In his new book, After the Fall of the Ivory Tower: How College Destroyed the American Dream and Blowed Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It (William Morrow), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch, national opinion columnist The Philadelphia Inquirer, traces the evolution of American higher education since World War II, examining how it fueled—and continues to fuel—the nation’s deep political and cultural divisions. In a telephone interview with Inside the higher ed, Bunch attributed many of this country’s current woes — from climate change denial to the January 6 uprising — to a “lack of education.” What follows are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your book tells the story of modern America through the destruction of higher education. What started the trouble?
A: College history and modern American history are more intertwined than people realize. The culture wars in this country really came about based on the campus protest culture of the 1960s and how people responded to [them]. And the campus protests were that important event that helped Ronald Reagan’s political career, for example… I think the story of America after World War II is the story of a country that suddenly became more prosperous and realized that knowledge, technology and training were key. to get ahead of. Because of this understanding, you saw massive investment in higher education in the 40s, 50s, and 60s—building new dormitories and hiring professors; enrollment increased exponentially during these years. Since then, you’ve seen a right-wing-driven backlash in terms of what liberal education is doing to the minds of our youth. It has really affected the way we fund higher education. And that resentment eventually took root in what has become the modern conservative movement in this country.
Q: You write that the GI Bill [which provided educational benefits for returning service members] had unintended consequences. What were they like?
A: An initial positive, unintended consequence was that it really changed the mindset of who college is for. For most of American history, college was really reserved for a tiny fraction of the elite. In the early 1940s, only 5 percent of Americans had a bachelor’s degree. The feeling was that most people weren’t college material. There’s a famous quote from the president of the University of Chicago in the 1940s who said that if we let all these high schoolers in, our campuses would become “hobo jungles.” And sure enough, it turned out that these hygienists, who were a little more mature than the average student—plus they’d been through this terrible war experience—came to college very appreciative of the opportunity and eager to learn, and they outperformed the so-called civilians. It made people realize that the great middle class benefits from higher education.
The negative unintended consequence is that this era coincided with the heyday of top educators who promoted the idea of a liberal or general education—that you go to college to develop a philosophy of life, to learn to learn, to develop critical thinking, to become a better citizen. These educators said, “Better educated citizens will be great for democracy.” And what really happened was that more educated citizens realized that America had a lot of problems with democracy, especially with racial segregation in the 60s. In the mid-to-late 60s, the focus was on the Vietnam War. You’ve seen these mass protest movements on campus. And among conservatives who wanted to maintain the status quo, there was clearly a negative reaction to what was happening at the college.
Q: One of the central themes of the book is the tension between liberal education and careerism. How did that play out against the backdrop of partisanship in this country?
A: One of the most dramatic statistics I found came from the University of California, Los Angeles, which has been conducting a large national opinion poll of incoming freshmen for decades. One of the things they ask is basically what is the purpose of college? In 1969, 82 percent of freshmen said that a major goal was to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. And by 1985, or 16 years later, that number had halved to 43 percent. And the top answer that replaced it was “very financially affluent.”
You have seen it in practice. Majors in the humanities and social sciences declined dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. Both business and other more career-oriented majors were favored. A couple of things happened there. One of them is that the American economy has changed. In the 60s, when work was available to all, it was easy to think that I would go to college to develop a philosophy of life. Until the 80s, people felt this pressure to get skills in college that would help them have a good enough career to stay in the middle class. Another thing that has changed since the late 70’s is the advent of more massive student debt. Logically, the more debt students have, the more pressure they will feel to get a job that can pay back the loan.
Q: So who should fund college? Do you think this is a public good that the government should pay for?
A: I do. For a long time in America, we have accepted the idea that educating our children in high school—K through 12—is a public good. Back in the 1940s, teachers and top government officials realized that in order to become a successful citizen, it was necessary to go beyond the 12th grade. The all-important but forgotten Truman Commission of 1946-47 [which studied higher education policy] recommended that education be free until what they called 14th grade, which today we would call community college or the first couple of years of public college. And it was 75 years ago. Given the changes in the economy since then, I think it’s fair to say that earning a college degree or other career training is just as important today as earning a high school diploma was in 1946. And yet, we still treat college as a personal, private good.
