I have only one prerequisite for what I consider to be quality television. Be it commercial or full-length programming, it ought to render me speechless. Quality TV, in other words, should shut me up. It should leave my mouth agape and my eyes barely blinking. That is all I ask of television. It’s all my poor wife—who daily puts up with my snarky yapping—asks of television.

Case in point, the new commercial for Kaplan University, a mostly online college based in Davenport, Iowa. The Commercial Which Shut Me Up stars James Avery, who you may remember as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I always thought Avery was a commanding talent in that role, and he is nothing short of terrific in the Kaplan University commercial.

In this particular TV spot, James Avery plays a professor at some anonymous university who stands before an ethnically diverse, tightly packed classroom and tells his class that he has failed them.

He furthermore states that the American college system is “steeped in tradition and old ideas.” It seems like a farewell speech of some kind, and judging by the quizzical looks on the students’ faces one wonders if Uncle Phil is going to pull out a gun and blow out his brains before everyone gets to sign his or her name on the attendance sheet.

But he doesn’t, thankfully, and the inspirational music swells and the lecture hall scene cuts to a montage of seemingly affluent Americans across the nation watching Uncle Phil’s speech on iPhones and laptops, at breakfast tables, on rooftops, and subway platforms. We are all witness (granted, only if you have internet access) to a hope renewed.

“It’s time for a different kind of university,” he says, pausing thoughtfully as professors do. “It’s your time.”

It’s stirring stuff, indeed. Kaplan University means business. Brothers and sisters, the revolution will be televised. And I think I know exactly what Uncle Phil is getting at.

I’ve experienced firsthand how ugly it can be teaching aliterate 18 year old kids sonorous essays by Ruth Benedict or whoever. Not to mention the frustrating distance that is a fact of life between the professor and the 100- or 200-level student. Teaching college is arguably easier than teaching primary or secondary school because you, as teacher, just don’t need to get that involved. They come, they listen, they take notes. If they don’t come or listen or take scrupulous notes that’s their problem.

But I don’t want to delve too deep into a discussion of pedagogical quagmires and thereby sink into the depths of my own horrible tangent. We’ve all got things we love and hate about Academia, to say nothing of the promiscuous foreplay and keggers and awesome tomfoolery.

Generally speaking, it hardly matters which university you attend, but rather how you spend the four or so years there. Because no matter where you go there is ample time between class and the gym and the party to self-educate. Unless, I suppose, you are a non-traditional student, the sort of busybody Kaplan University is looking to attract with its recent ad campaign.

But I cannot fathom a college experience focused on message boards and video tutorials and a dizzying crumbtrail of emails. And no parties? That can barely be called an experience.

What do you think?

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JUSTIN BENTON has written for the Nervous Breakdown since 2009. He co-authored Board with Brad Listi, a literary collage released by TNB Books in 2012. He is now a father and is currently writing an ongoing pantoum poem you can find here.

32 responses to “Failure Is Not an Option”

  1. Marni Grossman says:

    I feel like having James Avery in the role of teacher must really undermine the commercial. How can you believe that he’s a professor when you know darn well that he’s itching to beat Will Smith’s hide?

    This is the same problem I have with that Olive Garden commercial. The presence of that woman from the Pam Anderson vehicle “VIP” and that girl from “Modern Family” make it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    If we could construct a pie chart showing what parts of the college experience are the most beneficial…we wouldn’t, because that would be boring.

    But seriously, I think college is mostly about relationships. You go there to learn how to function as an adult. How to interact with professors, how to drink so that you don’t embarrass yourself at business functions down the line, how to behave around members of the opposite sex (or the same sex, in a sexual way). That sort of thing. And, of course, networking, although you don’t think of it that way at the time. The classes, while occasionally helpful in pointing you in the right direction, are secondary at best.

    The first few weeks of college freshman year, when no one knows anyone else, and you drift through the dorms and walk into strangers’ rooms and say hi…there is nothing else like that in your entire life. And that’s what college is all about. For me, anyway.

    • JB says:

      I agree totally, Greg. Except for the networking part. Not that I don’t think networking happens, I just…is that real? Can one really “network”? Sounds a little like clutch hitting to me.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Greg Olear says:

        I object to the term “networking,” as it suggests everything icky that I despise in this world, but the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet when I wrote my comment. What I really mean by networking is “meeting a whole lot of people who you actually have something in common with other than growing up in the same hometown.”

