Capitalist Higher Education Didn’t Break the American Dream, Capitalism Did

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Will Bunch, After the Fall of the Ivory Tower: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics – and How to Fix It (William Morrow, 2022)

The Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wants you to know that the extreme cost and class exclusiveness of higher education is driving the polarization of US-American society and politics between liberal blue (Democrat) and revanchist red (Republican).

College Team Blue v. Non-College Team Red

Bunch’s blue folks are the metropolitan and bi-coastal middle- and upper-class people who possess college degrees and can afford to send their children to get ever more absurdly expensive diplomas in higher education, which has become a “fake meritocracy rigged to make half of America hate it.”  They look down with disdain on the uneducated rabble who do idiotic things like reject climate and public health science, support the police state, take the Bible literally, and vote for malignant fascist assholes like Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

Bunch’s red camp is comprised of the “white working class” of the interior, people who can no longer afford so-called higher education. Stung by the insane cost and the transparent elitism of the officially multi-cultural academic world, Bunch’s small town flyover zone Republicans look up with populist resentment at pampered students and faculty who put Black Lives Matter bumper stickers on their Toyota Priuses and LGBT rainbow flags on the porches of their liberal college town houses. They like the anti-intellectualism of Trump, who says he “loves the uneducated.”  They dig the “anti-Woke”-ness of (the Harvard and Yale Law graduate) Trump’s fellow Florida fascist DeSantis, who has made the skewering of “elitist” multi-culturalism and education a key cornerstone of his coming presidential campaign.

It’s a lethal polarization wherein the college-educated professional class has contempt for those who (despite their “white privilege”) can’t afford diplomas beyond Associate Degreed and “white working class” umbrage of the educated elite has morphed into a dangerous rejection of knowledge itself. By Bunch’s telling, this division reflects how college’s exorbitant expense “broke the American Dream” and thereby “blew up our politics.”

Dark Irony: Right-Wing Anger at a Class Exclusivity Right-Wing Policy Created

It didn’t have to be this way, Bunch argues. After World War II, his narrative runs, a newly prosperous America valued higher education as something like a public good whose low-cost provision to millions was seen as essential to the nation’s success. The state of California and other jurisdictions provided free college while the GI Bill sent hundreds of thousands of working-and middle-class veterans to campuses for free.  A bachelor’s degree was considered something like a cheap ticket to upward mobility for those willing to apply themselves. US higher education expanded like never before in any society, fueling the growth of giant public mega-universities filled with a remarkable new wave of first-generation college students.

And then it all went to Hell.  By Bunch’s analysis, the rug was pulled out as right-wing politicos responded to the significantly campus-based 1960s-70s New Left rebellion (my lead picture is from the Kent State mass shooting of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard murdered four students among a state university crowd protesting the US war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) by ending free college and cutting public funding for higher education.  This forced colleges and universities to raise tuition levels beyond what working class people could afford and saddled even middle-class students with crippling student debt.  While racist southern politicians feared that federal education programs would help teach and inspire Black people to demand racial equality, the reactionary, proto-white nationalist anti-communist and former C-minus student and Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan rode white middle class fears of university radicals to the California governorship. As governor and then US president, the anti-intellectual Cold Warrior Reagan led a low-tax and “small government” crusade that slashed public education revenues. College went from being a cheap ride for the Many to a luxury for the Few and a torment for millions of young adults stuck with extortionate student debt.

How ironic: the right draws “populist” anger at elitist higher(-up) education as a form of class exclusivity that the right-wing created by cutting public funding for higher education.  It’s an anti-academic turned anti-intellectual dog chasing its own tail.

The Electorate is More Complicated Than Bunch Seems to Know

Bunch’s tale is a compelling story with no small truth to it. I am a campus-town (Iowa City) resident with a doctorate and eight academic book publications. My only possible employment in the nearby University of Iowa would be as a custodian, groundskeeper, receptionist, or food service worker thanks to the academically lethal combination of my openly revolutionary Marxist politics and my race (white) and gender (male). I can certainly attest to the “fake meritocracy” and to the toxic, officially multicultural elitism of “the ivory tower.” The white popular resentment that Bunch writes about is highly evident in the sardonic comments and facial expressions of Iowa working-class folks when the topic of the university and its privileged denizens comes up. The resentment is significantly deserved by my observation.

