The Subtext of a Yale Education
Sympathy or analysis

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 129-130
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

Laura Dunn's film THE SUBTEXT OF A YALE EDUCATION (1998) got my attention with its opening images. After announcing its origins as her senior thesis at Yale, the film opens with home-movie like images of Yale's Convocation in September of 1995. We see mostly white, well-dressed young people gathered on a sunny lawn. On the sound track we hear an unctuous prayer, calling down God's blessing on this gathering of the elite's children. But just as we get used to this imagery, Dunn cuts to an older black woman cleaning toilets in the student dorms. This intercutting continues to the end of the sequence, when the filmmaker explains (in voice over and printed title) the meaning of subtext, the text below the surface, something we always seek.

Laura Dunn senses and sees injustice, the first step in one's political education and development. THE SUBTEXT OF A YALE EDUCATION nicely sets out contrasts between the high ideals of this institution and some of the grubbier realities that maintain it Perhaps because she was a Yale student, Dunn films the university's representatives saying direct, revealing, and harsh things about their intentions in negotiating with service and clerical workers, the film's primary subject. Dunn focuses on Locals 34 and 35 (of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union) and their struggle to get a new contract with their employer, lasting from the fall of 1995 into the winter of 1997. The struggle ends in substantial defeat for the union when Yale forces some subcontracting of food services to popular franchises.

Though a very sympathetic and compassionate observer, Dunn does not get beyond a certain insularity. This arose most likely from her position as a student who needed to please at least some faculty members who assessed her work. In the film she seems unable to pass from being the sympathetic observer to becoming the activist.

Assessing this deficiency in this work may clarify the possibilities for political filmmaking now, especially in the context of growing student activism on and off campus. The film's juxtapositional aesthetic makes telling observations about issues of status and morality but does not work through these oppositions to a broader analysis of labor relations at the university in the mid-1990s. The filmmaker frames issues in terms of dichotomies of status and morality — Yale's elites versus the low status workers and the immorality of Yale's approach to labor relations. One could come to the conclusion that, if the university paid more generous wages and took greater responsibility for the economic development of New Haven, everything would be fine.

Dunn seems upset that Yale does not behave in accordance with its ideals, but the film does not take up broader political and economic issues underlying this behavior, the subtext the film sets out to analyze. The film introduces a number of key issues in the struggle but inadequately discusses them: race, union organizing and tactics, student participation or lack thereof, class, and Yale's place and function.

Race is a major subtext. Most of the service workers, the university's main restructuring target, are black (at least as the film images them). We see black workers, hear sound bites from them, learn a little about the poverty of mostly black New Haven, but the film has no substantial interviews on or presentations about race as an issue hem. The film's use of a sound-bite aesthetic is particularly weak. The two exceptions to this audio aesthetic are lengthy voice-over analyses by professor Richard Shakin on subcontracting and by economist Richard Grossman on corporations and globalization.

Dunn gives sound-bite voice to various union leaders, activists and members, but does not get into the union's process, its tactics, and the role these may have played in its apparent defeat. We do see a union-sponsored trip to demonstrate at a Board of Directors meeting in New York City and a union-led bus tour of New Haven. However, support from the community and the wider labor community seem to come only very late in the struggle. The union seems not to have organized any student support, which has been so important in other labor struggles at universities. The filmmaker clearly expresses great sympathy for these workers and their struggle. It is the key subject of her investigation, yet the film reveals very little about the union's process.

At one point Dunn tries to talk to students on campus and they essentially refuse to comment at all or reveal lack of interest in or total ignorance about the issue. Finally, a former editor of the school paper observes that students seem to be moving to the right, and we see a small but nasty conservative student demonstration against the workers, ridiculing their desire for higher wages. What is Dunn's point here? That the students don't care about this labor struggle? That they are moving to the right? Did no Yale students get involved in supporting the union? She supports them — was she the only one? Was she involved in an effort to organize student support? If not, why not? What effort was made to enlist student support? Or was it thought to be impossible? The film's reproducing these ignorant and uncaring responses from seven or so tired, frazzled, hurrying students does not answer any of these important questions.

Yale University is one of a handful of elite universities that train the next generation of ruling class cadre. Many of its students ascend to high positions in key private and public institutions: finance, corporations, state and federal government, and the media. Today's dominant ideology advocates globalization's inevitability and necessity and fosters an intense competition driving these changes. The university's effort to subcontract its food services simply enacts this ideology. In the film, an unidentified national union organizer states his disbelief that anyone would expect corporations to behave any differently than they do. "They are supposed to be greedy," he says. Corporations are legally bound to make a profit for their shareholders. The university must behave as it does, not because it is immoral or unethical, but because it is an elite, private capitalist corporation.

Laura Dunn has made an interesting, lively, and useful film, but she provides too few ways for the viewer to work through the oppositions she sets up. Despite her deeply felt sense of injustice, the sound-bite aesthetic cannot provide the depth of analysis such a film requires to move from observation to activism.

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The film is available from the maker