief lives by our own choices and values. Keating’s story is a radical rebellion against both Nihilistic Physicalism that insists that life has no meaning, and the Deism of Welton that insists we live only for the morality and stories of others.  Mr. Keating is not so much interested in his students’ embracing their parents’ story of financial/social success as he is that they live their own story.

Keating: We are food for worms, lads. Believe or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die… Peruse some of the faces of the past (Welton students) …Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable. Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you: (whispered) ‘Carpe Diem! …Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Beyond the walls of the physical universe Keating points his students to the Idealistic realm of beauty, love, and meaning that eludes those trapped in the Physicalist worldview. Naturalistic Physicalism would tell us that the universe is a “box” limited by space and time, and accessible only through the physical senses. Our hearts tell us a different story.  There is something more to life than what we can touch, taste, hear, see, and smell.  Poetry points the way to this larger world of values, that can’t be measured “scientifically” like a “length of pipe”[1] nor explained with graphs like J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

Keating then tells his students to rip out the entire introduction to their poetry textbook and has them “huddle up” to hear the real meaning of poetry (and life.)

Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Now, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary for sustaining life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

This speech is a stunning description of Existential Idealism in its purest Romantic form. And it will not be the last.

Seeing the world from a new perspective

Level 2—Strategies/Culture: Keating’s goal is for his students to stop mimicing and reciting the words of others, and “find your own voice,” and “Learn to think for yourselves again.”

On top of his desk, he gets them to consider life from a new perspective. In the courtyard, he gets them to fall into the trap of walking in conformity to the life of those around us. On the soccer field, he inspires them to reach their full potential.

Watch desk scene here.

Freedom from Physicalism

As I said above, it is liberal arts education at its finest. He is using the arts to liberate his students from seeing life only from their own tradition and preconceptions. (See, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts.) It is a breathtaking and soul stirring tour de force his students find nearly iresistible.

Slowly, Keating’s students begin to break free from the suffocating gravity of a Physicalist worldview, in order to embrace the broader Idealistic world he has opened up for them….

Level 1—Action/Behavioral: Of course, the movie only gets going once some of the boys actually start acting on Mr. Keating’s worldview.

And that is where the story really gets interesting!

Next: Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and the Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society, Part 2

 

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

The Blind Side leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes



[1] Perhaps an allusion to George Bailey’s objection to his father’s commitment to the Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

Emmy Magazine’s Interview with Kurt Schemper, Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

SERIES INTRO: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

“The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”  -Emmy Award-winning producer, Kurt Schemper

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Emmy Magazine isn’t the most likely place for insight into spiritual formation.

“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.”

At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine.  Not even when you’re a professor moonlighting as the Executive Director of Act One, a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, the entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.

Kurt Schemper changed all that.  A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)

Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood.  Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.

In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”

The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”

That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”

My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.

We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.)  Enjoy!

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

NEXT:  Connecting to the Life of God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond – Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

by Benjamin Ginsberg

Benjamin Ginsberg, Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
Until very recently, American colleges and universities were led primarily by their faculties. In his new book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It MattersBenjamin Ginsberg argues that the explosive growth of administration staff (whom he refers to as a ‘deanlets”), and the decline in faculty influence has contributed to the “corporatization” of American universities at the expense of both intellectual rigor and teaching excellence. In Ginsberg’s acerbic opinion, administrators without academic backgrounds, teaching excellence, and/or research experience are setting the educational agenda in ways that are injurious to the core mission of higher education.
No matter what you think of his conclusions, Ginsberg’s faculty-centric description of tensions felt throughout higher education is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation shaping the future of America’s colleges and universities.
Here’s an excerpt:

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The Fall of the Faculty

Until recent years, colleges engaged in little formal planning. Today, however, virtually every college and university in the nation has an elaborate strategic plan. Indeed, whenever a college hires a new president, his or her first priority is usually the crafting of a new strategic plan. As in Orwell’s 1984, all mention of the previous administration’s plan, which probably had been introduced with great fanfare only a few years earlier, is instantly erased from all college publications and Web sites. The college president’s first commandment seems to be, “Thou shall have no other plan before mine.”

The strategic plan is a lengthy document—some are one hundred pages long or more—that purports to articulate the college’s mission, its leadership’s vision of the future, and the various steps that are needed to achieve its goals. The typical plan takes six months to two years to write and is often subject to annual revision to take account of changing circumstances. A variety of constituencies are usually involved in the planning process—administrators, faculty members, staffers, trustees, alumni, even students. Most of the work, though, falls to senior administrators and their staffs, as well as to outside consultants who may assist in the planning process. The final document is usually submitted to the trustees or regents for their approval. A flurry of news releases and articles in college publications herald the new plan as a guide to an ever brighter future. Hence, as one journalist noted, most strategic plans could be titled “Vision for Excellence.”