Still, After the Fall of the Ivory Tower is full of holes. By his account, the most critical factor dividing those who voted for or against Trump in 2016 (he doesn’t touch on the 2020 election despite his August 2022 publication date) was the possession or lack of a college degree. The reality is more complicated. Just as significant as the lack of a college degree in the composition of Trump’s voting base was being white, male, and a Christian fundamentalist. The biggest predictors of voting for Hillary Clinton (HRC) were being Black and Hispanic, not possessing a college degree.  While Trump beat HRC by 21 points with white voters, Blacks voters went for HRC over Trump by 80 percentage points. HRC trumped Trump with Hispanic voters by 36 points.  Nonwhite voters without college degrees went for HRC over Trump by 59 points. When you factor in race and gender, things get a lot less black and white (or red and blue) regarding the role of college degrees in predicting voting behavior.

Bunch makes a common mistake by falsely conflating the lack of a college degree and rural residence with (um, white) working-class status. There are plenty of white small business owners and supervisory personnel and small town and rural Americans with decent incomes and no college degree. (I discuss and correct this mistake at length in the fifth chapter, titled “Amerikaners and Trumpenvolk,”of my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.)

At the same time, not all college degrees are the same. Here’s a semi-educated guess that admittedly awaits future research: the partisan identification and voting behavior of people with degrees in marketing, business, accounting, economics, and engineering stands to the right of graduates with degrees in history, philosophy, English, art, theater, music, foreign languages, and sociology.  Many folks with college degrees and beyond – especially liberal arts and humanities degrees – now toil in the lower ends of the job market, working as bartenders, baristas, data entry technicians, and adjunct instructors.

Both the US “working class” and (not the same group) the US population without college degrees (65% of the nation) are multi-racial and significantly metropolitan, not just white and rural.

The Floor’s Collapse as Relevant as the Tuition Ceiling’s Rise

At the same time, the rift between the working and professional classes is probably less about the cost of, and earnings premium resulting from, the possession of a college degree than it is about capitalist globalization, capitalist technical displacement, and the “neoliberal” era capitalist class war on unions and collective bargaining, which have combined with attacks on the governmental social safety net to take the floor out from under US workers’ living standards and security. I am old enough to remember having working-class friends who reasonably wondered why they would want to go to college when they could make decent “middle-class” incomes doing well-paid union jobs in auto-assembly and farm equipment plants. A New York Times reviewer is on to something in the following reflection on Bunch’s volume: “colleges weren’t responsible for de-unionization or the trade policies that exposed workers to competition from foreign labor…Colleges have been as much the venue for political division as they have been its root cause.”

“College broke the American dream”? Come on, man: capitalism broke the American dream, about which George Carlin used to say this: “they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

The “neoliberal” (capitalist) breaking has been across the board, hardly restricted to higher education. Every institution in American life has been under the savagely inegalitarian and authoritarian assault of the parasitic capitalist class over the last half-century.

Exaggerated Novelty

Bunch may exaggerate the novelty of his topic.  As the esteemed historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his prize-winning 1964 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it,” a “disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life,” and the belief that “intellectuals…are pretentious, conceited… and snobbish and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive,” opposed to “the plain sense of the common man” – all of these sentiments are longtime widespread phenomena in US-American social and political history.  Hofstadter’s book was published 13 years before I started attending a state public university for just $800 a year, a time when a local acquaintance of mine recalls paying for a full-time public university course load with a part time janitor’s salary.

