Back to School is a 1986 comedy film starring and written by the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. It told the story of Thornton Melon, a middle-aged man who, despite amazing success in the business world, still regrets never going to college and “getting an education.”
It was a lowbrow comedy from a decade that was filled with them. Films such as Caddyshack, Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and even Dangerfield’s own Easy Money predated Back to School, making this more on the tail end of this trend.
However, despite easily being lost in a decade filled with similar movies, Back to School has still managed to stand out, even nearly 35 years later. This may be partly because it was rated PG-13, a rating that made it’s debut just two years prior. All of the other films listed above are rated R and faced issues trying to reach as broad of an audience as possible.
Still, there are other reasons why this film is fondly remembered. The eccentric character of Thornton Melon, the campus-based humor and the style of wit that is unique to Rodney Dangerfield.
However, the film has something else unique about it: Much of its plot centers allegations of academic plagiarism. So let’s take a look at this film and see if, finally, Rodney Dangerfield can finally get some respect.
Content Warning: Spoilers for Back to School
The movie begins with a flashback that shows a young Thorton Melon bringing home a report card to his father. His dad, upset at his low grades, asks him how he plans on going to college with grades like that. Young Thornton says he doesn’t want to and that he wants to work in the shop with him. However, his father rebukes him by saying, “A man that has no education has nothing.”
During the credits, we see a montage of Thornton taking over the family business and growing both it and his own wealth exponentially. When we return to the film, we see Thornton watching his latest commercial in the back of a limo and learn that there are now “150 locations across America.”
Thornton then gets a call from his son, Jason, who is away at college. Though Jason says that he is doing well he deflects all requests to come home for break. Though Thornton is hurt, he seems to understand.
However, after a fight with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Thornton tells his limo driver, Lou, to drive to the college and they head out on an impromptu road trip. There he first struggles to find his son and, when he does, learns that everything he’s been telling him is a lie.
According to Jason, he’s only the towel boy on the diving team, not an actual member, and is struggling both in his classes and in his social life. Jason says that he wants to quit and Thornton winds up giving him a speech that echoes the one his father gave him decades earlier.
It’s here that Thornton makes the decision to go back to school himself. Though he’s met with pushback from the faculty due to his lack of credentials, he donates money to the school to enable the building of “The Thornton Melon School of Business”, which he helps break ground on.
However, all is not well as one of the business professors, Dr. Phillip Barbay, is not happy to have Thornton as a student. He makes his disgust well known at the groundbreaking ceremony and through the rest of the film.
Much of what follows next is the meat of the film, which features antics from Thornton using his money to buy his way through much of college. The only other subplot involves a romance between Thornton and one of his professors, Dr. Diane Turner, who happens to be dating Dr. Barbay at the time.
Things come to a head when Jason returns to their shared dorm room to find a small army scientists and experts doing all of Thornton’s work for him. Though Thornton tries to give Jason a professionally-written astronomy paper, Jason refuses and says he wants to do it on his own.
However, the papers don’t fool anyone as. Dr. Turner realizes that Thornton couldn’t have written it. She even said that whoever did write his paper didn’t know anything about Kurt Vonnegut, even though it was Vonnegut himself that wrote it as part of a cameo appearance.
After Dr. Barbay and Dr. Turner take their issues to the dean, Thornton is forced to sit for an oral exam that had a grueling 27 sections. Despite being tired and far from the best student, Thornton was able to finish and pass, thus proving that he did learn the materal.
After that, the film quickly wraps up the other subplots and Thornton, despite being just a freshman, is allowed to give an address to the graduating class.
Understanding the Plagiarism
There is a lot to unpack in this film and many angles to approach it from. First, let’s start with the angles and elements that worked for me.
The film is actually a very interesting look at plagiarism pre-internet. Not only does it show how people often plagiarized, namely getting someone else to write the paper, but how it was caught and handled.
Though essay mills are a hot topic in 2020, they’ve existed for decades, originally as a mail-order affair. We saw this in Boy Meets World, which also predated the internet. While Thornton’s cheating wasn’t technically through an essay mill, it’s easy to look at his team of researchers and famous authors as being a rich person’s version of one. To that end, that’s the joke. Where a normal cheating student would spend a few dollars and send off for an essay, Thornton used his wealth to bring the essay mill to him.
