The First Culture War and Its Lingering Fallout

(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Talk about fortuitous timing. Just weeks after author and journalist Will Bunch published his new book, After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics and How to Fix It, President Joe Biden announced his student debt relief plan.

In After the Ivory Tower Falls, Bunch explores the evolution of higher education policy from the early 20th century to today, looking at the GI Bill, the campus unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Reagan Revolution. An advocate for universal access to higher education and total debt forgiveness, Bunch argues that rising tuition costs helped birth the political polarization and culture wars that plague our discourse today. He makes a case that there is a singular villain in this tale: Ronald Reagan. However, his argument is about as dubious as Biden’s supposed authority to discharge student debt.     

Bunch describes the period from the end of World War II to the 1960s as the “golden age” of higher education. This short-lived epoch began with the GI Bill and concluded with a pivot away from broad government funding for higher education and toward individual responsibility for education costs. Writing about the GI Bill and the subsequent Truman Commission on Higher Education, which championed the mission of community colleges in America, Bunch imagines a world where national leaders nearly enshrined higher education as a universal public good available to all Americans. Alas, it was not to be, as the highs from the post-war political consensus quickly faded and the nation confronted the unrest of the 1960s. As students indiscriminately tore down norms in their fight against racism, the Vietnam War, and the entrenched establishment, those who wished to preserve some of the nobler ideals of the past found a defender in Reagan. 

For Bunch, Reagan functions as the proverbial barbarian whose sacking of the eternal city (or ivory tower) ushers in a new dark age that resulted in nothing short of plague, pestilence, and, ultimately, blood in the Senate halls on January 6, 2021. This indictment of Reagan is not surprising coming from the author of Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy. However, much like the real fall of Rome, what followed was not nearly as dark as Bunch would have us believe. 

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