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After the Ivory Tower Falls

September 26, 2022

Will Bunch, a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me and several other local friends for his book After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix it. So when I read the book, I had a perspective beyond the selection of facts and figures he gives in support of his argument.

In the first chapter, which focuses on the residents of Gambier, where Kenyon College is located, and people in the surrounding county, Bunch oversimplifies anything that doesn’t support his point of view, like when he lumps me in with my friend Joan and calls us both faculty members at Kenyon, even though I told him more than once that my half-time job was an administrative position. Given the number of errors and oversimplifications in his first chapter, I can only assume that he overlooks or oversimplifies other facts inconvenient to his argument in other parts of the book.

Perhaps all I really needed to know about After the Ivory Tower Falls is on page 244, where Bunch uses a qualifier in front of the word “unique.” But I’m going to look at the introduction and chapter one in some detail and from a personal point of view, as Bunch uses his personal point of view to introduce his argument. The argument evidently started to take root in his imagination because he thinks of “the story of college” as characterized by the story of the failure of his grandma Arline’s for-profit college. She bought a Peoria, Illinois business college in 1960 and re-named it Midstate; its enrollment began to decline in 2000 and it closed in 2019. Although he claims that “Midstate…rode the changing zeitgeist of what college in America meant” (9), this is a bigger claim than he can support, especially since he lumps in for-profit colleges with private non-profits and public R-1 universities, as if their academic missions and financial challenges are all the same.

In the introduction, Bunch recounts trying to figure out “how on earth I would ever send my own two kids away to a good school, especially the two years they’d be in college at the same time” (6). I was in the same position with my two children except that one benefit of my husband’s full-time job at Kenyon is 80% tuition remission at any college in the Great Lakes College Association (we had to pay the other 20% plus room and board). That’s one way Americans afford college—by working at a place with tuition benefits. We still had to save up to pay $20K per year per child. If we hadn’t had that benefit, the same colleges would have offered us financial aid packages at about the same level, and part of the package would have included loans. But many colleges, like Kenyon, cap the total amount of loans a student can take (unlike for-profits like University of Phoenix) to avoid saddling graduates with the amount of debt that makes headlines. College shouldn’t be impossible for anyone, but today in our country it still involves some sacrifice, as is true of many good things in life. We don’t own a vacation house or a boat or buy a new car every five years. But, unlike Bunch, we don’t resent the moderate sacrifices we made for our childrens’ education.

Bunch looks at college through the lens of politics. To sum up his view of the town/gown divide between Kenyon College and the surrounding residents of Gambier and Mount Vernon, Bunch tells the story of a week he spent in Gambier in March 2021. Like some Kenyon students, Bunch has a naive view of college finance; he does not understand that a college cannot spend money donated for a specific purpose for any other purpose, and so his criticism of the new library and linking of its construction in Gambier to the shutdown of the Siemens plant in Mount Vernon doesn’t make the point he thinks it should. Bunch mentions the comparatively low percentage of Kenyon students admitted with Pell grants, but ignores the high percentage of Pell students who actually graduate from Kenyon. Bunch tells the story of our weekly demonstration on the Mount Vernon square as thirty minutes “when the county’s liberals, anchored by some of Kenyon’s professors and staff, hold up protest signs against the radical right—while their bete noire circle around them ominously in pickup trucks” (15). But Bunch witnessed only one half-hour demonstration from a years-long series. He fails to mention the passing cars that honk and give us thumbs-up each week, or all the weeks between January 2017 and May 2020 when Jeff Cline, a local religious fanatic influenced by Dave Daubenmire (an ex-football coach who says America needs “a more violent christianity”), mounted his counter-demonstration with a bullhorn and bevy of bloody-fetus-carrying signbearers. Although Jeff Cline is locally known as a fanatic who ran for local office a few years ago and lost by a large margin, Will Bunch presents him as representative of local Gambier and Mount Vernon area residents.

It’s absolutely true, as Bunch says, that both my friend Joan Slonczewski and I “have great faith in the power of higher education” (27). But there’s no good reason why should Bunch brand me an elitist for saying that many local people in Gambier and Mount Vernon vote the way they do because they haven’t been able to get the education they need to do critical thinking. If anything, I’d think that Bunch’s book backs me up on that, as his argument in the first half is that more of higher education should be publicly funded. But he doesn’t consider that one of the great strengths of higher education in the U.S. is its diversity—we offer choices including public universities, secular and religious private colleges, community colleges, HBCUs, military academies, and for-profit institutions that are both specialized and general. At least when he digs into the details, Bunch does note that “in both health care and higher ed, the balkanized system of for-profit and not-for-profit…entities left no one truly responsible for cost containment” (196).

