On College, "Sex," and Experimentation

Curator's Note

In some ways the idea of the American Dream has become inseparable from the identity of the nation itself, with its offer of social mobility through individual effort and reward through perseverance. And yet, at beginning of the 21st century, we see the dream darken as the very things that promised economic freedom—a college degree and home ownership—now threaten to create a class of perpetual debtors. Indeed, discussions around the Thiel Foundation’s fellowship program, testing culture, No Child Left Behind, and the Common Core, all suggest that we, as a society, are currently struggling to define the purpose and value of a college education. That is, on a fundamental level, why are we going to college? The types of discussions going on in arenas of financial aid, testing, accessibility, and equity are deeply meaningful and incredibly important to the health of our country as a whole and yet, looking at the landscape of popular media, one largely finds that the college or university is often deployed as nothing more than a site of revelry (e.g., Modern Family), an extension of high school (e.g., Glee), or a chance to display a deep distrust of institutions (e.g., The Vampire Diaries). Although the use of tropes in television is understandable, it is, in this case, also unfortunate as it also has the potential to mislead the attention of those who should care most about the subject. It is against this background that I would like to float the Showtime series Masters of Sex as a counter to the typical representation of higher education in popular media. On one level the show is valuable for the way in which it highlighted the bureaucratic nature of the institution without vilifying it, but, more importantly, I believe the show’s true contribution is the way in which it works to realign the college/university with the concept of wonder. Although “sex” got the attention of viewers, the heart of the show was located in its ability to convey “wonder” both as a noun and a verb: throughout its first season, Masters of Sex balanced individual ambition and the drive to know (i.e., “to wonder”) with the humility and the awe (i.e., “wonder”) that results from such inquiry. Ultimately, I believe that Masters of Sex can be used as an entry point to think through how media can be titillating but also participate in meaningful discussion.


Sorry for not commenting during the week, but time got away from me and I wanted to return to your thoughtful post. I am struck to by the way Masters of Sex treats its college setting. I think "Masters of Sex" also uses the academy setting to confer some respectability to an otherwise tawdry subject. I wonder if the show's period setting allows it the freedom to glorify it's intellectuals unhindered. My question is, to the extent that it's a question and not just an observation, but could we imagine that same sort of reverence and wonder in a non-period piece? Could we imagine such a show set in present day that is working to reclaim the work of intellectuals in an academic setting, especially those not as interested in the so called "hard sciences"? (The closest I can some would perhaps be something like Fringe, though he is a disgraced scientist).

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