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Why Is America Fractured? Blame College, a New Book Argues.



AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It, by Will Bunch

Americans owe $1.7 trillion in student loans, an amount so gargantuan that it has lodged in the public consciousness, like the visibility of the Great Wall of China from space, except the debt monument grows higher and longer every year.

“After the Ivory Tower Falls,” by the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, is the story of how the Great Wall of Loans was built and why it divides us, of how higher education went from a beloved guarantor of opportunity to, in Bunch’s telling, a fracturing force of cultural and economic separation. It is ambitious and engrossing, even when the narrative sometimes strains to fit the demands of Bunch’s argument that college has become “a fake meritocracy rigged to make half of America hate it.”

Bunch’s history tracks the missed opportunities to define and finance college as a public good, beginning with the 1944 G.I. Bill’s unexpected success in sending millions of white veterans to college, free of charge. President Harry S. Truman’s Commission on Higher Education followed up in 1947 with a far-reaching vision of enlightened, productive citizens educated by federally financed colleges and universities.

But like so many good things, the idea was spoiled by racists — in this case, Southern lawmakers who worried that federal programs might require them to educate Black people. While an undergraduate named Mario Savio helped found the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley (after registering Black Mississippi voters during the Freedom Summer of 1964), an aging actor named Ronald Reagan saw an opportunity to ride middle-class revulsion toward campus radicals all the way to the California governor’s mansion. Reagan went on to champion an antitax, small-government philosophy that would erode public education revenues for decades to come.

Bunch applies his skills as a veteran newspaper reporter throughout the book, incorporating the firsthand voices of Savio’s widow, gunshot survivors of the Kent State massacre, and many others, to great effect. But most of his reporting focuses on present-day conflicts that seem to be pulling the nation apart. He talks to liberal college professors shocked into activism by the Trump presidency and to churchgoing, Trump-loving residents of nearby towns who feel alienated by wealthy students and the cultural convulsions they represent.

The prose is tight, direct and often bracing. We meet an idealistic low-income graduate weighed down by six-figure loans and an Obama-to-Trump voter who skipped college for a factory job that paid handsome wages until it suddenly didn’t. Both are treated with fairness and humanity. Bunch describes how the dream of college as a tool for democratic citizenship has “instead become the rough show-us-your-papers demand for clinging to the middle class.”

The final chapters bring past and present together into a single argument: that the “college problem” is underappreciated as a major driver — perhaps the major driver — of the miles-deep chasm dividing Americans by class, culture, geography and ideology. Until very recently, Bunch notes, people with college degrees split their votes about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, as did voters who didn’t attend college. Bill Clinton won the presidency by attracting noncollege voters, and as late as 2012, Barack Obama’s margin among the college-educated was relatively small.

But the Trump years caused, or were provoked by, a wrenching separation of the electorate into opposing camps defined by educational attainment. College-educated Republicans fled the party in droves, while Democrats without degrees ran in the opposite direction. The result was two tribes who disagreed not just about values and ideals but also about basic tenets of science and fact.

A self-described progressive, Bunch acknowledges but does not dwell overmuch on campus debates around race and gender that are sometimes described as “identity politics.” His core focus is on the transformation of public universities into institutions that seem deliberately designed to exclude voters who have left the Democratic fold. The decades of lost chances to organize and fund college as a public good exacted a cost, denominated in tuition prices and financed by student loans.

While universities always publicly denounce funding cuts, many were not-so-secretly glad for the excuse to become more exclusive, expensive and focused on the wants of the wealthy. That’s how excellence has always been defined in American higher education. Just as tectonic economic shifts left tens of millions of workers needing new training and credentials, the public university system was becoming less affordable and more beholden to “meritocratic” ideas that thinly disguised the interests of the ruling class. Meanwhile, even students who might have been inclined by background and politics to embrace higher learning became disillusioned by the spiraling crisis of debt.

This is all true, and important. But it starts to creak as a totalizing explanation for the alarming state of the body politic. Bunch devotes a long chapter to a four-part taxonomy of American discontent, defined by the axes of age and college attainment. One example is Dave Mitchko, a Scranton-area man in his 50s without a degree, made briefly famous for distributing thousands of Trump 2020 signs from his home garage.