Insofar as higher education today has “become” a snotty bourgeois-elitist terrain, this seems a return to its long-term norm, minus the former near-total domination of white males.  The expansion of the post-WWII university to include a mass of first-generation working-class students and the rise of a largely university-based antiwar and anti-racist New Left are great anomalies in the long aristocratic and deeply conservative history of US “higher[-up] education.”  These developments arose from a specific set of historical circumstances that no longer hold: the remarkable take-off of Western and US capitalism after the war; the managerial and professional demands of the new labor market and corporate structure; the post-war baby boom; the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union in science, technology, and Third World influence; the GI Bill; the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement; the rise of a new youth culture; the sexual revolution; the emergence of a new militant feminism;  the criminal US crucifixion of Southeast Asia, with a military draft that included male college students in its round up of imperial cannon fodder.

Worse Than “Populist” Resentment: Try Fascist “Nazification”

At the same time, Bunch underestimates the lethality of the current right-wing assault on higher education. There’s something much worse than the usual misguided faux-populist anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism going on right now. It’s more dangerously toxic and part of something far more encompassing, including a revanchist Christian white nationalist/neofascist attack on political correctness and “radical leftism” in all US education including K-12. The leading but hardly sole state-level laboratory for this fascist offensive is Florida where, as in many “red” (try brown) states, it has been made a crime for educators to tell the truth about the ongoing history of racial and gender oppression and Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, female, immigrant, gay and transgender experience. As the prolific educational theorist and social critic Henry Giroux notes on CounterPunch:

“[Florida governor] DeSantis….views academic freedom and freedom of speech as liabilities to be stamped out, not unlike what happened in Nazi Germany… He has signed into law Bill 233 which requires Florida’s public colleges and universities to conduct annual surveys of students’ and faculty members’ beliefs in order ‘to determine the institutions’ levels of ‘intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.’ …Those with views at odds with DeSantis’s view of history, politics, and authority will be labeled ‘unpatriotic’ and pressured to conform to his indoctrinating pedagogy and policies or lose their jobs… [This] war on education…goes to the heart of what it means to kill democracy as an ideal by preventing public institutions from producing informed and engaged citizensan educational project in the service of not merely the suppression of academic freedom and education as the practice of freedom, but one also dedicated to the politics of disposability, disappearance, and erasure…Welcome to the Nazification of American society” (emphasis added).

Giroux quotes the art historian Stephen Eisenman (also on CounterPunch) as follows:

The Florida FührerFor a man with all the warmth of Adolf Hitler and none of his rhetorical skills, Ron DeSantis displays extraordinary conceit. He holds forth on critical race theory, intersectionality, trans identity, immigration, and voting rights, as if he knew anything about them. In fact, his ignorant harangues are attempts to bring critical intellectuals to heel and polish his swastika, that is burnish his far-right credentials. The word that comes to mind in this context is ‘Gleichshaltung,’ the German term for ‘bringing into conformity’ or ‘Nazification.’ The goal of the Nazi regime from Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 to the passage of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935 was to bring all organs of state and civil society into conformity with the will of the Führer. Control of the press, regimentation of everyday life, elimination of expressive freedoms, destruction of constitutional safeguards, control of trade unions, establishment of a dictatorial (one party) state and an end to the civil rights of minorities (especially Jews) were all key aspects of Gleichshaltung.”

(Here it is perhaps worth remembering that, as the Real News Network reports, “DeSantis oversaw torture” as a US Navy Jag officer in Guantánamo, “greenlighting everything from beatings to forced feedings of hunger-striking detainees. After his stint in Guantánamo, DeSantis was deployed to Fallujah to act as the US military’s human rights lawyer” during the US Marines’ massive assault on an Iraqi city that resisted the epically criminal, imperialist, and mass-murderous US invasion of Mesopotamia.)

The Missing in Action/Text Professoriate

Another thing largely missing from Bunch’s thought-provoking volume is the culpability of the professoriate. Where the F have academics been during this regressive degeneration of “the ivory tower”? Almost completely missing in action, far less capable of anything like solidarity and collective action than K-12 teachers across the country.

