Conservative Historian

The Movie Back to School, Academia, Business, and Fame

February 14, 2022 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
The Movie Back to School, Academia, Business, and Fame
Show Notes Transcript

So many Independent movies have pretentions to insight and poignancy.  Most are rubbish.  But the zany 1980s comedy, Back to School, starring Rodney Dangerfield no less, provides perceptions most "deep" movies miss.  

The Movie Back to School, Academia, Business, and Fame

February 2022


One of the most memorable parts of the successful 1980 movie Caddyshack, in addition to the slovenly assistant groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Ted Knight’s snobbish Judge Smails, and Chevy Chase’s idle rich, wiseacre, Ty Webb, there was Rodney Dangerfield’s nouveau super-rich guy Al Czervik. (has there been better character naming between this movie and Harry Potter? Maybe 1984s Ghostbusters?).  


Dangerfield had a reasonably successful career as a stand-up comic for decades up to his appearance in Caddyshack. Back in the day, stand-ups were not as defined by their material as by their personas. Foster Brooks was a drunk, Rich Little did impressions, and Dangerfield was the perpetual loser who never got any respect, as his tagline would state. And there was a difference between the act I saw on Johnny Carson (the progenitor for late-night comedians when they actually tried to be funny and not woke) and Dangerfield’s real act. Dangerfield liked the sex joke, as I was to learn later on. Here is a sample: “A hooker once told me she had a headache.” “My marriage is on the rocks again. Yeah, my wife just broke up with her boyfriend.” And “I'm a bad lover. I once caught a peeping tom booing me." Dangerfield was always the main target in his acts, one of the key aspects of why he could make the transition to beloved movie star. 


Caddyshack changed his life. You need to go to YouTube, search Caddyshack Band Scene, and watch the new Dangerfield go to work. So, you knew what the writers for the movie Back to School were thinking. What if they did an entire film about Al Czervick? The plot is simple. Dangerfield plays uber-successful business retailer named Thornton Melon. His second marriage ends, and he learns his son, Jason, struggles with college. Melon has never been to college, so why not go back to school, get his degree, and help out his son. The writers sent the same crude, boorish but intelligent and filthy rich character to the academy instead of the country club.  


Only something happened on the way to the movie. The writers, Dangerfield, Dennis Snee, Greg Fields, and director Alan Metter, intentionally or not, inserted thoughtful lines and real-world commentary wholly missing from the self-contained world of Caddyshack. That earlier movie, like the progenitor of all these types of films, Animal House, and reflecting the ethos of sketch shows like Second City and Saturday Night Live, was really a series of comedy bits strung together to cover nearly two hours. But unlike college comedy Animal House, Back to School actually had a plot, a story arc, and something interesting to say about the academy.  


There is the scene with the comedian Sam Kinison. Everyone remembers him as the yelling guy, but note the exchange with a student in which he asks about Vietnam, and she provides him a textbook answer: “the failure of Vietnamization to win popular support eroded the local support in the various but illegal Saigon regimes.”  


Professor Terguson says in a normal tone: Is she right? 'Cause I know that's the *popular* version of what went on there. And a lot of people like to believe that. I wish I could, but I was *there*. I wasn't here in a classroom, hoping I was right, thinking about it. Then he starts to shout: “I was up to my knees in rice paddies, with guns that didn't work! Going in there, looking for Charlie, slugging it out with him; While pussies like you were back here partying, putting headbands on, doing drugs, and listening to the goddamn Beatle albums! Oh! Oh! Oh!”


And this point, the student is in tears, the rest of the class has various looks of terror upon their faces, and Melon decides to intervene, inviting the rage upon his head. Terguson moves over to Melon and begins yelling at him: You remember that thing we had about 30 years ago called the Korean conflict? And how we failed to achieve victory? How come we didn't cross the 38th parallel and push those rice-eaters back to the Great Wall of China? Then take the fucking wall apart brick by brick and nuke them back into the fucking stone age forever? Tell me why! How come? Say it! Say it!


Thornton Melon: [incensed] All right. I'll say it. 'Cause Truman was too much of a *pussy wimp* to let MacArthur go in there and blow out those Commie bastards!


Terguson now mollified replies: good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think. I'm gonna be watching you.


Thornton Melon: [chuckling to his classmates] Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what I have no idea.