The detection side was also interesting. He was caught by Dr. Turner, who realized he couldn’t have written the paper that he did. To be clear, there was no physical proof. This was decades before plagiarism reports or authorship analysis tools would be available. So the trial was to give him a quiz on all of the information in an environment where he couldn’t cheat.
For Thornton, that was especially rough since he had cheated in all of his classes, meaning each of his professors had to take a turn with him. It’s an exaggeration for comedy and plot, but it’s the kind of test students might have been put through in another time.
Another element that worked is why Thornton plagiarized. Thornton doesn’t belong in college. He has no need for it, he has no use for it and is only there because his father told him that, no matter what, he’d be nothing without an education.
That is a toxic sentiment that needs to die. College is not right for everyone. We shouldn’t be pressuring people to go to college just because we felt that pressure. This creates students that don’t want to be there, don’t learn while they are there and are more easily tempted to cheat. Would Thornton have cheated if he actually valued the college experience or felt like he needed the education? Probably not. He was doing it to fulfill an arbitrary requirement from his dad and nothing more.
That makes it more impressive that Jason declined the invitation to join. He clearly has or had similar feelings to his father and didn’t make the same choices. However, that can be attributed to the fact that, by this point in the film, he was fitting in much better at the school and seemed to have changed his mind about quitting.
As for what didn’t work, the outcome is probably the biggest problem. The teachers know Thornton plagiarized but, since he was able to pass an oral exam, he was allowed to pass his classes. That doesn’t feel like actual consequences for very serious plagiarism.
Let’s not mince words, he paid experts to do all of his work for him. If students do that in college today, they face serious repercussions including expulsion. Yes, it would have been difficult to prove the plagiarism considering the nature of it (it’s still difficult 35 years later), but the case seemed pretty solid, especially since all of his professors were in on it.
Thornton could have easily been expelled but instead he was given a second chance, got the girl and was allowed to speak at graduation. That’s very odd treatment for someone that was convincingly accused of plagiarism.
To be clear, this is a lowbrow comedy. This is a lot of very serious analysis about a very unserious film. I can’t imagine any of the people involved with it ever imagined some weirdo in 2020 would spill over 1,500 words on the plagiarism plot of the movie.
But that said, one of the reasons I started this series was because pop culture does shape expectations. A topic such as plagiarism might not get a lot of exposure in popular media but the exposure can be powerful and long lasting.
With Back to School, what most people remember is the Kurt Vonnegut joke. Most don’t even really think of this as a movie about plagiarism. Instead, it’s a movie about a rick eccentric that goes to college and happens to hire Vonnegut to do his work for him.
In many ways, this film still manages to produce a fairly complex and nuanced portrayal of plagiarism. Though it wasn’t the film’s intent, it’s an interesting look at why some students cheat and how plagiarism cases went down in the days before the internet.
Though it’s disappointing that the consequences weren’t more serious, it also may be the most realistic thing in the movie. After all, Thornton only got into the school because of his donation, it seems unlikely that the school would want to expel him, especially without concrete proof.
If you view the film as a lesson on the dangers of plagiarism, it does a really bad job. If you look at it as a surprisingly deep look on the how’s and why’s of plagiarism, it does much better. It may not be the best look at plagiarism in a film, but it’s far better than one should expect from a 1980s comedy film.
Want more plagiarism in pop culture? Check out the other installments in this series below:
- The Facts of Life
- Leave it to Beaver
- The Waltons
- Jane the Virgin
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part One)
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part Two)
- Boy Meets World
- WKRP in Cincinnati
- Mystery Science Theater 3000
- Criminal Minds
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- Lou Grant
- The Goldbergs (Part 1)
- Fresh Off the Boat
- Big Fat Liar
- The Kids are Alright
- King of the Hill (Part 1)
- King of the Hill (Part 2)
- The Goldbergs (Part 2)
- Young Sheldon