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Will Bunch – After the Ivory Tower Falls [Feature Review]

Will BunchDid Higher Ed Break America?

A Feature Review of

After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics―and How to Fix It
Will Bunch

Hardback: William Morrow, 2022
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]

Reviewed by John Hawthorne

This review originally appeared on
the reviewer’s Substack, and is reprinted here with permission.
Be sure to subscribe to his Substack. (It’s excellent!)

Fifty years ago this month I arrived on the Purdue University campus eager to begin my college career. I had been on the college track throughout high school, taking some advanced (at the time) math courses and honors English classes. Most of my friends (except for some of the band friends) were also in the college track. I knew about their studies in more vocational areas but not really. [1]

I went to Purdue to become a high school math teacher, which didn’t work out so well. Eventually, I wound up in sociology with a commitment to making a difference to college students. I began teaching college in 1981, spent from 1993 to 2010 as a cabinet-level administrator, and finished my career back in the classroom. All of my career was spent in relatively small Christian liberal arts institutions.

Looking back, I realize that the beginning of my career coincided with the zenith of higher education. Enrollment was growing, more high school grads were college-bound, and the Reagan-era austerity had not yet set in. And so my career was spent analyzing and trying to offset the ever-present crises of higher education.

For this reason, I was especially interested in Will Bunch’s new book: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — And How to Fix It. I’d read a couple of articles about the book and seen him interviewed on the news. So I knew I had to read the book.

A pivotal part of the story he tells is the impact of the GI Bill. Suddenly, veterans who were coming back from World War II had financial support to attend college. Surprising to the college types, these new students were invested in critical thinking and the liberal arts. This surprise was unpacked in the 1945 Truman Commission Report. It’s so significant that I’m going to simply quote Bunch’s argument.

“Truman’s words — and the yearlong deliberations of his blue-ribbon panel — capture the zeitgeist of the era, and help explain why mass college education was suddenly seen as a new national priority and a public good, and not just for World War II vets.”

“Nicholas Strohl, a Wisconsin-based education historian who has studied and written about the Truman Commission and the early debate over federal funding for higher education, said the commission members — an array of leading academic and religious leaders — felt a strong sense of moral duty. Most had grown up during World War I, and then as adults watched the planet helplessly spiral downward into World War II. Many were moved, in particular, by the fallout from the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war, and the new fear that either the brewing Cold War or some other conflict could result in a nuclear World War III that might destroy the planet. “In a real sense the future of our civilization depends on the direction education takes, not just in the distant future, but in the days immediately ahead,” the panel’s final report would say in 1947. As Strohl observed, the authors believed that universities could be the anchor of a global future based around rational thought and dialogue between cultures that would foster mutual understanding. “Disaster is not inevitable,” the Truman commission report stated, addressing the fifteen-kiloton elephant in the room. “Man can choose the path he will have.” Promoting knowledge would not just better humanity, in other words. It might actually save it from doom.”

“The commission’s report placed less emphasis on more down-to-earth workforce development and instead stressed lofty ideals of “general education,” which, it argued, would be “the means to a more abundant personal life and a stronger, freer social order.” The Truman commission even envisioned a kind of classless America, where “through education society should come to recognize the equal dignity of all kinds of work, and so erase distinctions based on occupational classes” (53-54).

In the Christian college world I lived in, the GI Bill was transformational, especially when combined with federal support for students. The growth of enrollment spawned a desire for legitimacy. Since that federal support was tied to regional accreditation, it modernized these institutions.

Bunch doesn’t deal with colleges like the ones I served. He focuses on the Ivies, the elite private schools like Kenyon, and the flagship state universities. I don’t fault him here. He’s taking a macro-level view of higher education. But I would note that we in the small faith-based college sector also suffered from national attention on what was happening at those institutions he explored. Those schools were, for the public, what college was like.

In the generation before I started teaching, college was having the mind-expanding impact of liberal arts that the Truman Commission envisioned.