I recommended to Bunch that if he was looking for Kenyon students who weren’t wealthy he should talk to my student manager, a senior named Alexia Ainsworth. He got both her class year and the spelling of her name wrong and seems to have missed the opportunity to hear her story about navigating the financial challenges of a Kenyon education. Bunch quotes her only about an experience witnessing an instance of local racism the summer before her first year at Kenyon.

After the first chapter, Bunch gives a history of the decline of public funding for higher education. He argues that the protests of the 1960’s, inspired by “taxpayer-subsidized liberal education and free thought” resulted in the creation of “a powerful opposing force—the backlash that gave voice to Ronald Reagan, then Rush Limbaugh, then Donald Trump” (77). He identifies Reagan (correctly) as the one who popularized the idea that “college is for job training and not intellectual growth” (98). Bunch talks at length about Rush Limbaugh as a speaker for the rural, small-town folks who are left behind. What Bunch doesn’t know (because he didn’t think to ask) is that Rush and I grew up in the same small town, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Bunch went to Brown University and believes that people of our generation (who graduated before 1980) grew up in “an era when knowledge was accessible, affordable, and almost universally sought” (163), but I remember my parents, professors at Southeast Missouri State University, saving for years to afford my tuition payments at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.

Kevin Carey, in his New York Times review, points out that
“At times, Bunch overgeneralizes from the experiences of public universities in his home state of Pennsylvania, which have been underfunded to an unusual degree. Nationwide, state funding for college has not declined drastically….His story of a student loan crisis driven in part by nefarious Wall Street financial engineers elides the fact that the loan system was almost entirely deprivatized in 2010. The large majority of that $1.7 trillion was lent directly by the federal government at subsidized rates.”

It’s hard to imagine a reader who will disagree with Bunch’s non-controversial claim that we need to keep funding alternatives to college like “vocational or trade training, shorter bursts of online or targeted learning, apprenticeships, internships, civilian or military opportunities” (254). Certainly I don’t disagree with that, after more than thirty years of teaching first-year classes at two different universities and two different colleges, classes that always included a few students who didn’t want to be there.

On the political front, another non-controversial claim, and one that’s certainly not original with Bunch, is that a year of national service might solve some of the political problems he identifies. My daughter worked for AmeriCorps for a year after graduating from college, and I agree that this kind of experience can break down barriers in an increasingly partitioned society.

You don’t have to read Will Bunch to think of these kinds of solutions, though. Some of the problems he identifies could be solved by learning more about what Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey call “the art of choosing” between the many paths available to young people today.

“What I saw during my time in Knox County hardened my belief” (38), says Will Bunch. He came to visit with a point of view on his topic and left again without learning anything that challenged his preconceptions.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2022 11:26 am

    What a substantive review. And a what a lot of opportunities the writer missed — not only to tell a more compelling and accurate story but to reevalauate his position.

    • September 28, 2022 10:09 am

      It’s not like that’s unusual these days, to have a point of view and try to cherrypick the evidence to fit. But I did expect better of Will Bunch, who I’d read for years before meeting him.

  2. September 26, 2022 12:03 pm

    What a shame Bunch only bothered to see what he wanted to see. Also, his errors are terrible. What the heck were his editors doing? Did they have no one do any fact checking? Can’t even spell someone’s name correctly. Does not speak well of the author.

  3. September 26, 2022 5:51 pm

    Thanks for this! I appreciate seeing these details and problems. It’s always disappointing when even basic fact-checking falls by the wayside. That’s the Berkeley campanile on the cover and now I’m mad on behalf of the campanile.

    • September 28, 2022 10:12 am

      I didn’t realize it was the Berkeley campanile! It seems like it should have been Kenyon’s Pierce hall, which has a tower (but it’s not white in appearance).

  4. September 26, 2022 6:11 pm

    Yikes. Sounds like a real missed opportunity.

    • September 28, 2022 10:13 am

      Yes. He could have dug deeper. Everyone around here who has read the book wonders why he spent so many pages on Jeff Cline and his church.

  5. September 27, 2022 1:19 pm

    The politicised epithets and value judgements he makes rather undermine his approach, don’t they; and his factual mistakes speak of a slapdash attitude. Poor you, to have to wade through this guff.

    • September 28, 2022 10:17 am

      It bothers me, of course, his slapdash attitude and that he undermines his own approach, because it is a serious topic. I think we do need to do more about the price of higher education in the U.S. but not by ignoring and oversimplifying the things that bring people from all over the world to experience it.

  6. September 29, 2022 3:38 pm

    This sounds like a very frustrating experience with this author. I’m curious – the subtitle says “and how to fix it” – what solutions does he offer besides service and vocational/non-trad schooling?

    • September 29, 2022 5:42 pm

      He wants a lot more vocational opportunities, which seems right. We have a harder time these days finding a plumber or anyone to fix our dishwasher when it breaks. The children and grandchildren of these folks have moved away from our small town.

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