Popular movie reflects current situation at American colleges

Geoffery Howes and Geoffery Howes

This weekend I watched the first installment of “The Hunger Games” for the first time.

They say the books are even better and I know the third movie just came out, but it takes me a while to catch up with popular culture not aimed at my generation.

This action movie in a dystopian setting shows some impressive historical awareness.

Whenever something seemed exaggerated, I could think of a real-life precedent.

The outlandish outfits of the managerial class recalled eighteenth-century European aristocrats. The fence between districts was a less lethal version of barriers that once separated East Germany from West.

The crowds of drab rural residents could have come from the Great Depression. The gray stone tribunal looked like Nazi-era architecture.

The universal surveillance was like our contemporary saturation of security cameras, expanded into the woods.

The Games themselves have many precedents, from the gladiators of ancient Rome, to medieval jousts, to so-called reality TV like “The Voice” or “Survivor.” The competitors need coaches and sponsors and the 24/7 media presence sounds like sports broadcasts or cable news.

As in Rome and medieval Europe, the stakes are existential: lives are sacrificed for entertainment, to distract people from real issues and to put enough fear into them that they’d never even think of holding an Uprising again.

“The Hunger Games” is, among other things, an allegory for the situation of students at modern American state universities.

Ever since the universities expanded in the 1960s and spawned uprisings, changed policies have steadily driven those demons back into Pandora’s box.

Access to university education has been made more difficult [reduced state support], while young people are constantly reminded that this education is the key to gainful employment.

The burden of paying for education has been shifted to the trainees themselves and the competition for jobs also allows for training employees on the job without paying for it, in the form of internships.

By emphasizing the material stakes and ensnaring students in debt, we have moved away from a vision of social mobility and given the mass of citizens something the elites always took for granted: enough awareness of the world, by means of the liberal arts, to be able to see critically how the real world works and how the objects of critical study—”The Hunger Games,” for example—reflect that world.

From the 50s to the 70s, public universities let the working class join the middle class.

Nowadays, if you’re lucky enough to win the Hunger Games, they’ll possibly, maybe, let you stay within the middle class, whatever form it’s now taking. But they assure you’ll stay beholden to your sponsors.

In old Rome, they called it panem et circenses: “bread and the circuses.” Keep the masses fed and entertained and they won’t bother to question the powers that be. State campuses provide plenty of food and entertainment.

It’s up to us to make sure they continue to provide the critical tools for understanding what that means for our society.