  3. Jacinda says:

    It’s funny–that “experience” was what college was all about while I was having it, and I do know that I’d be an altogether different person if I hadn’t actually gone to a college, even if I hadn’t gone to the particular college I went to. But the further I get away from it, the more I appreciate, most of all, the chance I got to self-educate outside of class, and hell, I could have done that in the merchant marine. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s what kind of person it makes you into and the kind of intellect it makes you into, and I’m not sure the kind of intellect I am was significantly impacted by those four years. (Mostly, those four years were so great because they got me out of town! Have I ever shared with you that proverb about a small town being a special corner of hell?)

  4. Claudia Zbinden says:

    Hmm, I thought you meant YOUR Uncle Phil, and it was a good read anyway. I teach at one of the best junior colleges in California. I’m in a classroom every semester with more modern media than I have at home. Those 35 students (average age, 27) and I have the most fun and adventuresome learning when we’re pounding on the table and interrupting each other.
    PowerPoint presentations are over-rated, so is note-taking and test-taking, blah, blah, blah…
    I want everyone between the age of 20 and 25 to take at least one class in Philosophy and one in World History. Then, maybe then, we can have learning that occurs with some small modicum of critical thinking skills.
    Sigh. This might be the over-arching ache of the boomer generationi who got one of those worthless liberal arts degree: too few have the resources to think, let alone analyze.

    • JB says:

      So true. Those non-traditional students (i.e. adults) are terrific to teach. Military students are great, too. And a great in-class discussion is as good as it gets. I don’t think you are alone there.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Big yes, Claudia and JB, to the delight of teaching older students. I used to drive from southside to far northside Chicago at 6 am every Saturday to teach two back-to-back three-hour English comp classes, average student age probably 35. No matter how tragic I felt getting up at 4 am and anticipating the drive, I NEVER felt less than jubilant on the drive home. I tried to get all my classes on the weekend just because of those marvelous students, almost succeeded.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    I wish Uncle Phil had advertised college when I was a kid. I would have tried so much harder at everything.

    But you’re right. The experience is everything. It’s the being, just as much as the doing.

  6. Mary Richert says:

    I have such mixed feelings about online classes. My graduate program was mostly online, but we had a 2-week residency each summer, which included lectures, dorm rooms, readings, discussion groups, and yes, lots of parties. Through the rest of the year, we all got online and talked via message boards and e-mail. On the other hand, I suspect that strictly online programs are lacking a lot of the student involvement that leads to real learning. Still, there must be some good option for adults who need to keep up their professional lives but need a degree in order to advance. Not everyone can dedicate four years to one ongoing educational party.

  7. Erika Rae says:

    Is it just me or does anyone else feel like the online university must only apply to older students who missed the real thing when they were younger? I mean, it can’t ONLY be the older crowd, but…

  8. Matt says:

    I’ll state right out: I hate online classes. Hate ’em. I get that their a necessary evil for some people, but I’d much rather deal with a classroom full of other students. I had to take one in graduate school, and in all honesty, I just couldn’t see the point. Classroom discussion/debate was where it was at for me. As Greg states above, the socialiization aspect is key to the college experience. Can’t do that through the computer.

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  10. Richard Cox says:

    I’m with Greg and everyone about the university years about practicing to be an adult. Certainly I learned very little else in college. I didn’t learn how to write there and I didn’t learn about science or really anything intellectually useful. That’s probably because I was a business student. Blech.

    In any case, the farther away from it you get the less relevant it seems. At least for me.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I’m studying ‘how to write’ here and I haven’t really learnt much. My original plan was to just cruise through and get the degree so that I could become a teacher. I’d be an awesome teacher.

      Right now I’m studying Creative Non-Fiction, but without wanting to sound arrogant through work I’ve done for magazines and here at TNB everything I’m being taught seems like unneccesary, pretentious bullshit to make it seem more important and complicated than it really is.

      The only really interesting thing I’ve learnt thus far is how to format scripts properly. the teacher we have for that has worked with Monty Python and Douglas Adams and put simply, he knows what he’s fucking talking about.