“With hindsight, the most fascinating aspect of the North American university was not the bricks and mortar of the gleaming new campuses but the soul of this massive new machine. The idea that higher education could shape a new generation of citizens who’d be mindful and enthusiastic about democracy, with an international outlook and an aversion to military conflict, who’d embrace liberal arts over careerism was, in many ways, brought to life by these students who packed classrooms even ahead of the advancing baby boom. But what young people absorbed was actually a pure distillation of democracy, not the corrupted version that America was selling with wads of dollar bills or the points of bayonets in Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia. The kids, it turned out, were executing the blueprint of the Truman Commission and the postwar idealists. It was the grown-ups that were screwing it up.”

“The experience on the ground of undergraduates majoring in sociology, spending summers in poor Mexican villages or writing diatribes against racial segregation was largely missed by the university presidents flying high at 37,000 feet while their campuses bathed in money from the Pentagon or big-money foundations” (64).

The civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movements on the one hand grew out of these idealistic visions and on the other hand, began the pushback against the students having those ideals. Bunch cites writer Rick Perstein, who found that following the May 1970 shootings of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard, townspeople in Kent, OH argued, “Kent State Four! Should have studied more!”.

Since my schools were somewhat isolated from the larger social concerns of that period, they didn’t directly experience that community pushback. That is changing, as I’ve written before, as churches and parents raise concerns about what they think is Critical Race Theory or LGBTQIA+ inclusion. [2]

Once Prop 13 occurred in California and Reagan’s austerity budgets combined with a mantra of tax cuts for the wealthy, the funding model for public higher education crashed. [3] These economic levers not only made college more necessary as recessions and overseas-bound jobs attacked the working class, they also made college more expensive.

Furthermore, the demographic changes as the baby boom (and boomlets) passed through the population meant that the competition for those slots in college vastly increased. More was required to get the same number of students: more amenities, more scholarships (discounts), more sports teams. Not all colleges had floating rivers, but all of them knew that they had to care for their customers. [4]

Bunch argues that the separation between the college-bound and the non-college bound was a crucial distinction in this period of the story:

“Although it received little or no attention at first, the vast American middle class of the generation that immediately followed World War II was dividing in two — into a noticeable split between a mostly college-educated upper middle class and a blue-collar lower middle class. Economists point to a measure of income inequality called the Gini co-efficient, a curve that does a particularly good job in noting disparities within the middle class. The Gini curve — a statistical tool for measuring the distribution of wealth — in the United States rose sharply over the course of the 1980s and remained at high levels during the 1990s. As the writer Noah Smith pointed out, this divergence spiked almost in tandem with the premium that employers were now paying to those with a diploma; a Brookings Institution project showed that the wage premiums for college degrees as well as graduate degrees rose from about 40 percent in 1979 to more than 200 percent by the mid-1990s. In blue-collar communities, especially among the white working class, the diverging outcomes created by the new knowledge economy created a backlash storyline that college-educated workers were lazy or pampered and lacked the skill or even the brains for manual tasks, such as changing the oil in their cars” (117-118).

This very real economic separation between the college educated and the non-college folks created divisions that only grew over the decades. He says that you could easily segment today’s society into four groups:

“If you turned eighteen in the United States before 1990 (today, age fifty or older), the odds are that you either a) attended a university when college was affordable and popular … the imperfect embodiment of the American Dream or (b) believed that anyone, regardless of education, could succeed in this nation … right up to the moment that was no longer true. If you turned eighteen after 1990, it’s likely that (c) despite high pressure, high tuition, and — for most families — high debt, college remained the only roll of the dice to get somewhere in life or (d) you were increasingly disconnected from middle-class dreams or civic life, in a world of low-paying Mcjobs fueled by various opiates of the masses, from YouTube radicalization to actual opioids” (157).

He labels these four groups a) Left Perplexed, b) Left Broke, c) Left Behind, and d) Left Out. I confess that my five decades in higher education lets me know more about the first two groups than the last two. But any reading of contemporary politics must recognize how these four groups differ.