As in the Caddyshack scene, you have to see it on YouTube to get the real gist.  Obviously, professors in the 80s did not scream in rage, but there was a difference between then and today. One of my poly sci professors, by the name of Chong-Do Hah, had a relatively simple message for us in our first class. We were all mediocre and thus deserving of Cs; the brilliant students were going to get Bs, And As? Those were “reserved for god and Ha.” As it stood, many students did get As, but Professor Ha was a hard grader; I worked my butt off, and as a frequent listener to this podcast can attest, I do like history and politics, but my best got me a B. 30 years later the grading system for today’s students is a bit different. In a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The results from the Large Public Universities and Public Liberal Arts College data suggest that rising grades cannot be explained by changes in student learning. Instead, our findings from the nationally-representative data, the sample of large public universities, and the public liberal arts college in combination with trends in student time spent studying, and labor force participation in college suggest that GPAs have been rising due to relaxed standards. These relaxed standards account for much of the increase in college graduation rates. The paper notes suggested reasons, and as is typical with so much of life, one has only to follow the money, “Finally, there has been increased policy attention on college completion during this period. For example, the number of state policies that tie appropriations for higher education to college completion via performance funding mechanisms has increased. The use of these mechanisms grew beginning in the 1990s.” 


Colleges, especially those who receive government-backed student loans, know that professors of Ha’s Demeanor’s might turn students off. So, it was certainly disconcerting to hear as an 18-year-old that I was destined for mediocrity. But it was also understood that, first, professors talked this way; they were the grown-ups after all, and that we also understood Ha was presenting a challenge. 


The paper concludes with “Departments that increase grades see higher student enrollments. Additionally, colleges have strategic incentives to offer less informative grades, and institutional efforts to curb grade inflation can fail to make transcripts more informative and can instead reduce welfare.”


Viewers tend to remember Kinison yelling, but they often forget his words. The script was acceptable in the 1980s but would not make out of the writer’s room in 2022. Why? Because it involves not only China but terminology that would be termed as both racist and misogynist. I am concerned with even writing this. Despite my smallish audience, the ability to monitor any online activities is permissive. The other day I tweeted about the Chinese stealing trade secrets. I then received a response from a woman named Tin Yan asking me to back up my charges. I am omitting that it would take about 3 minutes of searching to find evidence, even from the FBI. But the timing, the fakery, and the response make it more than suspicious. It would not take a brilliant computer app to have seen my tweet and have a bot reply in kind. Sort of like a little tap on the shoulder; we are watching you. And thus, like Huck Finn, my concern is that Back to School may be edited or canceled because I brought up anti-Chinese animus, which must not be borne.


The other difference is that essentially the crazed professor of history in Back to School was a, what? A neo-conservative. Beneath the fun of Sam Kinison’s mania is the yearning for a robust foreign policy between him and Melon. One can only imagine the reaction of Professor Terguson to the Chinese holding 1 million of their people in concentration camps, conquering Hong Kong, and threatening Taiwan. And how would Melon feel about the Chinese making knock-offs of his business ideas or stealing his trade secrets? The bizarre nature of the scene is the manic professor, but in 2022 a conservative history professor would make Kinison’s screaming Terguson normal by comparison.  


Today it is easy grades that are necessary to maintain enrollments. Follow the money. And hence in Back to School, our hero has a bit of an issue. His high school grades, what there is of them, are simply not good enough to get into college. But Ned Beatty’s Dean David Martin is receptive to a compromise. In the Dean’s office, where the issues of grades arose, Melon suggests there must be a compromise, and the scene brilliantly cuts to a building dedication ceremony for the … Thornton Melon School of Business.


Doctor Phillip Barbay, the leading business school professor and a rival for Sally Kellerman's affections, the comely English professor at the college, and age-appropriate Melon love interest, arrives at the ceremony.  Barbay objects to what he knows is a reduction of standards to rake in Melon’s largesse. “I want to get it on record that I am totally against this. I don't think that selling admission to an obviously unqualified student is either ethical or honorable. Dean Martin replies: Uh, right... Phil. In Mr. Melon's defense, it was a really big check. I love that line. Check out Harvard’s, Stanford’s, heck, Villanova’s endowments.  Lots of big shots writing really big checks. 


Barbay is incensed at this naked set aside of the rules for monetary gain. But Melon then says, “Listen, Sherlock. While you were tucked away up here working on your ethics, I was out there busting my hump in the REAL world. And the reason guys like you got a place to teach is cause guys like me donate buildings.”