How public goods are defined in society, what are the benefits? Does society as a whole benefit from a more educated public? It seems like a no-brainer to me. The economic benefits of a more educated workforce are clear. And more and more, I think, we’re becoming aware of civic shortcomings no to have a fully educated public, because look at some of the problems we face today: climate change denial, a huge public willing to believe conspiracy theories like QAnon. Something like January 6th, when you really dig into yourself, that is [caused by] unsuccessful upbringing.
Question: How so?
A: The fact that people did not develop critical thinking skills, that they were susceptible to manipulation by the authoritarian leader that Donald Trump was in essence. This is exactly the opposite of the critical thinking that we hoped people would develop with a college degree or some kind of higher education. One thing I emphasize in the book is that people don’t have to sit in a classroom for four years to get a degree. But I think we need to rethink how we continue to educate our citizens after 18, instead of just leaving them in the lurch, which is what we’re doing now.
P: The January 6 rebels would say that you are doing exactly what they don’t like: being a liberal elite, patronizing them with your culture wars.
A: I think this relationship has been tempered by the system we’ve developed for higher education over the last 50 years, which many describe as a meritocracy. Back in the golden age of college in the 50s and 60s, when we thought a rising tide lifted all boats, we started promoting this idea of meritocracy, that this new society meant that you would rise to the level of how far you went in the system education. And the implication is clear: the more education you have, the more merit you have.
There are a few problems with this. One is that over the years the college system has been engineered and rigged so that people from elite families have all these advantages to stay at the top, whether it’s through inheritance or being able to spend thousands of dollars on training before the SAT. They rigged the higher education system to become a kind of permanent elite class and shut out other people. However, because we have bought into the myth of meritocracy, you have this attitude: “We are enlightened because we have this education.” And when you talk about January 6th and the sentiments of the people who are at the core of Donald Trump’s political movement, that’s the offense that they touched on.
One of the key points I am trying to make in this book is that we must break this cycle of using education to look down on people. That is why I believe that it is necessary to fundamentally rethink what higher education is. And you’ll notice I use the term “higher education” a lot more than “college” because that’s part of the problem. Consider this: Only 37 percent of American adults have a bachelor’s degree. About a third have a bachelor’s degree or more, a third have some college, and a third, for whatever reason—either ability or economics—have never set foot on a college campus.
And in this fake meritocracy that we’ve developed, people in that last third absolutely feel looked down upon. They are dealing with a double whammy. On the one hand, the economic system has changed. In the 1950s, you could work in a factory and make enough money to buy a boat or a vacation cottage, or have a couple of cars and live a good life. Today, these types of jobs for non-college graduates have dried up. Also, they feel they are looked down upon by the people who have benefited from the system that has locked them out. Resentment of that system is inevitable.
Q: So what’s the solution? How can higher education be fixed?
A: I devote a whole chapter to the idea that we need to make a major policy initiative out of the idea of taking a year off for people when they turn 18, which is a key age where we’re losing people. And it happens to different people for different reasons. People who are doing well in the education system and going to college feel a lot of pressure to get into the right college and make the right career decision when, I know from my own experience – and as someone who raised a couple of children who already in their 20s, that the vast majority of children still do not know enough what they want to do at 18 years old.
Then we increasingly see people who don’t go to college drop out of the grid when they reach their teenage years. The most extreme example—obviously you’re talking about a small minority of people—in the last year or so, we’ve had a ton of brutal mass shootings, all by men between the ages of 18 and 21. 22 years old. But on a day-to-day level, we are dealing with issues like drug abuse, for example, rising suicide rates in this age group. I devote a decent chunk of the book to the ideas of the Princeton economists [Anne] Right and [Angus] Deaton, who coined the phrase “death by despair.” They followed mostly white working-class people, who have much higher rates of suicide and drug overdoses — mostly from opioids — or alcohol-related deaths. They found that death from despair is on the rise among people in their 20s and 30s. And the #1 factor that determines whether you’re at risk is whether you have a college degree.