Revenge of the Poorly Educated: On Will Bunch’s “After the Ivory Tower Falls”

By Johann N. NeemMarch 30, 2023

Revenge of the Poorly Educated: On Will Bunch’s “After the Ivory Tower Falls”

After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch

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 Politicsand 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. Become like us. Leaders like former president Barack Obama could not imagine an alternative to the globalized, education-driven world that their policies had helped create. They believed in what historian Timothy Snyder calls “the politics of inevitability.” There’s no point in looking back. Those jobs will never come back anyway. A set of policy choices and their accompanying worldview were presented as a fait accompli—until Trump came along and said the quiet part out loud.

The left-behind felt left behind as the creative classes in blue Democratic cities prospered. And the only solution on offer was to get a degree when getting a degree was becoming more expensive and difficult. Americans’ frustration with the expectation that everyone had to get a degree, and the rising cost of doing so, was expressed not just in MAGA but also Occupy Wall Street. Public universities, facing declining per-student state support, courted high-paying out-of-state and foreign students. “Universities built in postwar America with ambitious, egalitarian goals of making their home states better educated, more civic-minded, and economically prosperous became instead four-year party pit-stops for millionaire kids,” Bunch writes. We have forgotten what college is really for: providing equitable access to a liberal education that leads to civic-minded graduates who contribute to the well-being of our nation. And in forgetting, we have permitted the degree-holders to feel as if they somehow deserve their high salaries, and that those who lack a degree somehow deserve their fate too.

What is the answer? In 2019, his first year in office, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, introduced two bills: the first would allow students to use Pell Grant funds for shorter, more intensive job trainings and employer-based apprenticeships, and the second would hold universities responsible for students who default on their loans. Hawley’s credibility today is strained after he embraced the worst tendencies and falsehoods of the most recent former president. But he was onto something, Bunch believes. The answer is not just to fix college but to fix not-college.

Fixing college means once again making college a public good. It should be publicly supported and accessible, and it should provide a serious and meaningful liberal education. Bunch knows that this will be extremely difficult at a time when many Republicans have transformed resentment against the college-educated into a wholesale attack on knowledge and expertise. But the solution won’t come just by increasing access to college. We need instead to increase access to the kinds of training that lead to well-paying jobs for those without degrees. Doing so would not only offer Americans economic opportunities, but it would also help overcome the respect gap between the college-educated and the non-college-educated.

There is no reason, after all, why someone with a college degree is smarter than someone without one. There is also no reason why they deserve a higher salary. Many of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States require specialized skills but not a college education. And even many of those that today require a college degree do so more because of “credentials creep” than because the degree is actually necessary. A renewed focus on unionization can restore dignity and middle-class wages to jobs across the service and manufacturing sectors. Bipartisan support for domestic manufacturing is an encouraging sign.

In other words, college needs to be a public good, but the larger issue that Bunch emphasizes is our need to overcome the division of American society into the college-educated worthy and the non-college-educated unworthy. Is this possible at a time when many Republicans run against expert knowledge and treat universities as enemies? Is it possible when many Democrats find it hard to empathize with the anxieties and confusion of non-college-educated whites, seeing all their concerns through the lens of race?

Bunch thus closes his book with a call for uniform national service. He knows it’s unlikely, but it’s his reminder that as long as we do not rub elbows, as long as we live in neighborhoods divided by class, race, and education, it will be very hard for us to respect each other. And if the college-educated look down on other Americans, those other Americans may respond in anger. But that anger, justified as it might be, has unleashed many bad things—anti-intellectualism, racial resentment, nativism—that tear at the very fabric of our society.

In 2016, candidate Donald Trump proclaimed, “I love the poorly educated!” And they loved him back.


Johann N. Neem is the 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.

LARB Contributor

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.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!