Review: Will Bunch on the College-No College DivideHistorians in the News
tags: political history, higher education
Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
TALK-SHOW HOST Rush Limbaugh, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom under former president Donald Trump, relied on his listeners’ resentment of college-educated folks throughout the 1990s to stoke the fires of culture war. There was something about what colleges did that convinced many of Limbaugh’s listeners that, in journalist Will Bunch’s words, “nothing in America made sense anymore.” And it was this confusion, Bunch argues in his new book, After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It, that produced the biggest divide in American politics, between those with and without college degrees. Rather than dismiss the concerns of Limbaugh’s listeners, Bunch takes them seriously. They are not wrong to sense that “the American way of college went off the rails,” Bunch concludes.
The story begins with the real economic dislocations that accompanied globalization and increased the earnings gap between Americans with and without college degrees. But Bunch’s story ultimately is about culture, not economics. As white working-class Americans struggled to make sense of economic and cultural change, listening to Limbaugh and other talk shows let them know that “they were not alone.” For these Americans, the people responsible for their problems were neither the CEOs offshoring jobs and putting profit above American workers nor the Republicans decimating unions and embracing free-market fundamentalism. Instead, they were the educated elites (including many immigrants) who were thriving in the new economy, as well as the political leaders from both parties who didn’t do anything to help. Today, Republicans have crossed the line from criticizing to demonizing higher education. Ohio Republican Senator-elect J. D. Vance proclaimed that “the professors are the enemy,” while in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies actively threaten academic freedom.
Whether Republicans’ arguments are being made in good or bad faith, Bunch argues that “the political left in many ways had forged the ammunition […] by turning inward” and embracing “PC culture” and “identity politics.” The rise of the “Atari Democrats” in the 1980s foretold a new alliance between the values of West Coast urban elites and the Democratic Party. Today, universities are perceived as unfriendly to conservatives. Many working-class whites feel abandoned by the educated elite, not just economically but also culturally.
As the cultural gap between degree-holders and those with no degree was expanding, the United States made it more expensive to go to college. Bunch spends a good part of his book exploring why the college dream “morphed into a nightmare.” College became less affordable “right at the very moment it became critical for getting a good job.” Seeing Americans desperate for degrees, “Wall Street smelled blood in the water.” Not only did nonprofit and public universities chase student dollars, but a new breed of mercenary profit-seeking universities also sent Americans into debt without much of an education to show for it. The whole system seemed corrupt.
The people who voted for Trump knew that they were seen as backward rubes by the college-educated. “Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party make me feel bad about myself,” a MAGA-hat wearer told New York Democratic State Senator John Yudichak in 2016. “Donald Trump makes me feel good about who I am. I only have a high school education. But I got a good union job. I go to work every day, go to church on Sunday. I hunt. I fish. I’m pro-gun. Why am I a bad guy?” Good question.
Answering that question—why did elite liberals come to see this man as a “bad guy”—is at the heart of Bunch’s query. For comfortably smug liberals, the answer is simple: this man is Exhibit A for white privilege, toxic masculinity, and religious parochialism. And he knows that is what’s being said about him. Since when did it become un-American to work hard, go to church, and hunt?
What response did elites offer to these questions? Go to college.