The economic boom created by World War II mobilization and the consumer society that grew in its aftermath affirmed the close identification of Detroit with automobiles, Pittsburgh with heavy manufacturing, Baltimore with health care, Washington with big government, Houston with fossil fuels — and Boston with higher education.
Are the automobile industry, manufacturing, health care, big government, fossil fuels, and higher education toppling off their pedestals?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—and yes.
So listen up, Boston: Higher education — the crown jewel of postwar America, its growth powered by the GI Bill, the rush for credentials, the notion that a college degree is a ladder of social mobility, and the glamour of tailgate Saturdays outside the stadium — is in deep trouble.
Blue-collar America can’t access it (too expensive), mainstream conservatives distrust it (too leftist), Trump-base rural Americans loathe it (too snooty), recent graduates resent it (the loans too burdensome). It costs too much (a year at Harvard: $75,291), its lessons seem out of synch with core American values (the professors speak a language incomprehensible outside the doors of the faculty lounge), its liberal-arts orientation is devalued (the value of reading “Paradise Lost” is lost on many in our make-a-buck culture), and students seem too pampered (check out the “lazy river” at LSU, maybe nicer than the one at Disney’s Beach Club Resort in Orlando).
All this, and more, is fodder for “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” a thoughtful, and deeply unsettling, new meditation on the value of a college education by the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist (and Brown University graduate) Will Bunch. In it he examines “how the American way of college went off the rails” and offers a searing indictment not only of college culture but also of the broader American culture that he argues, persuasively and frighteningly, created schisms in American life that have left huge sectors of this country unable to speak to each other, understand each other, and respect each other.
One result: “The growing resentments of rural working-class life, and the increasing mocking of lazy, clueless elites, masked real pain over the changes in the American economy that suddenly made life harder for people who’d grown up in a world where a diploma wasn’t necessary for a comfortable lifestyle.”
Bunch is a discerning tour guide to contemporary America, with stops at Gambier, Ohio (where student workers at the private, highly selective, and hugely expensive Kenyon College formed a union and went on strike), and Kutztown, Pa. (where the local university has a student food pantry).
Along the way he has several compelling insights: That as a gender gap grew on campus — since 1979, more women than men were in college — a gender gap developed in politics. That Ronald Reagan emerged as a cultural and political force at the very time the first baby boomers matriculated on campus. That the college debt crisis has pushed graduates leftward. That the deindustrialization of the country coincided with the failure of college-educated young people to return to their blue-collar communities. Indeed, he argues that “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.”
The liberal ferment prompted by immersion in the liberal arts became an important part of the American political landscape, and it prompted a Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction. “The youth power of the student movement sparked by groups like SNCC and the SDS gave rise to a powerful opposing force — the backlash that gave voice to Ronald Reagan, then Rush Limbaugh, then Donald Trump,” he argues.
Indeed, could it have been a coincidence that the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson was unveiled at a university (the commencement speech he delivered at the University of Michigan in 1964)? The Great Society became a target for conservatives just at the time the university became a tempting target for conservatives. Could the crisis of higher education have been produced when, as Bunch points out, “College started becoming more expensive and less accessible right at the very moment it became critical for getting a good job”?
The students of the 1960s set out to change the world even as they sought to change the university. They accomplished more of the latter than the former. But by their efforts they underlined an important point: The university had to be a vital instrument of culture if it was an instrument of change. And once these students became faculty members, they were able to push their overhaul even further, and further away from the general public.
“Perhaps understandably,” Bunch tells us, “as the outside America seemed to move further and further to the right, college campuses — their faculty comprised of the product of the 1960s ‘Liberal Hour,’ and their young students still hormonally driven to question authority — remained islands of progressivism.”
“After the Ivory Tower Falls” is no right-wing screed, nor a screeching jeremiad. Bunch provides some useful antidotes to accompany his anecdotes and his arguments. Again, listen up, national and educational leaders: Offer tuition- and debt-free alternatives to college. Rethink ending free public education at age 18. Market these changes by pointing out that they would boost the economy. Turbo-charge the argument for the liberal arts by asserting that critical thinking is an essential personal tool. Reinject moral values into education. Make community colleges “the foundations of American higher education they were intended to be.” Break down cultural barriers with universal national service, perhaps right after high school.
This review was written by a graduate, and later a trustee, of Dartmouth. The college’s motto is vox clamantis in deserto, which means “voice crying in the wilderness.” Higher education, and the country it is meant to serve, would do well to heed Bunch’s cries in the wilderness.
AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It
By Will Bunch
Morrow, 320 pages, $28.99
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.