What is college like? In television and film, there seem to exist mainly two kinds of college. The first is a charming, upstate school with lots of sportscoats and wine and cheese mixers. The second is a big state school, with plenty of fraternity parties. The movies set in prestigious institutions are primarily about the faculty, while the state school movies are mostly about the students. These fictional settings reveal the ivory tower of the American imagination and suggest the very real spaces that Christian liberal arts education can fill.
In the movies that take place at beautiful and old-fashioned institutions, the faculty are the real stars and the ones who wrestle with the big intellectual and existential questions. This is the prestigious university of the recent Netflix hit The Chair, but also of Mona Lisa Smile (2003) with Julia Roberts, Rewrite (2014) with Hugh Grant, Irrational Man (2015) with Joaquin Phoenix, and others. In Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts’ character brings modern art to the classroom and is challenged by students and administrators as she finds her own way to be as independent as the art she loves. In The Chair, Sandra Oh’s character struggles to overcome the constant frustrations of faculty life and the pettiness of the university bubble. The faculty-centered films show a professor striving for self-realization, fighting to be fully alive and make fuller use of their abilities.
In the student-centered movies, the students are not as much pursuing self-realization and dominance as they are self-discovery and connection. This is the world of Animal House (1978), Back to School (1986), Old School (2003), Accepted(2006), Everybody Wants Some (2016), and Pitch Perfect (2017) and shows like Saved by the Bell: The College Years. In these depictions, social life seems to be the most important location in the search for meaning as students explore relationships, clubs, teams, and fraternities. (College sports movies have not been considered here, because the depicted teams do not have meaningful differences from fictional high school or professional teams.) In these movies, students do not seem to struggle much with big intellectual questions. Occasionally this genre of college movie involves an older adult returning to school, not for the intellectual scene but for a social life they left behind.
These two main contrasting types of college movies say quite a bit about the university of the collective American imagination. College can be a place for personal hedonism and partying, filled with attractive and entertaining young people, or it can be a complicated professional world of unappreciated, aging intellectuals who are living out the saying attributed to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This is a fairly impoverished image of university life, even if many of the films are entertaining. It may also explain why people feel reluctant about helping others with tuition.
It is pretty clear that Christian colleges do not easily fit either model. Students at Christian colleges do not typically flaunt dramatic self-indulgence, neither do the faculty typically achieve as much professional grandeur. That is not to say that there is no self-discovery for students or self-realization for faculty. In reality, both things do happen, and much more than outsiders often realize. But by not fitting the obvious molds, Christian colleges can position themselves as meaningful alternatives.
On screen, serious philosophical or existential exploration seem reserved for elite schools and often, for faculty. Few Christian colleges fit the imagined elite campus. Yet, Christian universities expect students of all kinds to wrestle with the big questions in life, not just to spend four years going to parties and checking off required classes. Many Christian universities are centered on the liberal arts, and all ask students to engage with theological subjects. It would be hard to graduate from a Christian college without some grappling over personal beliefs and the relationship between those beliefs and one’s actions.
On screen, personal fulfillment seems unavailable to faculty. In faculty-centered movies, professors chase the brass ring of chairing a department or becoming a publishing icon, but their personal lives seem unfulfilled and their social impact is minimal. At Christian universities, there is more emphasis on teaching and professors are expected to be more than publishing machines. Academic life in Christian higher ed is often more vocational and less aspirational. And if in student-centered college movies professors are largely absent, they are at the center of the Christian college experience, where they play a role in helping students discover their vocations.
One thing that sets Christian colleges apart is that they are more than educational institutions to the people who park there. They are cultural institutions, as well. In this way, they have some kinship to HBCUs, which are more than simply educational institutions and are places where people with commonalities and differences are mutually engaged with each other and with the world, as shown in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. No wonder that one of the richer television depictions of higher ed was A Different World, set at the fictional Hillman. As cultural institutions, Christian universities are able to help students and professors better understand their own Christian community and the distance between the wider world and the people around the whiteboard. Anyone who thinks that uniformity is the inevitable outcome of a college built around shared faith will likely find themselves surprised by rather rich variety.
Christian institutions rarely fit the imagined university of television and film, but that is precisely their charm. They are an alternative to college as a personal or professional quest, for connections or for clout. They ask all kinds of students, regardless of incoming status, to explore big questions and concepts. They ask all kinds of professors, regardless of accomplishment, to engage fully with students. As cultural institutions, they give students, staff, and faculty the opportunity to explore what binds believers together, even while working through divisions. By doing all of this, Christian universities offer a unique opportunity for community.