In After the Ivory Tower Falls, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Will Bunch seeks to tell the story of how college promised the American Dream “only to instead crush it.” Bunch’s book is a fine work of history, laying out the stories of many of the key players in American higher education since World War II. But it also makes a powerful argument about the relationship between contemporary U.S. politics and the changing landscape of academe.
In the 1940s, an ambitious, socially conscious federal government almost took the step of making higher education a public good. Instead, it settled for the GI Bill. In failing to capitalize on a rare moment of conservative support for publicly funded higher education, the federal government set the stage for a series of backlashes that not only undid the gains realized by midcentury Americans, but ultimately succeeded in recasting higher education as a “luxury good” for which the taxpayer should bear no burden. As a result of policy and cultural changes that have taken place since the 1960s, Bunch argues, colleges have become outrageously expensive, failing to meet the mandate set for them in earlier decades. One of the tragic results of this history is today’s rancorous political polarization, which increasingly pits those who have college degrees against those who don’t.
Bunch argues that the American people are now divided into four groups: the Left Perplexed, the Left Broke, the Left Behind, and the Left Out. These groups are divided along two axes: age (those old enough to have entered college before 1990 versus those who would have entered later) and educational attainment (those who obtained at least a bachelor’s degree versus those who did not). The older Left Perplexed and younger Left Broke are both college-educated and tend toward the political Left. The Left Behind did not graduate from college and tend toward the Right, while the younger Left Out, also non–college graduates, tend toward political apathy. This last group are the casualties of an exclusionary educational system that has deemed them “unworthy” of the American Dream. They are prone to an alienation and despair that all too often culminate in “deaths of despair”: suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths.
The Left Perplexed took advantage of the midcentury college boom, when higher education was highly affordable. Their college degrees helped them obtain a rewarding middle-class life. But these educated Boomers often have difficulty understanding their children, the Left Broke, who, burdened by student debt and trapped in a roulette of precarious jobs, have turned toward the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rather than old-guard centrists such as Hillary Clinton. For them, the illusion of perpetual upward mobility has been shattered.
But Left Perplexed Boomers also have trouble understanding Left Behind Boomers. The Left Behind were once able to make a comfortable middle-class living in manufacturing jobs, but then their employers, following the inexorable logic of capital, fled to foreign shores to take advantage of cheaper labor, leaving a trail of resentment in their wake. The Left Behind, Bunch writes, “thought they’d signed a social contract—that you didn’t need a fancy college education to have a nice life in the United States—only to see it get ripped up right in front of them.” This is the “not-so-quiet-majority” who would eventually be seduced by Donald Trump’s siren song of grievance.
As for Bunch’s fourth group, the Left Out, they have suffered a double tragedy. Not only has this group of uncredentialed younger adults been devastated by the recent “epidemic of despair,” which was already lowering the average American life-expectancy before the pandemic, but, even worse, no one seems to care. “[N]o one is really advocating for political action on their behalf,” Bunch writes—not even their own (generally Republican) elected representatives, who focus more on culture wars than on bringing much-needed help to a whole group of young Americans who have been treated as disposable by both our economy and our political system.