Taking the Blue Pill: the Matrix and ASU



A colleague of mine recently explained to me that they are working every day to improve student outcomes at Adams State University (ASU). I pointed out that there are several Watching Adams Podcasts that directly discuss these issues with former students, including the inability to get a math tutor to prepare for the GRE, being saddled with debt and no degree, and feeling “infantilized” by the university administration. This person responded by saying, “I haven’t listened to any. I find that putting too much of that perspective into my work affects my ability to be enthusiastic and present with students. I guess I just really love the taste of steak.”

For those who may have missed it, this was a reference to the 1999 sci-fi action film, “The Matrix.” For the six people reading this article who haven’t seen it, the film follows a computer hacker named Neo who (SPOILER ALERT) discovers that his world is just a computer simulation used to distract humanity while machines harvest their bodies as an energy source. At one point, a guru named Morpheus offers Neo the choice to learn more about the true nature of reality… or simply forget about the difficult questions Neo has encountered.

Morpheus: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

“Wonderland” is a reference, of course, to “Alice in Wonderland” – a veiled critique that Lewis Carroll leveled at constructions of state power, religion and morality in 19th century British society.

Neo, being the hero of the story, chooses to face the uncomfortable truth and “awakens” to a dystopian future. While bleak, it nonetheless offers him the opportunity to attain enlightenment by realizing the true nature of reality in the real world outside the Matrix. Neo is then able to fully understand how to create a better world for humanity… And also do some Kung Fu that defies physics. Neo took the red pill.

Yes, but what about “the taste of steak?” This is a reference to another character in the film, Cypher, who betrays Neo and Morpheus and cuts a deal with the Matrix overlord, Agent Smith, in order to forget all about the real world and instead bask in the temporal pleasures offered by the computer simulation. Cypher took the blue pill.

In an upscale restaurant (that doesn’t actually exist), Cypher muses to Agent Smith about this philosophical problem while savoring a delicious cut of sirloin.

Cypher: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?” [Takes a bite of steak] “Ignorance is bliss.”


And this is precisely what my colleague was describing. They are indeed aware that ASU is failing many of its students – literally and figuratively – with poorly-designed programs, practices, and policies. They know that student engagement and morale are consistently low, that students only have a 21% chance of graduating in 4 years, and that they are taking on considerable loads of debt for the promise of job prospects that remain weak – especially for ASU graduates. And this is to say nothing about the many struggles facing ASU faculty and staff (frequently covered on Watching Adams).

And yet, because they find “putting too much of that perspective into [their] work affects [their] ability to be enthusiastic and present with students,” they consciously choose to avoid considering the perspectives of former ASU students who weren’t successful and the implications this has on the university’s deliverance of its mission. The experience of taking home a paycheck—worry-free and without qualms about what they are actually accomplishing—is indeed “juicy and delicious.” And after roughly nine years of employment at ASU, they too realize that “ignorance is bliss.” They are taking the blue pill.

Compare this experience to that of employees who have attempted to investigate, identify, and remedy the real structural problems of the university. They took the red pill. And many of them have been met with swift retribution by ASU administration, the overlords of this particular Matrix – as documented in The Killing of CAG.

So can we really blame people at ASU who take the blue pill? Morpheus explains this conundrum to Neo as they walk in a computer-simulated city surrounded by people who believe it is real.

Morpheus: “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

Time and again, article after article, topic after topic, Watching Adams has exposed uncomfortable truths about Adams State University’s failure to create effective outcomes, failure to create a supportive campus culture, and failure to be open and accountable to the community it serves. And often times, the response is not that Watching Adams is incorrect (because the data cited is incontrovertible), but rather that it simply doesn’t “feel good” to be exposed to such truths. So Watching Adams and anyone associated with it must be vilified, shamed, and outcast.

Waking people up from the Matrix is a dangerous proposition, it seems. The response is a natural psychological defense mechanism. And for many, the prospect of taking the red pill is simply too much work, too disquieting, and too undermining of their self-concept and pragmatic circumstance. So for people like my colleague, the choice remains to take the blue pill, at least for now, because that steak is juicy and delicious… while peering down the rabbit-hole looks awfully frightening by comparison.