One of the best points about the academy was made in a book entitled “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan. 

If you could have the piece of paper saying you graduated and not take a single class, or you could get all of the learning, instruction, and training, and not get the degree, the answer is about 99 to 1 that one would take the piece of paper. There is little correlation between obtaining the degree and learning something of value for post-collegiate activities. This is exemplified in a classroom exchange between Melon and professor Barbay.  


Barbary begins by describing an imaginary factory in which they will build widgets. This is a blast from my MBA past days. Cost vs. profit and price per unit and all of that. But Melon intervnes. Thornton Melon: Oh, you left out a bunch of stuff.

Phillip Barbay: Oh really? Like what, for instance? Thornton Melon: First of all, you're going to have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up. Then there's the kickbacks to the carpenters, and if you plan on using any cement in this building, I'm sure the teamsters would like to have a little chat with ya, and that'll cost ya. Oh and don't forget a little something for the building inspectors. Then there's long-term costs such as waste disposal. I don't know if you're familiar with who runs that business but I assure you it's not the boy scouts.


Barbay cuts in: That will be quite enough, Mr. Melon! Maybe bribes, kickbacks, and Mafia payoffs are how YOU do business! But they are NOT part of the legitimate business world! And they are certainly not part of anything I am doing in this class. 


I think Barbay comes off a little unfairly in this exchange. I love the part about an academic not knowing how things work in the actual business world, but one needs to know about unit cost and factory locations. These are factors in business, but again, would a student learn more about business from a real-life Melon or a real-life Barbay. And at least the latter is trying. To get my MBA, I had super expensive business courses like statistics, which was really a calculus course because my professor was a math, not business. expert. My IT course was a joke, and Consumer Marketing? It took about ten minutes and a chi-square analysis discussion that my professor knew next to nothing about demographics, targeting, platforms, messaging, or shelf space, some of the numerous aspects of the subject—those who cannot do teach. 


A throwaway scene features one of those up-and-comers is in a supporting role. This actor, relatively unknown at the time, Robert Downey Junior, plays Derek, the roommate of Melon’s son. Derek is the classic campus archetype who is against whatever someone else is for “Violent ground acquisition games such as football is, in fact, a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war.” During the course of the movie, he changes his major four times and almost gets Melon involved in a brawl with the football team. However, Melon is bailed out by his uber tough guy bodyguard, drive, best friend factotum played by Burt Young, of whom it is great to see in a non-Rocky role. One line from Melon to Derek stands out.  


Thornton Melon: [Derek has blue hair] Is that your real hair?

Derek: What do ya think?

Thornton Melon: I think you're trying to get back at your parents; that's what I think.


The Dereks of the world are always showing the rest of the world how much they do not care about an opinion by showing they care so deeply to dye hair, get tattoos, and multiple piercings. But, do you know what people who really, really do not care wear? Probably jeans and a t-shirt, something comfortable.  


Finally, there is fame. Melon, Derek, and Jason cannot get their books because the bookselling area of the university is packed. Melon is not one for waiting, but soon, a rumor flies, and the place empties in moments. Melon had stationed Lou at his limousine with a sign reading Bruce Springsteen. Who cares about buying books if one can get a glimpse through the tinted glass at a rock legend? Fame before all.  


Is Back to School a great movie? Heck no. The cringey love scenes between Melon’s son Jason, played by Keith Gordon, and the statuesque Valerie Desmond, played by actress Terry Farrell, are believable that Bruce Springsteen would descend upon a college unannounced. We can see Dangerfield as the nouveau riche progenitor of oversized fashion (remember George Zimmer of Men’s Wearhouse – I guarantee it!) but as a generationally accomplished high diver? Unfortunately, Dangerfield looks like he might drown in the hot tub with the coeds. The aforementioned Ghostbusters movie was, unlike this contemporary, a fantasy epic with ghosts and demons and nuclear-powered backpacks. But one could believe that Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, and Bill Murray were those guys. Dangerfield as Greg Louganis, not so much.  


But that does not change that within what was supposed to be about 90 minutes of throwaway entertainment, a respite from the still ongoing cold war and other assorted 80s angst, was a movie that had a lot to say about the university system, how business is conducted, and celebrity culture. It was, hidden in plain sight, quite insightful.