      HOWEVER, socially it’s been an amazing experience. Friends for life and all that stuff. That and discovering that I can drink a hell of a lot of Guinness without falling over…

      • Richard Cox says:

        There is value in writing and literature courses. I didn’t take enough of them at university, which was part of the problem. And I’m sure people who obtain advanced degrees could and should champion their benefits.

        There is a technical side to storytelling that is useful to be taught in an academic way, whether you learn it in school or teach yourself from a book like Robert McKee’s Story. But I’m not sure how anyone can find their voice and style through anything other than reading and writing.

        I mean, if you’re not proficient at all in writing, certainly you can learn a lot about basic structure and cadence and that sort of thing. But when you’re already better than most and you’re looking to reach the upper echelon, to me the only way to really do that is write until your fingers bleed.

        As an aside, I’ve decided now that I want to teach Creative Writing in English at the University of Amsterdam.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Recently we keep getting shown books that came out of Creative Writing programs… there were a whole slew of award winners from Britain’s first Creative Writing courses. They’re all beautifully written and crafted, but that’s all. They’re incredibly dull— the thing I object to most about what I’m being taught at the moment is the emphasis on literary masturbation— that is to say valuing style over substance. Like, you can write the most boring story in the world, but if the words are pretty it’s ‘genius.’

          I feel like I have to compromise what I want to write in order to get decent grades, which is ironic given it’s ‘creative’ writing. Then there are the teachers who already know what they do and don’t like.

          If I had my way classes would be hours of writing in silence with occasional workshopping.

          I’d make a good teacher. My friends tend to come to me when they don’t understand something because they say I’m much better at explaining things and giving feedback. This is no doubt coming across as very arrogant… and of course I don’t know everything. But I know a lot… why? Because for over a year I’ve been fortunate to be involved with TNB and a few magazines.

          It’s all about experience. I’ve been writing everyday for over three years. In 2007 a short story I posted on MySpace ended up on a German TV listings website as a ‘internet highlight of the week.’ That’s something money can’t buy (I mean three years of daily writing, not the german tv listings site)…

        • Richard Cox says:

          What’s missing most from modern media is story. Crafting a narrative by taking the reader/viewer/listener on a roller coaster ride of positive and negative reversals and ever-increasing personal stakes until emotions and the intensity of the situation reaches a fever pitch, and through one grand and intensely personal decision a life or a relationship or a country or a family is changed forever. Whether you are writing a stylistically genius literary novel or the plainest popcorn page turner, whether you are telling a joke or writing a memoir, every long form story ever told ought to include that general skeleton. I say “long form” because I suppose poetry and flash fiction might not include it…but even then it wouldn’t necessarily hurt if they did.

          As much as I like (and prefer) to read serious fiction, a lot of it, as you mentioned, is masturbation. But commercial fiction suffers from the same problems. And way too many films. Visually arresting shots are only the first step. This is why I’m so surprised by the praise for The Hurt Locker. It looks great, it feels real, but there’s no story inside. The whole film is just a commercial for the idea of war being a drug. And really, it doesn’t even accomplish that, because what it really tells us is “Insane people do insane things and have no understanding or interest in the consequences.”

          Not to say that I’m a story expert. It’s tough to craft a real story. I worked on my style for so long at the expense of developing storytelling skills that now I’m having to play catch up. And it’s a lifelong learning process anyway.

          As far as teaching, I know what you mean. Being a good teacher doesn’t mean being the smartest guy in the room about every subject. It’s being able to match your understanding of a certain concept to the audience. It’s understanding the way they might look at the world and making choices that will best enable the transfer of knowledge from you to them. It’s distilling a subject to its component parts. It’s pattern recognition. It’s conveying a passion for the subject. People who can do those things make the best teachers, at least the way I see it.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Exactly! That’s what I keep telling people, and something I think Greg Olear shares a similar view on. When I wrote my novel I designed it to be nothing more than pure entertainment. The story isn’t perfect, but it’s vaguely original and interesting. It just also happens to be filled with silly jokes and references to all sorts of obscure things from Peyton Mannings mastercard commercials to Ghostbusters to Shakespeare. I was able to do all that because I had the structure of the story set out before I started writing… I knew how I was going to tell my story and I then had room to entertain.

          I’m not against serious fiction, most of what I read is undoubtedly serious fiction, but there seems to be a recent trend for mundane, boring books where nothing really happens. And I’d agree the same is true of films— many of which of course are simply adaptations of boring, plotless books.