The growth of planning has a number of origins. University trustees are generally drawn from a business background and are accustomed to corporate plans. Accreditors and government agencies, for their part, are enamored of planning, which they associate with transparency and accountability. Florida, in fact, requires its publicly supported colleges to develop strategic plans. More generally, though, the growth of planning is closely tied to the expansion of college and university administrations. Their growing administrative and staff resources have given them the capacity to devote the thousands of person-hours generally required to develop and formulate strategic plans. Before 1955, only 10 of the very largest universities could afford to allocate staff time to institutional research and planning. But by the late 1960s, several hundred colleges possessed staff resources adequate for that purpose.

The strategic plan serves several important purposes for administrators. First, when they organize a planning process and later trumpet their new strategic plan, senior administrators are signaling to the faculty, to the trustees, and to the general community that they are in charge. The plan is an assertion of leadership and a claim to control university resources and priorities. This function of planning helps to explain why new presidents and sometimes new deans usually develop new strategic plans. We would not expect newly elected presidents of the United States simply to affirm their predecessors’ inaugural addresses. In order to demonstrate leadership to the nation, they must present their own bold initiatives and vision for the future. For college leaders, the strategic plan serves this purpose.

A second and related purpose served by planning is co-optation. A good deal of evidence suggests that the opportunity to participate in institutional decision-making processes affords many individuals enormous psychic gratification. For this reason, clever administrators see periodic consultation as a means of inducing employees to be more cooperative and to work harder. Virtually everyone has encountered this management technique. Some years ago, a former president of my university called to ask my advice before he appointed a new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. I was pleased to be consulted, and later neither I nor other senior faculty who felt that the new dean was insufficiently experienced voiced so much as a word of opposition when the president announced his appointment.

In a similar vein, the university planning process entails months of committee meetings, discussions, and deliberations, during which the views of large segments of the faculty and staff are elicited. For the most part, those involved in the process, even if only peripherally, tend to buy into the outcome and, more important, tend to develop a more positive perception of the administration’s ideas, priorities, and leadership. I can recall being greeted with hostile silence at the faculty club when I asserted that our university’s strategic plan was a waste of paper. I was completely correct. The plan was a waste of paper and within a year was forgotten. Nevertheless, my colleagues who had participated in the planning process were co-opted by it.

MacCleod Cartoons: By University of Evansville History Professor, http://macleodcartoons.blogspot.com/

Still another way in which strategic planning serves administrators’ interests is as a substitute for action. Many senior administrators are smooth and glib, in the manner of politicians. These qualities are sure to impress the corporate headhunters who direct contemporary administrative searches, and to help administrators secure job interviews. But, like some of their counterparts in the realm of electoral politics, university leaders’ political dexterity and job-hunting skills are often somewhat stronger than their managerial and administrative capabilities, inevitably leading to disappointment on the campus after they take charge. Indeed, the disparity between their office-seeking savvy and actual leadership ability probably explains why many college and university presidents move frequently from campus to campus. By the time people on the campus have become fully aware of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, he or she has moved on to another college. Thus, for many administrators, 18 months devoted to strategic planning can create a useful impression of feverish activity and progress and may mask the fact that they are frequently away from campus seeking better positions at other colleges.

An individual of my acquaintance was appointed to the position of dean of arts and sciences at an important university. Soon after his appointment, he launched a yearlong strategic-planning process, telling all who would listen that the university’s first priority should be the development of a sound plan of action. During this period, the dean delayed undertaking any new programs and initiatives because, he said, all major activities should comport with the soon-to-be-announced strategic plan. After a year, when the plan was ready, the dean announced that he was leaving to become president of a small college. Apparently the university was too engrossed in planning to notice that the dean was sometimes away on job interviews. Not surprisingly, as soon as he arrived on his new campus, this individual announced that he would lead the college in—what else?—the formulation of a strategic plan.

 It would be incorrect to assert that strategic plans are never what they purport to be—blueprints for the future. Occasionally a college or university plan does, in fact, present a grand design for the next decade. A plan actually designed to guide an organization’s efforts to achieve future objectives, as it might be promulgated by a corporation or a military agency, contains several characteristic elements. Such a plan typically presents concrete objectives, a timetable for their realization, an outline of the tactics that will be employed, a precise assignment of staff responsibilities, and a budget. Some college plans approach this model. The 2007 strategic plan of the University of Illinois, for example, put forward explicit objectives along with precise metrics, bench marks, timetables, and budgets. The leadership hoped to equal or exceed the performance of several other large public institutions in a number of dimensions. Whether one agreed or disagreed with the goals stated by the plan, there could be little disagreement about the character of the plan, itself. It resembled a corporate plan for expanding market share or a military plan choreographing the movement of troops and supplies.

