Analysis for “Higher Learning”

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At the end of the movie the word “unlearned” is typed across the screen. Higher learning is synonymous with the term higher education, meaning education at universities and colleges as is referenced in the dictionary.  However, in this film, it refers to the movie’s title, “Higher Learning,” and it means that higher learning is the process of unlearning preconceived ideas and biases. Additionally, racial discrimination-induced violence is related to the abnormally high self-esteem of the perpetrator based on his or her race alone, though otherwise the person has very low self-esteem.

The movie “Higher Learning” is a drama about different issues of university student life, especially as they relate to all kinds of prejudice: sexual, racial, social included. Racial prejudice is one of the main themes. At the start of this movie, we can see one of the movie’s main characters, Remy, who is an outcast and misfit, ignored by another students.  We also find Kristen, who has a little bit racial discrimination and isn’t sure of her own identity yet, and Malik, who is an African American confused about his own identity.  Each of them ironically share some of the same prejudices toward each other and others. Each of them value some of the same things about life but do not realize they have anything in common.

When Malik gets on the elevator and meets Kristen by chance, Kristen reflexively grabs her bag, even though they have never seen each other. Malik notices and shakes his head to himself, accustomed to the scenario. This is the introduction to racial tension in the movie. The point that we should consider is why Kristen did that. If she had personally had a bad experience with a black person, it would be understandable. But what is more likely is that Kristen had the fear of being alone with a black man because of her preconceived bias and her lack of relationships with black people in her primarily caucasion neighborhood near Disneyland.

Another example of prejudice, besides peer prejudice, is prejudice by figures of authority. In one of the last scenes of the movie, Remy is running out of the building after shooting people with the rifle, and securities attack only Malik, who hit Remy.  The police do this without surveying the scene objectively and taking into consideration the situational circumstances. All of the security personnel are white men and they only doubt a black person’s behavior.  They try to help Remy, who is a murderer, because they automatically assume the white man’s innocence.  Additionally, even after Remy pulls a gun on them, they are more concerned that Remy is O.K. and that he does not hurt himself then they are about punishing him.  There is much sympathy for Remy even as he is committing a crime.  Contrast that to the way they immediately treat Malik like a criminal even though he is emotionally distraught that his girlfriend was just killed.

Also, in a previous situation when Remy pulls a gun on his Jewish roommate David and on Malik when Malik stands up for David, David is screaming to security “You have the wrong guy!” as they hold down Malik and let Remy run away. They don’t listen to David, the Jewish minority, and continue to hold down Malik, the black minority.  Remy gets away and is never pursued or apprehended, even when they find a Nazi symbol in Remy’s room and the book he was reading about white supremacy.  They just shake their head and smirk and dismiss it as inconsequential.  If Remy had been pursued and arrested at that point then no other crimes would have been committed. I think these scenes reflect on the discrimination of black people and other minorities by people in positions of authority, including government positions. For example, we have seen and listened from the media about police officers hitting black men whether they are really guilty of a crime (and dangerous) or not. This situation is caused by the over-inflated ego of the police officer because of his race and the feeling he is superior because of it.

“Violence appears to be most commonly a result of threatened egotism—that is, highly favorable views of self that are disputed by some person or circumstance…violence is perpetrated by a small subset of people with favorable views of themselves.” (1)  Scott, the neo-nazi who was the first student to accept Remy as he was, invited Remy to participate in a violent agenda by first appealing to Remy’s need for community and acceptance, and then developing a threat to Remy’s newly found white supremist ego. Remy initially says to Scott, “Seems like everybody’s sticking up for their own, taking to their own.  I don’t know anybody out here.  It’s different.  All I got is me.” I think Remy is just vulnerable and feeling alone.  He doesn’t initially have a life philosophy about racial inequality, although overtones of his lack of respect for people are displayed in the disrespectful posters he puts up in his room portraying women as sex objects instead of people.  He also runs up to Kristen’s first boyfriend, delighted that he had “dominated” Kristen and raped her.  He is also suspicious of goodness and refuses Wayne’s friendship at the pool table, so he doesn’t show good judgment in choosing friends.  Scott influences Remy to be a person who has high self-esteem based solely on racial discrimination and his membership in the group.  However, Remy is only holding to the agenda initially because of wanting to belong. When Remy’s friends attacked one couple, beating up the African American man and slapping the white woman, Remy just see that situation and doesn’t participate.  His facial expression is one of distress at the violence.

Scott, who is the leader of the Neo-Nazis, skillfully uses what Remy says to provoke Remy to such an intensity that he is ready to hate and kill in order to prove his loyalty to the white supremacy agenda.  He tries to make Remy feel threatened by the “enemy” and in doing so, Remy feels the need to protect his self-image. Davis (2) found that the most common factor that promoted violence, among nine other factors, was “self-image compensating” that involved aggression in defense of a low self-image.  Ironically, Malik did the same thing when Remy ridiculed his shirt, which only perpetrated more violence.  This is the cycle that needs to be stopped, because if both enemies are threatened and try to defend their self-image, they both continue to do harm.

On top of the building, surveying the celebratory scene of students participating in the Peace Festival, Remy sits down in mental anguish and reconsiders his promise to kill.  He is not sure he really wants to hurt anyone.  It is the cry of Scott to be loyal to the “brotherhood,” which is a challenge to prove loyalty to the group or risk being rejected, that makes Remy act decisively and start shooting, which ends up killing Deja.

Remy’s low self-esteem made him vulnerable to be filled with a violent, anti-social philosophy on life by a group that tried to give him acceptance if he followed their agenda. That offered him very high self-esteem at the cost of loyalty to the group.  This high self-esteem based on feelings of superiority is one cause of discrimination, which can lead to violence, as it did in this case.

In conclusion, the movie “Higher Learning” reveals the many different kinds of discrimination that can occur.  It also shows how a person can be judgmental about someone else’s discrimination yet have their own set of personal prejudices without recognizing it.  Finally, the movie revealed how people who are isolated from the mainstream culture and who lack a positive self-identity are susceptible to negative peer groups who can influence them with a harmful philosophy in exchange for acceptance by a peer group.  The newly found high self-esteem from being associated with that group is hard for that person to lose, and so he or she will adhere to a harmful agenda because of peer pressure, even if that person didn’t not initially believe that philosophy. Violence promotes more violence, and people need to stop thinking of each other as the enemy.

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  1. Baumeister, Roy. “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem”, Psychological Review 103, no. 1 (1006) p. 5.
  2. Davis, Eddie. “Youth Violence: An Action Research Project.” Journal of Multicultural Study Work. 1991, V1 n3 p. 33-44.
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