Starving the Beast

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
Starving the Beast Movie Poster Image
Important but sometimes dry docu about higher education.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 95 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

It's important to protect freedom of speech in academia, which is facing growing challenges. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Noted academics and intellectuals debate the merits of the educational system -- as do some of the system's most vocal critics. Viewers' own opinions on the topic will impact which interviewees they consider role models.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Starving the Beast is a documentary that takes a strong opinion on what it considers one of the biggest threats facing higher education: a movement that places more emphasis on universities generating profits than engaging in intellectual pursuits. The film traces the evolution of this so-called "market-based approach," arguing that it's undermining academia. It's a complicated concept that's explained in a lot of detail, and some of the ideas may be lost on younger viewers. So despite the lack of violence, sex, substance use, and strong language, this one is best suited for teens (especially college students) and adults.  

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What's the story?

According to STARVING THE BEAST, there's a battle going on in America's public universities, pitting well-funded reformers pushing a "market based" approach (i.e. profit-generating) to education against those championing the ideal of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Little-known outside the realm of higher education, this fight may in fact be undermining the entire learning process, says director Steve Mims' thought-provoking film. The movie focuses on six schools -- the University of Wisconsin, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, Louisiana State University, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M -- where recent challenges to unseat administrators have been waged in an attempt to redefine academia's entire mission. The goal of activists like Jeff Sandefer is to treat university schooling as a commodity, and he sees students as the consumers. In that scenario, success is measured by satisfying the customers by delivering a product they like. But traditional academics reject that strategy because it fails to challenge students and they fear it will eventually mean dumbing-down the country's top research institutions.

Is it any good?

This is an important film, if not necessarily always a compelling one. The subject is certainly thought-provoking: Expect to be riled up watching the machinations of "disruptors" who want to change the university model, with little regard to -- or perhaps awareness of -- the consequences of that change. But any outrage or anger the documentary might provoke is lessened by its somewhat aloof, dry execution. Documentaries have a hard job, and sometimes the subject matter is dense and knotty. Starving the Beast is no exception. Unfortunately, the film can't quite rise above the difficult material. Still, it's worth watching if you have an interest in education -- or a teenager who might be heading to college.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Starving the Beast portrays the state of higher education. What do you think about the market-based approach that's shown here? Do you agree with any of the arguments? Why or why not?

  • Why do you think academic freedom has become such a political issue? 

  • Who do you think this movie is intended to appeal to? How can you tell?

Movie details

  • In theaters: September 9, 2016
  • On DVD or streaming: March 17, 2017
  • Director: Steve Mims
  • Studio: Violet Crown Films
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run time: 95 minutes
  • MPAA rating: NR
  • Last updated: September 20, 2019

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