The documents promulgated by most colleges and universities, however, lack a number of those fundamental elements of planning. Their goals tend to be vague and their means undefined. Often there is no budget based on actual or projected resources. Instead the plan sets out a number of fund-raising goals. These plans are, for the most part, simply expanded “vision statements.” One college president said at the culmination of a yearlong planning process that engaged the energies of faculty, administrators, and staffers that the plan was not a specific blueprint, but a set of goals the college hoped to meet.

Obviously what was important was not the plan but the process. The president, a new appointee, asserted his leadership, involved the campus community, and created an impression of feverish activity and forward movement. The ultimate plan itself was indistinguishable from dozens of others and could have been scribbled on the back of an envelope or copied from some other college’s planning document. As I noticed while reading dozens of strategic plans, plagiarism in planning is not uncommon. Similar phrases and paragraphs can be found in many plans. In 2006, the chancellor of Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus was forced to resign after it was discovered that much of its new strategic plan, “Southern at 150,” had been copied from Texas A&M University’s strategic plan, “Vision 2020.” The chancellor had previously served as vice chancellor at Texas A&M, where he had coordinated work on the strategic plan. In a similar vein, the president of Edward Waters College was forced to resign when it was noticed that his new “Quality Enhancement Plan” seemed to have been copied from Alabama A&M University’s strategic plan.

This interchangeability of visions for the future underscores the fact that the precise content of most colleges’ strategic plans is pretty much irrelevant. Plans are usually forgotten soon after they are promulgated. My university has presented two systemwide strategic plans and one arts-and-sciences strategic plan in the past 15 years. No one can remember much about any of those plans, but another one is in the works. The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the continuing growth of administrative power.

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See also, Review of The Fall of the Faculty and Interview with Benjamin Ginsberg, by Dan Berrett, in Inside Higher Ed

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Benjamin Ginsberg is a professor of political science and director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at the Johns Hopkins University. Reprinted with permission from The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Copyright © 2011, Oxford University Press. Promotional copy and materials provided by Oxford University Press.

Female Filmmakers Need Not Apply: USC Study Reveals Staggering Hollywood Gender Gap – Response by Screenwriter Cheryl McKay Price

Industry Lip Service to Equality Pales in Comparison to Actual Ratios

“Nobody knows a woman like a woman. We should get to write, direct and produce for ourselves more than we apparently do. Where do I sign up to help make a change?” -Cheryl McKay

by Two Handed Warriors Editors

n 2010 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Directing in over 80 years of filmmaking (The Hurt Locker). Given the odds against women in the industry, is it any wonder that it took so long?
In 2010 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Directing in over 80 years of filmmaking (The Hurt Locker). Given the odds against women in the industry, is it any wonder that it took so long?

A recent study by USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism reveals the tremendous odds Kathryn Bigelow overcame to become the first woman to win the 2010 Oscar for Best Director (The Hurt Locker).

USC researchers focused on the 100 top box office hits of 2008, evaluating the 4,370 speaking characters and 1,227 above-­the-­line personnel in these films. The study revealed that, despite Hollywood lip service to the contrary, the industry is still characterized by staggering gender inequality. In the 5,000 most influential roles of 2008, men outnumbered women nearly five-to-one.

Cheryl McKay Price, screenwriter for The Ultimate Gift (2006) and the upcoming Never the Bride and The Ultimate Life comments: “The results of the USC study are quite abysmal.

Onscreen, only 32.8 percent of speaking characters in the top 2008 films were female. Rather than a one-year anomaly, researchers determined that 2008’s two-to-one ratio was actually the “highest percentage of females in film we have witnessed across multiple studies.”

The situation behind the camera was even worse. Astonishingly, only “8% of directors, 13.6% of writers, and 19.1% of producers are female.”  (See chart below).

McKay notes: “Given that both men and women are talented and have a voice in this world, I’d like to see those ratios even out in the film industry.”

Lack of Leadership Leads to Lack of Female Roles and Opportunities

The study also indicated a significant relationship between these two levels of inequality. Lack of female leadership positions behind the screen contributes to the lack of women onscreen (as well as the overt sexualization of those who do appear). Conversely, increased female creative leadership leads to increased female roles. “(T)he percentage of female characters jumps 14.3% when one or more female screenwriters were involved in penning the script.”

The USC Annenberg researchers Stacy Smith and Marc Choueiti concluded: “Our findings reveal that motion picture content is sending… consistent and troubling messages… that females are of lesser value than are males. This is evidenced by their on screen presence and the lack of employment opportunities behind-­the‐camera.”

McKay Price concludes: “Nobody knows a woman like a woman. We should get to write, direct and produce for ourselves more than we apparently do. Where do I sign up to help make a change?”

 

See Also 

Sex Objects: USC Study Reveals Hollywood’s Role in Sexualization of Teenage Girls

2011 Annenberg update: Hollywood Hooked on Sexualizing Teenage Women and Teen Girls