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There’s an arresting scene in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that strikes a familiar chord, even though the book is nearing its 300th anniversary.  On his third voyage, Gulliver, marooned by pirates, spies “an island in the air,” Laputa. With one eye pointed upward and the other turned inward, the island’s inhabitants, anxious and neurotic, are utterly impractical, their clothes ill-fitting, their homes in shambles, their sex drive absent, their ears fixated on the music of the spheres.

Yes, Gulliver has encountered something that resembles a college, where learned men’s minds are up in the clouds.

In a stinging satire of Enlightenment intellectualism, Swift pokes fun at abstract philosophizing and dreamy theorizing without practical application.  

Next, Gulliver visits Balnibarbi, a kingdom that the inhabitants of Laputa, those wise men, literally lord over. There, in a cutting parody of Britain’s Royal Society, he looks aghast at the experiments conducted at the Grand Academy of Lagado, like trying to make pillows out of marble and sunbeams from cucumbers.

Town-gown tensions and ridicule of intellectuals are as old as the academy, but now these conflicts take a somewhat novel form, as a college education has increasingly come to define the nation’s political, ideological, religious, and class divides.

These social, economic, and attitudinal rifts are the subject of a new book by the journalist Will Bunch, a wrenching analysis of a nation fractured along stark educational lines.  Somewhat like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in CrisisAfter the Ivory Tower Falls begins his book by examining a single community, the area surrounding Gambier, Ohio’s Kenyon College, to examine how this nation’s inequality and opportunity gaps have contributed to political and social polarization.

Bunch’s study is a tale not of two Americas, but of four: 

  • Those who are left out, whose unionized factory jobs have been replaced by warehouse work and other physically taxing, financially insecure, irregular, ill-paid forms of hourly labor.
  • Those left behind, whose lives are weighed down by money woes, parenting directionless kids who are often caught up in the opioid crisis.
  • Those who have been left perplexed by their society’s partisan, ideological, and economic divisions but who also benefited in tangible ways from the social changes of the past half century.
  • Then there’s a fourth group, consisting of Kenyon College’s undergrads and faculty members who, despite their varied backgrounds, are perceived by the Knox County, Ohio’s working-class whites, business class, police officers, and evangelical churchgoers as privileged elitists and opportunity hoarders.   

Bunch’s book is organized around the theme of declension.  He charts a fall from grace, as the nation gradually abandons the idea that higher education is a public good that should be broadly accessible to “anyone with ambitions for a better life.”  As he puts it:  

“the collapse of this utopian vision would become the secret sauce behind our modern political gridlock, the revolts of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, the resentment-fueled rise of Donald Trump, and finally a deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill.”

His book sparkles with fascinating sidenotes and insights:

  • Enrollment in HBCUs tripled during the 1940s, even as Black enrollment at predominantly white institutions rose sharply, laying the foundation for the civil rights activism of college students during the 1960s.
  • Between 1956 and 1970, college enrollment tripled, but spending on higher ed rose sixfold, with investment in university research more than quadrupling.
  • A single university, Michigan State, which grew from 15,000 students in 1950 to 38,000 in 1965 had an astonishing 69 percent of its budget paid for by federal taxpayers. 

Bunch’s most important argument is that while the nation’s leaders came to embrace the ideal of meritocratic and democratic access to higher education, true equality of opportunity would require much more than many imagined.  It would not only demand significantly increased financial aid, enlarged outreach and bridge programs, and expanded student support services,  but also alternate pathways to rewarding jobs tailored to those who can’t afford to spend four, five, six, or more years attending college.

Why didn’t American higher education sustain the post-Sputnik investments that culminated in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program?

We know the answers.  A backlash prompted by campus protests and student radicalism. The stagflation, deindustrialization, and energy crises of the 1970s.  The 1978 statute that removed limits on guaranteed student loans and which encouraged colleges to sharply raise tuition. The 25 percent decrease in federal spending on higher education between 1980 and 1985.  The birth of credentialism, which made college the essential ticket into a secure middle-class job, fueling demand for college diplomas.

Bunch does a masterful job of explaining how college gradually became a center of contention in the culture wars, with affirmative action, multiculturalism, and identity politics key flashpoints.  He also offers striking examples of how colleges became the targets of white working-class resentment over the arrogance of cultural, academic, and professional elites and the dream hoarding of the winners in the emerging knowledge economy.  

Bunch quite rightly expresses outrage at the ways that the Ivies and other elite institutions shaped the direction of the higher ed marketplace, emphasizing “prestige, ‘branding’ … exclusivity, luxury perks, and sky-high tuition.” Rather than competing on price or educational quality, these institutions instead vied over prestige and amenities.  This emphasis on prestige, in turn, “trickled down through the rest of the system.”  For those lower down the status hierarchy, the answers involved admission of full-pay international and out-of-state students, expanded master’s offerings designed to exploit credential inflation, and an increased emphasis on contract research and on the campus (that is, the non-academic) experience.