As Left Perplexed administrators and legislators try to make sense of the Left Broke, they have made college about vocation and earning power.[5] As students and their parents became increasingly worried about costs and lingering debt, schools responded by showing the potential for return on investment. This, in turn, has led to a shift away from liberal arts, history, sociology, and other “soft” fields toward STEM, business, sports medicine, and other pre-professional programs.

I could write for weeks about Bunch’s last two groups. We literally sold them a bill of goods. As a society, we wanted to severely lessen high school drop-out rates and we did to a great extent. But we didn’t provide pathways for those non-college bound students to find their place. For those to whom high school was something to just get through, an environment without opportunities leads to easily into issues of opioid abuse, depression, and possibly suicide. [6]

The combination of economic inequality, pressing college debt, and the belief that “the elites” are looking down on everyone creates the distrust and division we see so evident in our public discourse. It leads to distrust of science, elevation of YouTube opinion and TicTock clips over actual information, and a reliance on “what seems right to me”.

So what do we do? Bunch calls for a revitalized Truman Commission stating a clear purpose for post-secondary education in all its forms: four year college, community college, trade schools, academic boot camps, anything that prepares people for the 21st century. Not simply in terms of jobs, but in terms of citizenship. He advocates for the value of a fully developed service year program.

“Only the public- through our elected officials in the various state houses, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House can un-privatize college in America. The goal of universal higher education proved elusive back in 1947, when the nation’s masses were in general agreement about the virtue of a college education. In the near future, most of the nation’s public colleges and universities won’t change for the better as long as one of our two major political parties sees campuses as places for liberal indoctrination and “critical race theory,” rather than a ladder to uplift the children of its own voters. If the divisions that were exacerbated — if not caused outright — by unequal educational and job opportunities in the United States have broken us in two, how can we expect our bankrupt politics to fix things?” (272)

Will Bunch is right in his somewhat pessimistic conclusion. Ignoring the situation as it now exists and relying on simply market forces to drive out of business the colleges like those I served is not an answer. We need to return to the question, “what is college for?”

There is much more to the story than either Bunch or I can tell. He speaks of the role of talk radio and how opinion is set in opposition to learning. He touches on the for-profit sector, which has done great damage to thousands of students across recent decades. [7] There’s the broader issue of the culture war and “conservative correctness” movements limiting what can be taught in education (even higher education), dismantling left-leaning think tanks, and removing tenure protections.

And one of the critical problems in higher education is that it thrives on mimicry. If a number of schools added climbing walls, so will others if they think it will get them ahead. If some are eliminating tenure, it provides permission for other schools (using the “everyone is doing it” excuse). If some are adding academic programs in electronic gaming and eliminating their philosophy departments, look for others to do it as well.

If we follow Will Bunch’s advice, and I think we should, we need a large national conversation about higher education and the role it ought to play in the broader society. Looking back over the last fifty years lets me know that this won’t be easy, but it is critical for the next two decades in American life.

This review originally appeared on
the reviewer’s Substack, and is reprinted here with permission.
Be sure to subscribe to his Substack. (It’s excellent!)

[1]  I’m going to my first ever high school reunion in October.

[2]  I had an unpleasant interaction ten years ago with a home-school parent who took great offense at a section of the social problems book I was using. It’s the only time I ever had someone (that I know of) complain about me to the provost and president.

[3]  As Bunch notes, compare the shift of state higher education dollars to correctional institutions to see where our priorities now are.

[4]  Another shift in this time period — the assumption that students were consumers who “paid my salary”. [Students aren’t customers, they’re clients in need of specialized knowledge.] [5]  Even the Obama administration created an earnings report card and required for-profit institutions to demonstrate “gainful employment”.

[6]  I’ve often written about Brian Alexander’s Glass House and how it paints this picture but I’m doing it again.

[7]  Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed provides an inside look at career-oriented for-profit strategies and how they disproportionately impact black and brown women. Relatedly, the Biden Administration just forgave student loans for all students who attended ITT before their bankruptcy and closure.

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John Hawthorne

John Hawthorne is a retired sociology professor interested in sociology of religion, contemporary politics, and higher education. Find him online via his Substack: https://johnhawthorne.substack.com/

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