Consider the value of an education. A professor featured in At Berkeley briefly discusses the notion that an education never depreciates in value, at least when compared to the off lot depreciation of an automobile. But in an increasingly globalized society, aren’t certain majors and accreditations more considerable in value than others? Differential tuition costs based on majors have become an all too common feature of elite universities, with business and mathematic programs costing students a great deal more. The logic stems from the notion that the student majoring in these subjects are more likely to have a higher paying job once completing their undergraduate studies, thereby being financially capable of paying off their loans. Conversely, students of lower paying majors still face the usual tuition hikes that are a staple of virtually any institution of higher learning. But what does it matter? The overarching factor, the concept that Frederick Wiseman so expertly explores, is the diluted sense of how to achieve a measure of possessive individualism. If institutions like Berkeley only reinforce societal concerns of accumulating wealth then is the education itself, the quest to amass knowledge, compulsory?
The four hours that make up At Berkeley adhere to an immersive experiment where Wiseman peers into the day-to-day of Berkeley’s campus. As scenes play out of students discussing the American housing crisis and issues of the shrinking middle class, Wiseman intercuts scenes of the administration attempting to reconcile budget cuts and shortages in the state of California. An institution that prides itself for competing with the likes of private universities like Harvard and Stanford, the statewide budget crisis have resulted in furloughs, massive tuition hikes, and the dubious rejection of tenure candidates.
Cynicism is the running current that pervades most of At Berkeley. Is the structure the issue? Or the prevailing authority? While the picture is largely a collage of the campus’ goings on, from construction to the vibrancy of its cultural center, there is a minor (in length, not in consequence) narrative thread that develops. The administration discusses plans of contending with an upcoming student protest, discussing the logistics of maintaining campus safety ad nauseum. When the protest occurs, the students barricade themselves in a library, submitting a laundry list of demands including the suspension of any tuition fees. The poignancy and passion in these students is marred by Wiseman cutting back to administration, circled in a confining office, quite literally scoffing at the demands. With demands so arbitrary in nature and purportedly contradictory, administration acknowledges the protestors requests but makes no headway to meeting their demands. The protest ends before the library closes.
This biting reality of youth protest gone awry where a lack of focus and an intrinsic sense of millennial self-entitlement makes At Berkeley one of the most surprising films to join the ranks of other contemporary films (Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring) that analyze the shifting elements of what make up the “American Dream”. Is the true dream best realized not through the blunt force exercised in the aforementioned films but rather by working through the system that relishes in the importance of accumulating wealth over knowledge? The education machine grows bigger and bigger, functioning as a construct to strip one of their youth and individualism. The scariest scene of all involves Berkeley administration discussing efforts to draw students from all across the globe. The globalization - the Americanization - of the education machine sprawls.
For its social probing and massive scope, At Berkeley is required viewing, though arguments can be made that the film fails to truly capture the problems that plague American institutions of the day. This being my first Wiseman experience, his freeform style and objectivity strikes me as impossibly true. In large part, there’s no side to take here. The stakes are presented openly on the basis of the voices its authority. But perhaps it’s Wiseman intent on not giving the voiceless a leg to stand on? The middle class is shrinking and even in At Berkeley, their voice by the hegemonic elite.