The author also voices indignation at the way that higher ed system has become dependent on $1.7 trillion of borrowed money, owed by the students (and not even including the sums borrowed by parents).  

What, then, is to be done?  He suggests expanded public service programs or what he calls a “universal gap year” in exchange for tuition free college and advanced training in skilled trades.  But that, he makes clear, will require not only money but a fundamental change in the nation’s mindset.  

Perhaps you saw a recent essay in Science entitled “As a Ph.D. student with an expensive chronic disease, low stipends make academia untenable.”  You’d need to have a heart of stone not to empathize with the essay’s author, who describes how he left Egypt at age 17 to pursue undergraduate and graduate education in Canada.  

Because his stipend is barely enough to cover his living costs, let alone his medical expenses, he explains, he had to take on extra hours as a teaching assistant.  Overwhelmed by financial stress, his anxieties were intensified by the judgmentalism of his peers and faculty advisers, who imply that he’s not sufficiently focused on his research, and who do not recognize or value his special circumstances: “my health condition, greater expenses, and lack of family support.”

Now, he writes, “I look forward to leaving academia for a job where my efforts are appreciated and my well-being respected.”  He and others like him, he says, “should be helped through those challenges—for example, with less humiliating pay and reasonable work expectations—instead of being judged for being insufficiently dedicated.”

The author is right.  And yet…  After reading Bunch’s book, it’s hard not to weigh that student’s experiences against the many other inequities that characterize contemporary society.  There are, of course, knee-jerk responses to the Science essay:

  • Is it wrong for faculty to expect extraordinarily high levels of commitment and productivity given the extraordinary investments in time and resources in doctoral education?
  • Are his stipend and benefits package humiliating? (University of Toronto Ph.D. stipends range from $16,352-$73,012 Canadian, and average $29,390 according to Glassdoor).
  • Don’t most doctoral programs require students to teach to support themselves?  Isn’t the primary purpose of a Ph.D. program to prepare future faculty?
  • Shouldn’t the doctoral student make more of the quality of his research, his insights, and his        scholarly and scientific potential?
  • Given the extent of graduate student unionization in Canada, where over half a million students belong to labor federations, shouldn’t he direct his concerns to these units?

Then there are the bigger issues that the cri de coeur raises, concerns that have been raised by higher ed commentators as diverse as Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig, Freddie DeBoer, Caroline Hoxby, and Matthew Yglesias: 

  • In strictly utilitarian terms, should society invest significantly more resources in elite doctoral education, undergraduate financial aid, or job training targeted at those who, for various reasons, are employed or displaced or trapped in dead end jobs and unable to pursue a 2- or 4-year college degree?
  • How should universities determine what constitutes a fair stipend and benefit package for doctoral students, given the extraordinary expenses invested in Ph.D. education (and, yes, the great privilege of attending a leading R1 and the opportunities it opens up)?
  • Given resource constraints, should universities trim doctoral enrollment and invest more funds in that smaller cohort of Ph.D. students, or should Ph.D. programs become more accessible, even if that results in somewhat smaller stipends?

The words of Pope Francis come to mind:  “Who am I to judge?”  Indeed, I should be the last to judge lest I be judged, given my own privilege. 

However uncertain my career has been, I did get tenure at a public flagship and access to the benefits that affords: flexibility without parallel in the job market, access to paid leaves, extraordinary research support, and the chance to shape the minds of the rising generation.  

I never imagined that I’d look back and think for a moment that I was a professor during higher ed’s golden age.  But for those with tenure, especially those at research universities, this has been at least a silver age.

As my generation exits the building, we must recognize our special responsibility to do more to ensure that those who follow us can achieve something like the work life I had. The priorities are obvious:

  • Ensuring job security and academic freedom for all instructors.
  • Guaranteeing every student access to a teacher scholar and mentor.
  • Safeguarding faculty governance.
  • And, yes, doing much more to support the Ph.D. students who will replace us.

Near the end of his book Bunch writes, in a phrase that strikes me as pitch perfect:  American higher ed “will struggle to move forward until it asks itself some hard questions about how to reasonably apportion the cost of higher education.”  The answer to that question isn’t self-evident.  It will involve tough choices and daunting trade-offs.  It will also require a genuine commitment to equity across intersectional lines.   And let’s not forget those who, for whatever reason, will never enroll in college.

But none of this will happen if we don’t make it happen. In the words of the Everly Brothers, “wishing won’t make it so.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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