Left In, Left Out

Is higher education a cause, a consequence, a public or private good, a problem or a solution? Depends, I suppose, on the axe one is keen to sharpen. Increasingly I am finding discussions about higher education to sound like arguments about health care. It’s great if you’re wealthy, OK if you have some money and support, and not so good for everyone else. Not a particularly innovative observation, though it seems to be fertile ground for argumentation and books. The more difficult questions are what we understand higher education to be, what we want it to be, and above all, why?

When calling forth claims about higher education, an enterprise that currently encompasses about 4,000 thousand degree granting institutions and a bit under 20 million students, is Harvard our reference point? State flagships? Community colleges? Small for-profit schools providing skills training for jobs? Pick your sector and any number of rock solid arguments are easily crafted. But that does not mean that they are necessarily right for all of higher education.

It is this problem of focus that renders Will Bunch‘s book, After the Ivory Tower Falls, so interesting and challenging. Bunch is spot on on many topics. His research is solid and prose is compelling. There is much to recommend, and yet in some key areas he misses the forest for the trees. Bunch is a veteran reporter with several books under his name. His beat is politics, electoral and cultural. Like a good journalist, he is drawn to conflict and contrasts, which render stories with greater urgency and clarity. Nonetheless, they can also distort. Is a political and cultural lens the best way to understand higher ed?

Bunch opens the book with a personal history, his grandmother’s Midstate College in Peoria, IL. A private business school, Midstate is no more, but it nevertheless stands in sharp contrast to the many ways that Bunch sees college “going off the rails” – high tuition, higher student debt, elite schools that pamper students, and middle class and poor students struggling to enroll and meet basic needs, like food. Bunch believes that half of America is walled off from college, and that those left out are increasingly angry and disaffected. There’s a short jump as a consequence: today college is what is driving Americans apart. By focusing on personal gain, colleges and students have abandoned a traditional faith in education as a public good. He’s right, too. There is a tremendous correlation between Red and Blue membership with college and no college.

Close up research drives the book. Bunch first zeroes in on Kenyon College, a liberal private arts institution located in an economically disadvantaged area in Ohio. The left-leaning college elites exist in guarded conflict with right leaning Trumpers. Bunch readily acknowledges that Kenyon is a special, unique place, and it’s there that he explores the gaps between the college and the community. Unsurprisingly, he finds many. Adding to the drama, the financial challenges of Covid have placed additional pressures on Kenyon and its liberal ideals. Contrasting those in the college community, Bunch spends time with members of the community who are Republican and fighting the cultural wars. George Floyd’s murder exacerbated those divisions. Bunch is a good reporter. His interviews crackle with authentic voice.

The distinctions among members of the different communities give Bunch the recipe to explain those divisions. He proposes four basic types of Americans. The wealthy are the left broke, students who are educated and burdened by worries of finances and student debt. The left out are the quarter that work in meaningless low wage jobs. The left behind are disengaged. The left perplexed, holding on to values that no longer seem to resonate, are trying to figure it all out. The four groups, Bunch asserts, are increasingly isolated from each other. And while all yearn for voice and agency, the four groups’ divisions are widened by the ways that higher education operates today.

To explain those divisions, Bunch starts with the opportunities found in the G.I. Bill after World War II, which brought college to many . It was a golden age – at least for those who could take advantage of the opportunity – and the nation benefited along with many individuals. Notably, it had less impact on women and people of color. Bunch moves quickly over the following decades, highlighting important changes and the inevitable politicization of higher education during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War. Mario Savio, a key leader of the student movement, figures prominently. Bunch emphasizes the students’ democratic impulses and the many ways that institutions of higher education, representing established norms, pushed back. The result, he stresses, was a political movement to dis-invest in higher education. It’s an issue that has remained with us for half a century. We are still wrestling with its impact. Bunch reminds us that Governor Ronald Reagan rode that traditional antipathy to college radicals all the way to the White House.

Bunch traces the growing divisions of the next decades with an eye towards how inclusion led to greater identity politics, with anticipated backlash. As more women attended higher education, voting differences between men and women widened. Add to that urban-rural divides, globalization, changing economics which left middle class jobs harder and harder for those with only a high school diploma, and the many ways that pundits, especially on the right, hyped those divisions. Bringing us to current times, After the Ivory Tower Falls emphasizes popular complaints about higher education, from unfairness in admissions to scandals. What is college really for nowadays?

Moving back and forth from what happens on campuses to broader social trends, Bunch believes that America’s basic social contract is broken. He presents Kutztown State University’s food pantry as one proof positive example. Colleges and universities, subject to market pressures and increasingly dependent upon tuition, moved farther and farther away from foundational public goods. Supplementing Bunch’s arguments are references to higher education scholarship and many interviews. Through the years of the Trump presidency, he sees resentment of college and college elites morphing into a larger rejection of knowledge. Former governor Scott Walker’s leadership in Wisconsin is also investigated. Walker, Bunch reminds us, tried to turn the state’s system of higher education into something akin to job training. He failed in the effort.

To remedy these many ails, Bunch optimistically sketches out several good ideas in his conclusion. He visits Williamson, a small and free college of the trades that functions as a specialized trade school. The difficulty for Bunch in describing the institution and innovations is that he sees “all college as politics, and all politics is influenced by college.” It’s a provocative assertion, one that I wish Bunch had spent more time unpacking. While an idealized view of higher education proposes a space where non-immediate issues are examined, there’s no good reason that questions of power have to be excluded. Bunch presses on, seeking greater universality of higher education as a public good. He proposes national service, too, as a means toward these important ends.

Painting this picture of higher education with an overly broad brush, Bunch draws attention to many of the problems and shortcomings. Missing from the narrative, though, are many important components: what colleges are doing to innovate and serve, the wide variations between states in terms of support, and multitude of examples that the culture wars are irrelevant to many institutions, programs and communities. There’s great innovation and support today at Illinois Central College in Peoria. The book tends to present colleges as a consequence of political divisions, not as agents of action in and of themselves. Community colleges, who enroll more than 40% of everyone in higher education, are barely a presence in the work.

There’s much to recommend in After the Ivory Tower Falls. I would call out Bunch’s analysis and history, his attention to real Americans and their views, and his concern for widening divisions in American life. In addition, I would ask readers to bring hard questions to their reading of the book. Are the deep contrasts Bunch highlights the consequence of colleges? Of political leadership? Social media and contemporary culture? And are colleges bridging differences or widening them?

No easy answers, though many good questions await.

David Potash


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