          Whether novel or film, I want to watch a story, not a ‘character study’.

          The story seems to be undervalued at the expense of ‘good’ writing. ‘Good’ really meaning ‘fancy.’ I’m with Hemingway when it comes to writing style— if you don’t need to use long words, then don’t. Nothing is worse when reading a story than having to stop to look up an obscure word that’s been thrown in as a result of over-teaching on some writing program in an attempt to impress everyone.

          I mean we revere Shakespeare and Dickens now, when in their time they were cheap entertainment peddlers. Shakespeare was basically the Michael Bay of his time.

          As for teaching… I’ve taught my five year old neighbour all sorts of obscure stuff. He doesn’t remember everything, but he proudly demonstrates how to tell if a dog is sick by feeling it’s nose and he can do an impression of the Fonz. The best way to educate is to entertain. My best teachers were the ones where I’d be excited to be going to one of their classes—- and they got the best out of me for it.

        • JB says:

          This is a great thread.

          My two cents: I think serious study of rhetoric and form is important. In my opinion, writing is a trade of sorts (not some mystical calling), and the language has working parts that should be studied and understood. We lament the obsession with style and form that belies serious literary fiction, but I see too many young writers obsessed with role play, with this idea of being a “writer”.

          And to mash up the serious literature/teaching bit, I always liked what Ed Abbey had to say about that stuff: “Most of what we call classics of world literature suggest artifacts in a wax museum. We have to hire and pay professors to get them read and talked about.”


          “The best thing about graduating from the university was that I finally had time to sit on a log and read a good book.”

          Oh, and James, be careful. If you do go into teaching don’t try to be the teacher students will think is cool and different. That’s the kiss of death for young teachers.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          There are certain things, I agree, that just have to be taught. But there is ‘over-teaching’… students wanting to be told exactly how they should write their story from the teacher and what have you… rather than getting on with it, experimenting with it and figuring it out for themselves like almost every other writer thoughout history did…

          I know what you mean about role play and the idea of being a ‘writer’. I wrote a post about it recently which gave off the wrong impression. Sometimes I like hanging out with my friends, drinking and talking about writing as though we’re all Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris and everything… but being a writer is simply about the writing— and I spend a hell of a lot of time dedicated to writing.

          What annoyed me recently was someone in my creative writing class trying to get me to be a facebook fan of her unpublished novel. Guess what? It’s a romance about vampires! Mocked up cover and everything…

          I’ll almost inevitably go into teaching. And I won’t try and be the teacher who is cool and different. I’ll be myself, I’ll teach how I would have liked to have been taught…

        • JB says:

          I have to admit, I don’t like hanging out with writers. They dress badly and they’re boring and painfully white and talk only about things writing-related. It’s a drag.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Well, it’s sort of different because they’re sort of friends/writers.

          I only really like talking about writing with them because it means I get to talk a lot, and basically preach my beleifs to them. Because I have genuinely written a novel, and because of TNB it’s one topic where people respect my opinions and let me talk on an on.

          Although I much prefer talking about interesting topics, obviously….

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    I no longer have TV, but there was a guy who used to appear on DeVry University commercials, and I thought he was a really good actor. I’d say to friends, “Hey, have you seen that DeVry University guy?” They never did, but they thought it was hilarious that I thought he was talented. He really was. I don’t know why they replaced him. He was like this invisible person who’d stand next to losers and say, “This is Susan. Susan’s going nowhere — or she was till she started DeVry University.” Then he’d stand invisibly next to Susan as she happily studied at DeVry and went on to make millions because of her degree. He was, like, the greatest commercial actor I think I ever saw.

  12. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Failure wasn’tan option, alright. Not in the late 60’s. Because if you dropped below a 2.0 two semesters in a row you got to be 1-A for the draft and had to leave the frat life for the Nam and Uncle Ho. God I got through with a cumulative 2.02. I tell everyone I graduated 12th in my class which was true. Had to go to extra summer school term and there were 12 students for graduation. I blossomed later though and did 34 years as a high school history teacher and got to help a lot of kids. Was in minority inner city though. Some days I would have been safer in the Nam.

  13. […] of the failure of Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and of the triumph of Patrick […]

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