The Conformity of Nonconformity
As depicted in the film, Reed [College] is the paradigm of the university as envisaged by populist right-wing Christians—a place of unrelenting animosity toward God, tradition, and the South. “Get in the closet, Baptist boy,” a lesbian girl tells him. He claims he’s floating in a sea of individuality and while that may be true on the level of personality, Miller’s Reed is a sea of intellectual uniformity.
In one sense, Miller does at Reed what he did in church: he fits in. He admits as much toward the end when he confides in another student that he hid his faith because he wanted to be liked. Miller wants to widen the circle of likability, to include liberals. But when he proceeds to confess that he’s tired of being a hypocrite and a coward, the testimony rings a bit hollow. Miller has shown no signs of internal conflict or deep struggle. The period of his play-acting at Reed comes off as gentle farce and it is, in its way, entertaining. But it is not the set-up for tragic tension.
What is also striking about the film is how utterly absent from Miller’s Reed is the notion of college as an arena of the serious exploration of ideas. Moving from the Baptist world of Texas to the liberal, even atheistic, world of Reed does force Miller to confront opinions alien to his initial views. But these are articulated as nothing more than slogans. In the seminar discussion of Homer, an author in Reed’s famous core curriculum, students do indeed engage in a lively exchange. But they have precious little to say about the book itself and the professor seems quite content to let the students go around the room opining their views of religion and politics. There is disagreement here but it’s not informed by the assigned text or by much of anything other than personal testimony. In this respect, Reed is the mirror image of personality-drenched Christianity, rooted in individual testimony, that Miller left behind in Texas.
This brings to mind William James’s ace line: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”