Beavis and Butt-Head Reconsidered

Josh Stephens
6 min readMar 16, 2023

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Probably not earning an A.

(Content warning: Mildly crude language and heaps of irony.)

In observance of the recent reboot of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” I would like to revisit the supremely obvious, but also hilarious, disclaimer that preceded every episode. It warned that the titular idiots’ antics “would cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested, possibly deported” and insisted that Beavis and Butt-Head, the title characters in a half-hour MTV cartoon in which they mostly watched and commented on music videos, “are not role models.”

I beg to differ.

I would need ChatGPT’s entire vocabulary to fully account for Beavis and Butthead’s anti-intellectualism. They embody truancy, thoughtlessness, complacency, callousness, and illiteracy. They made the era’s slacker ethos look militant by comparison. No college short of reform school is going to admit either Beavis or Butt-Head anytime soon. And yet, I submit that college applicants today can learn from two of the most notorious dumbasses of the 1990s.

“Beavis & Butt-Head” didn’t have anything resembling a plot, and character development was scarce. But we watched them. They became as deeply embedded in ’90s culture as Kurt Cobain himself. We watched them for one overarching reason: they had opinions.

Notwithstanding some truly sick burns, their opinions rarely included anything resembling nuance. “Rules” and “yes!” were high praise, applied liberally to Pantera (who “kicks everybody’s ass”), Megadeath, Iron Maiden, and, my personal favorite, Ministry. “This sucks” was an unappealable dismissal, assigned to Journey, Winger, Pink Floyd, college music, and bubblegum pop. Occasionally, something was “cool” or “kinda cool.” (Surprisingly, the Bee Gees fell into this category.) Otherwise, there was a lot of air guitar, head-banging, grunt-laughter, and scatalogical double-entendres.

They were caricatures of teenage boys… but only barely.

Ambitious high school students today accomplish more in a week than Beavis and Butt-head will do in their lifetimes. I am frequently dazzled by everything from students’ science fair projects, history papers, political activism, and everything in between. All of these things rightfully appear on and enhance applications to elite, highly selective colleges.

But none of these accomplishments ensures opinions, convictions, or actual passion.

Words like “voice” and “passion” are overused and uselessly abstract. Be that as it may, Beavis and Butt-Head speak their minds with a rare sense of purity and conviction. Their “passion” for heavy metal (and occasionally disco) is palpable. Their “voices,” though usually confined to a limited vocabulary, are unmistakable. Never do they shy away from rendering judgment. We always know how they feel, what they think, and who they are.

College applications offer students the chance, within reason, to express themselves candidly — opinions and all. Many students — including, and especially, academically accomplished students — retreat from this opportunity, though. Some of them fear judgment, or, being accustomed to tests, they don’t want to be “wrong.” Some don’t have an audience for their opinions and, therefore, have never learned to articulate them. Some probably don’t think that anyone will care. Many don’t have strong role models or have not been taught how to express themselves.

For all the talk about “voice,” “advocacy,” and “critical thinking,” the typical high school curriculum is an opinion-free zone. Many teachers do not care, or are not allowed to care, about students’ convictions. Rubrics are averse to opinions and even personal perspectives. A class like AP English Language, which almost every ambitious high school student takes, professes to help students understand texts and generate analyses thereof. That’s fine, except that, as long as a student knows how to “construct an argument” or “identify rhetorical devices,” it doesn’t matter what the argument those devices are used for.

Political discussions can be particularly tricky. To their great credit, high school students today are keenly aware of political tensions and support social justice. But, there’s no doubt that political homogeneity often mutes discussion, especially if a student is afraid of being misunderstood or deviating from perceived norms. And, in cases when people are generally in agreement (or seem to be), students may feel like they have nothing to contribute. Many communities have not yet figured out how to discuss opinions without rendering value judgments about them.

Granted, teachers need to be fair, and it’s hard to grade opinions. But thoughtful teachers know how to do this. And they should. The curricular aversion to opinions, at a time when it’s developmentally crucial for kids to form and express opinions (even silly ones), contradicts the whole point of education, and it makes school dull.

That sucks.

I draw on a deep well of firsthand experience when I say I don’t recommend spending all afternoon watching music videos. Even so, it’s not impossible for students today to follow Beavis and Butt-head’s lead. As frivolous as Beavis and Butt-head are, they are useful foils for today’s trends.

Beavis and Butt-head exposed themselves to an unusually wide range of pop culture. In the old days, you watched whatever MTV presented to you, no matter how amazing or awful it was. There was no fast-forward button and no algorithm to shield you from displeasure. Nor was a catalog of billions of videos at your disposal. You developed your tastes by watching a variety of videos and deciding (with some peer pressure, of course) which ones suited you. You weren’t afraid to pass judgment because, after all, it was pop music.

To quote the wisdom of Beavis, observing Gwar: “it’s, like, you watch all these videos and, like, you watch TV, and you watch TV, and everything sucks, and something like this comes on and it’s cool.” Beavis has defined for us what a foil is — a meaningful point of contrast that makes everything more legible. This is precisely the process by which personal taste develops. You need to identify the bad in order to appreciate the good. (Gwar is, of course, an ensemble of enormous vomit-spewing space aliens who play electric guitar.)

When they weren’t on the sofa, Beavis and Butt-head often took to wandering aimlessly around their town. It may not seem like much, but they were exploring their world. That’s something that the smartphone generation doesn’t do nearly often enough. The simple act of taking a walk can be infinitely enlightening, even for ambitionless slackers.

But, most of all, they didn’t care. They both knew that, if they said something stupid, the other would call them out. The next video would come on or the next girl would walk by, and life would go on.

Why does it matter what sucks and what rules? In terms of raw college readiness, it doesn’t. But the college application process, for better or worse, involves getting to know applicants as individuals, not just as students. And opinions, especially about well known topics, are one of the best ways for strangers to get to know each other.

A sincere opinion, positive or negative, on almost anything is likely to be refreshing and welcome — in part because so many aspects of the college process are contrived, scripted, and predictable. I might not remember, or care, about an SAT score or AP English grade. But I’ll surely remember one kid’s hatred of tap dancing, another’s fascination for Incan history, and another’s bewilderment at 1990s MTV shows.

So, to the college applicants out there: choose your opinions wisely — maybe not on “chicks” or heavy metal, but on something meaningful — and express them. Express them thoughtfully. Make them interesting. Make them confident and clear. Tell us what you think and how you feel so that readers know who you are.

And with that, buttmunch, I’ll shut up.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2021 and 2022 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, Cornell University, Dartmouth University, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University, and all campuses of the University of California.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

Image courtesy of Paramount+.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.