I was one of the many people who failed to watch Friday Night Lights when it was first broadcast on NBC in 2006, despite increasingly desperate pleas from critics who believed it to be a kind of masterpiece. Mea culpa. Thanks to the miracle of DVD binge-watching, I’ve now watched all five seasons and can attest to its greatness. Moreover, FNL offers an important lens on the way Americans understand higher education.
America is, of course, a nation of immigrants. Much our collective narrative follows the arc of departure and assimilation. FNL dramatizes a specific, modern version of that story: the vast, ongoing, internal migration from small towns and cities to the urban centers of cultural and economic vitality. Football is just the vehicle; the subject of FNL is how people are driven from places like Dillon, Texas even as such places become, unalterably, a part of their soul.
But because the FNL story engine was built around high school football players and their peers, higher education plays a critical role in that drama. College is the first port city on the other side of the cultural and economic ocean between Dillon and the new world. The vision of higher education portrayed in FNL is, I think, a very accurate representation of how most people understand college today. Parts of that vision are very accurate. Others are, in fact, quite wrong. So it’s worth considering what Friday Night Lights tells us about higher education in America, and what that means.