When James Franco started to chronically enroll in grad school programs from MFA to PhD, at schools like Columbia, New York University, Yale, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, and Rhode Island School of Design, I was hoping, half-ironically, that his maniacal approach to the joy of learning — which began in 2008 or so, when the financial crisis was ruining the job prospects of the young, so it felt like Franco was mocking us with his schooling — was the greatest performance-art hack of all: exposing the emptiness of higher education’s bubble, how money and fame can trump ability when it comes to the chance to learn.
But considering his recent essay, excerpted from the book Should I Go to Grad School? , the explanation is probably far more banal. (Which is unfortunate, because there is a book in that idea, I think, a really good one! I am also jealous of how much learning James Franco has gotten to do — without loans, I would gander.)
The explanation is this: James Franco just really loves learning! For the actor, in a writing program, “You shouldn’t expect much collaboration with your peers.” But in a film program and art school, conversely, “All students work on each other’s films. Everyone rotates roles: In one production you’re the director, in another you’re the cinematographer, in another you’re the boom operator. This makes each person invested in his or her classmates’ work.” Art school provides a different kind of criticism (James Franco is very interested in criticism): “It’s harder for people to criticize each other along conventional lines because the art world has shattered into so many different kinds of practices.”
What trumps it all, though, for James Franco, is the caliber of the teachers. He notes that the best authors are also teachers, since they need to do it for the money in addition to the art. He’s learned from some pretty cool teachers, who have taught him as much as Harmony Korine and Sam Raimi. This portion, of course, may have the average person who cannot afford to be mired in loans for the opportunity of grad school or even an expensive writer’s workshop rolling over and screeching, because James Franco has a talent for inspiring those feelings when he’s not being a pretty good actor in movies when he wants to be. (The average person, who is not James Franco, can win six figures on a game show and still end up with federal loans post-grad school. Reader, I married that unicorn.) He also makes the observation that students who are fully funded (and superstars) are less stressed than MA students. (Eat the rich.)
However, James Franco is very right when he talks about the joys of grad school: “It’s a place where the things you consider sacred are also considered sacred by the people around you.” True! Sure, I pick on you sometimes for my Internet job, James Franco, but do you want to start a writing group, maybe? I’ll totally read your shitty first drafts.
Meanwhile, if you really want to read a more nuanced take on what education has done for someone, Sheila Heti’s contribution to Should I Go to Grad School? is far, far, more interesting.