Review: After the Ivory Tower Falls

After the Ivory Tower Falls, Will Bunch. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

Summary: How the culture wars, costs, and inaccessibility of college have contributed to our political divides and what may be done.

I graduated from college in 1976. Because of personal savings, scholarships, and work, I finished college without debt. Our family did not have much in the way of financial resources at that time and did not contribute financially except for providing a roof over my head. Low, state-subsidized tuitions helped make that possible. Reading this book, I realized that this could not have happened in 2022. If I went to college, I likely would have ended with five or six figured debt. I even might not have gone to college.

Will Bunch argues that there are two Americas–one that manages to afford a college education, and one that does not and either finishes or drops out with massive debts, or doesn’t even try. He proposes that our political divides map onto those two Americas. He opens the book by using Knox County, Ohio as an object lesson of this division. Knox County is the home of the elite, liberal arts college, Kenyon College in Gambier, as well as Mount Vernon, six miles to the west, the county seat and a town struggling to get by after its largest factories were shuttered. Kenyon costs in excess of $76,000 a year and attracts a national student body, many from households that can afford these costs. In 2020, the median household income in Mount Vernon was $46,656. In terms of politics, Gambier is an island of blue surrounded by an ocean of red, and Bunch, who spent time embedded in the area as a journalist, maps how those differences played out.

He then zooms out to a time when public education got as close to being universally accessible, following World War 2 and the G.I. Bill, the building boom that accompanied the Baby Boom, and the low or no tuitions (in the case of California) for in-state institutions at public institutions. He traces the increasing disaffection toward public support for colleges to the political radicalism of the Vietnam era and the rise of the culture wars and conservative talk radio in the 1980’s and 1990’s, particularly in the Clinton era. During this time, state support for higher education began to decrease and costs rose. And so began the efforts of colleges to recruit from out of state or even internationally those who would pay premium prices. By the 2020’s, student debt had climbed to $1.7 trillion and scandals like the Varsity Blues scandal exposed the pay to play admissions policies with vast inequities, particularly at the most elite schools.

Bunch then zooms in again, describing four groups, illustrated by four individuals that he argues comprise the two Americas. First are the Left Perplexed, boomers and Gen-Xers who are baffled by the rise of both Trumpism and youth drawn to socialism. Second are the Left Broke, the children of the Left Perplexed, saddled with high debts and drawn to socialist solutions and concerns for racial justice. Third are the Left Behind, the Boomers and Xers who went to work out of high school in factory jobs, many of which went away or were off-shored, people often drawn to Donald Trump as one who affirms their value, their work ethic, and their concerns. Finally, there are the Left Out, the young growing up in the former factory towns who don’t have access to the college track, who work in warehouse and service industries while struggling with alcohol or opioid addiction and higher rates of suicide.

He then chronicles both the increased resentments of foreclosed opportunities in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the rejection of the knowledge associated with college from science to social analysis, particularly among the Left Behind, who often felt themselves belittled and marginalized by the progressive elites associated with higher education.

Bunch then turns to Truman-era solutions as the beginnings of a way out, arguing for the public good of subsidized post-secondary education, whether college or skilled trades. He also looks at the possible benefits of a National Service program for 18 year-olds, bringing people from a variety of backgrounds together for the good of the country as well as mentoring that prepares them for further educational options. In addition to advancing the common good, such a program would help close the divides and forging new bonds of commonality.

I found Bunch’s survey of the higher education and cultural landscape both persuasive in the broad strokes and flawed in the nuances. I wonder if the portrayal of an college vs. high school educated divide, while working as a broad generalization, especially among white Americans, neither explains the support of Trump politics among the educated, nor the more progressive policies supported by some communities with less access to higher education.

What is more compelling is the account of rising college costs, the burdens of college debt, and the urgency for a new policy that recognizes the public good of education beyond high school. To fail to act on this perpetuates not only economic inequities but also political divides. The best way to avoid divides is to include those who might be alienated. It is actually in the common interest of all of us to provide education beyond high school at the public expense as opposed to that education being available only to those who can pay. But that will require a shift in understanding of “us versus them” to “we” and from competing interests to the common good. The question this leaves me with is where the leadership will come from to forge that new understanding.

One thought on “Review: After the Ivory Tower Falls

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2022 | Bob on Books

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