Higher Learning is far from writer-director John Singleton’s best work—it's not even remotely close to his Oscar-nominated 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood. Higher Learning was, however, distressingly applicable in early 1995. Nationwide violence erupted at cinemas showing the film during its opening week. Racial tension was high in America after former NFL great O.J. Simpson was charged for allegedly murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in June 1994. The film was released mere weeks before the start of the murder trial, which remains one of the most high-profile and racially charged to date.
As our current decade reaches its midway point, the world is in a similar state of disarray. Sadly, many of the issues raised by Higher Learning persist after two decades.
Professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne), the lone educator seen in Singleton's film, teaches an introductory political science course to incoming freshmen. Singleton’s jarring exploration of a college campus' antagonistic social climate is a study in its own right—an examination of learning. The film opens and closes with shots of the American flag, ultimately ending with the word "unlearn." That message, overt and ham-fisted like Higher Learning itself, urges the audience to step away from the lessons they've been taught by life. But for all of the world's progress in the 20 years since the film’s release, its statement has failed to resonate on a level powerful enough to breed significant change.
Very little of what college students take away from the experience comes from textbooks or classrooms. The pursuit of higher education is a crash course in life lessons. As incoming freshmen at the deliberately titled Columbus University, Malik (Omar Epps), Kristen (Kristy Swanson), and Remy (Michael Rapaport) offer three different perspectives. Malik is an athlete, but no archetypal dumb jock and quite eager to prove it; Kristen’s intentions are pure, but she’s naive; Remy is a socially awkward loner whose inability to connect with others makes him a walking explosive. As each search for their place on campus, vulnerability pushes them to older figures with concrete beliefs.
Although the typical depiction of fraternities and sororities exists in Higher Learning, the more unorthodox analysis is central to the storyline. A frustrated Malik gravitates towards a group of similarly disenchanted black students guided by the militant Afrocentrism of their de facto leader, super-senior Fudge (Ice Cube). Fudge quizzes the young track star about why he's attending Columbus, asking if he'd stand up in a football stadium while the national anthem is sung. Malik’s credulous response prompts Fudge's condescending reply: "Run, nigga, run," a nod to the old folk song. Shortly after, Malik begins viewing the world through Fudge's eyes.
Kristen’s date rape at a frat house drives her toward Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a lesbian who heads a women’s group and takes an interest in her. When that interest becomes mutual, she warns Kristen, "Don’t do it just 'cause you’re fascinated." In her quest to become more worldly and diffuse the tension on campus, she organizes the event which, unfortunately, sets up the film's climax.
Alienation, lack of exposure to diversity, and anger make Remy susceptible to violence, something Scott (Cole Hauser) recognizes. He recruits him into his Aryan Brotherhood faction, giving him the lone thing he was unable to find elsewhere: kinship. Abuse at the hands of his "survivalist" father made him a sleeper cell for vehemence, which the fear and isolation he felt at Columbus activated. Scott and his aggregate of bigots provide Remy with encouragement. His official indoctrination into their fraternity of hate is to carry out the shooting which takes place during Higher Learning's tragic denouement.
Just as Higher Learning zeroes in on three characters, it pivots on an equal number of heavy themes: racism, sexual assault, and school shootings. Despite whatever headway society would love to believe it has made on each issue, they’re no less of a concern at the start of 2015 than they were at the beginning of 1995.
Instances of racial profiling by police arise often in Higher Learning. Campus police treat Malik, Fudge, and Dreads (Busta Rhymes) as threats before they’re treated like students or human beings. The world is just two weeks removed from a year in which several unarmed African-Americans were killed during encounters with police. The same law enforcement mentality seen in the film led to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Darrien Hunt, Jordan Baker, Dontre Hamilton, Ezell Ford, Rumain Brinson, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and others in 2014. Racism in America, specifically the perception of black men, hasn’t changed in 20 years, not even with one in the White House.
Very little of what college students take away from the experience is found in textbooks or classrooms. The pursuit of higher education is a crash course in life lessons.
Sexual assault remains a comparably crippling issue. Last November, Rolling Stone published a highly controversial piece detailing the University of Virginia's botched handling of a freshman’s gang rape at a frat house in 2012. Although convoluted, the story has eerie ties to what Kristen experienced in Higher Learning. The story also arrived six months after the White House released a 20-page report on how to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. That same report included the harrowing revelation that one out of every five women is sexually assaulted during college.
In addition, the Department of Education also released the names of 55 schools under investigation for possible Title IX sexual harassment violations. This wasn’t done to assign blame, but as a gesture of full-disclosure in an effort to create awareness about an issue still plaguing college campuses and society in general.
A plethora of mass-shootings have taken place at schools across the nation in the years following Higher Learning's release. The most notable include the incidents at Columbine High School in 1999, Virginia Tech University in 2007, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. This past October, Jaylen Fryberg, a freshman at Marysville-Pilschuck High School in Washington, fatally shot four fellow students and wounded another before committing suicide on school grounds. Two of the victims were his cousins.
Five months prior, UC Santa Barbara student Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others in Isla Vista, Calif., before taking his own life. In a chilling final video filmed before his rampage, Rodger, the son of Hollywood producer Peter Rodger, explained that he targeted young women because they ignored him. He resented, and eventually killed, them because they wouldn't have sex with him, a dark variation of sexual violence against women. In other rants discovered after his suicide, he expressed a disdain for interracial dating, meaning his actions were rooted in racism as much as they were misogyny. The parallels may not be perfect, but the link to what twisted Remy's Maltese cross into a swastika and pushed him over the edge is too strong to ignore.
In John Singleton’s eyes, to "unlearn" means to release the toxins which pollute individuals and society. But that cleansing process also involves adopting a new, more progressive set of values. Which leads to the bigger question: What have we learned in the two decades since Higher Learning premiered? The answer is alarming. While we may seem closer together, recent events prove otherwise. People of varying ethnicities can be influenced by the same things, from music to style, yet still aren’t viewed the same by society. The plight of 1995 lives on in 2015—the only thing that’s been learned is that nothing really changes.
Higher Learning juxtaposes Generation X optimism with tragedy, but it's the grim particulars which endure today. That, sadly, is its bleak legacy.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him on Twitter here.