This is no part of the proof of the absurdity of the wild-eyed Republikaner notion that US academia is under the control of “the radical Marxist Left.” The preponderant majority of US academic discourse and conduct takes place within the dull and depressing framework of bourgeois and imperial ideology. Much of it is obsessed with “identity” and political correctness to the point of excluding class – a perfect  match for material reality in the nation’s ever more absurdly expensive, class-exclusionary colleges and universities, where wildly escalating tuition has not prevented academic authorities from handing an ever rising share of the teaching load to poorly paid adjuncts and other non-tenure track instructors who can be thrown back into the reserve army of academic labor at the slightest hint of serious radicalism.

Sadly, actual socialists and communists (and left anarchists) are far and few between in the nation’s neoliberal era classrooms, lecture halls, and faculty offices. US-American so-called higher education is packed with all-knowing professors who have never understood or seriously engaged with Marx and Marxist thought and writing but who nevertheless hold forth on why Marx and Marxists were/are supposedly wrong – this as current events now demonstrate to any truly educated person that Marx and Engels had it right in 1848: its “the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin” of all.

Myself the possessor of a doctorate in US history who has taught in six different Chicago area colleges and universities, I  never miss the academic world, with its insufferable (yes) elitism, absurd over-specialization, incestuous discourse, power-serving cowardice, cynicism, out-of-control identitarianism and political correctness (specifically bourgeois identity politics), moral and intellectual laziness, arrogance, condescension, comic self-importance, pomposity, and shameless exploitation of graduate students and adjunct instructors.  It’s an often toxic, deeply conservative (in a “liberal” sort of way), corrupt, unprincipled and notoriously backbiting world about as far removed from “radical Marxist” politics and activism as one might imagine.

Among the professoriate’s many problems, it’s the cowardice that stands out most to me, something of which I have too many examples to fully recount here.  During my year as a ridiculously overworked visiting professor at a formerly and openly Left/Marxist history department in 2005-06, I was shocked at the reluctance of even nominally progressive academics to speak out against the US occupation of Iraq or much of anything else in George W. Bush’s America. (The professoriate there was naturally and foolishly in love with the next president – the neoliberal imperialist Barack Obama, who I was already calling “the empire’s new clothes.”) In more recent years, I have been depressed but unsurprised by the refusal of all but a small handful of academics to rise up against the many-sided neofascist menace that stalks the land, taking special aim at supposedly radical higher education (see the fourth chapter of This Happened Here for a darkly amusing discussion of the different head in the sand narratives US academics and political commentators concocted to absurdly deny that fascism that had taken up residence in the White House on January 20, 2017).  When I asked a cheerful urban studies professor last year what she and other tenured professors at a major state university intended to do about their state’s passage of a law making it illegal to tell the truth about the roles that racism and sexism have played in American history and society, she said this: “I’m just going to try to stay under the radar.” I’m not sure there’s a single open Marxist (or left anarchist) left in her university – something that would hardly stop Tucker Carlson, Trump, DeSantis, or the open maniac Marjorie Taylor-Greene from calling that university an outpost of “radical Left indoctrination.”

One reason to not go too far in bemoaning “the fall of the ivory tower” in the current period of insanely high tuition and vicious neo-fascist assaults on mythically “radical left” academia – assaults that further academics’ timidity, atomization, and spinelessness – is the possibility that more young thinkers who would previously have been channeled into mind- and soul-numbing capitalist university system will apply their intellectual faculties to the existentially urgent task of making a radical socialist revolution.

Lame “Solution”

That task is not on Bunch’s liberal radar screen, of course.  He concludes with the standard semi-progressive call for a program whereby every young adult who spends a given time in “national service” will be entitled to free higher education.  Don’t hold your breath for any kind of progressive version of that under the current right-tilted US capitalist political order and fading bourgeois democracy, where the fascist Supreme Court will soon be ruling against the neoliberal warmonger Joe “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change” Biden’s painfully small amount of college student debt forgiveness.  On the nation’s current fascisizing trajectory, the “national service” on offer from the US government in coming years seems far less likely to include the building of an environmentally sustainable and socially just community than the military occupation of inner-city Black communities and the invasions of Cuba or Mexico, not to mention enlistment in a war with “communist” China.

This essay previously appeared on The Paul Street Report.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).