Maybe Mitchko truly believes he signed a social contract “that you didn’t need a fancy college education to have a nice life in the United States — only to see it get ripped up” right in front of him. That deal didn’t last long, historically speaking, and was only ever offered to people with names like Dave and Mitchko. And it was broken because the plant he used to work in manufactured vinyl records and compact discs. Technological change is a fact of life, and colleges weren’t responsible for de-unionization or the trade policies that exposed workers to competition from foreign labor — or for Mitchko’s belief that George Floyd was resisting arrest.

Bunch is careful to acknowledge all of this. But at some point, fair-minded caveats start to feel like counterarguments. Colleges have been as much the venue for political division as they have been its root cause.

Credit…Philadelphia Inquirer

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, in part because neighboring states like New York and Maryland have done substantially better. 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.

“After the Tower Falls” concludes with a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the practical and political challenges faced by lawmakers trying to turn the higher education system back toward public purpose. It also advocates for a form of highly encouraged national service as a means of recreating the post-World War II spirit of national unity, without the war. The elder members of our warring political tribes may be too far apart, but Bunch has hope yet for younger generations working together on behalf of their communities, rather than struggling alone through a college system filled with financial traps at every turn.

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.

AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It, by Will Bunch | 310 pp. | William Morrow | $28.99


Ama Ata Aidoo, Groundbreaking Ghanaian Writer, Dies at 81



Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian playwright, author and activist who was hailed as one of Africa’s leading literary lights as well as one of its most influential feminists, died on Wednesday. She was 81.

Her family said in a statement that she died after a brief illness. The statement did not specify the cause or where she died.

In a wide-ranging career that included writing plays, novels and short stories, stints on multiple university faculties and, briefly, a position as a cabinet minister in Ghana, Ms. Aidoo established herself as a major voice of post-colonial Africa.

Her breakthrough play, “The Dilemma of a Ghost,” published in 1965, explored the cultural dislocations experienced by a Ghanaian student who returns home after studying abroad and those of his Black American wife, who must confront the legacies of colonialism and slavery. It was one of several of Ms. Aidoo’s works that became staples in West African schools.

Throughout her literary career, Ms. Aidoo sought to illuminate the paradoxes faced by modern African women, still burdened by the legacies of colonialism. She rejected what she described as the “Western perception that the African female is a downtrodden wretch.”

Her novel “Changes: A Love Story,” which won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book, Africa, portrays the psychic and cultural dilemmas faced by Esi, an educated, career-focused woman in Accra, Ghana’s capital, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and lands in a polygamous relationship with a wealthy man.

In this work and many others, Ms. Aidoo chronicled the fight by African women for recognition and equality, a fight, she contended, that was inextricable from the long shadow of colonialism.

“Our Sister Killjoy” was Ms. Aidoo’s debut novel.

Her landmark debut novel, “Our Sister Killjoy, or Reflections From a Black-Eyed Squint” (1977), recounted the experiences of Sissie, a young Ghanaian woman who travels to Europe on a scholarship to better herself, as such a move was traditionally described, with a Western education. In Germany and England, she comes face to face with the dominance of white values, including Western notions of success, among African expatriates.

As a Fulbright scholar who spent years as an expatriate herself, including stints as a writer in residence at the University of Richmond in Virginia and as a visiting professor in the Africana studies department at Brown, she too experienced feelings of cultural dislocation.

“I have always felt uncomfortable living abroad: racism, the cold, the weather, the food, the people,” she said in a 2003 interview published by the University of Alicante in Spain. “I also felt some kind of patriotic sense of guilt. Something like, Oh, my dear! Look at all the problems we have at home. What am I doing here?”

Whatever her feelings about life abroad, she was welcomed in Western literary circles. A 1997 article in The New York Times recounted how her appearance at a New York University conference for female writers of African descent “was greeted with the kind of reverence reserved for heads of state.”

Ms. Aidoo’s novel “Changes: A Love Story” won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book, Africa.

Although she wasn’t one, she had been Ghana’s minister of education, an appointment she accepted in 1982 with the goal of making education free for all. She resigned after 18 months when she realized the many barriers she would have to overcome to achieve that goal.

After moving to Zimbabwe in 1983, she developed curriculums for the country’s Ministry of Education. She also made her mark in the nonprofit sphere, founding the Mbaasem Foundation in 2000 to support African women writers.

She was a major Pan-Africanist voice, arguing for unity among African countries and for their continued liberation. She spoke with fury about the centuries of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources and people.

“Since we met you people 500 years ago, now look at us,” she said in an interview with a French journalist in 1987, later sampled in the 2020 song “Monsters You Made” by the Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy. “We’ve given everything, you are still taking. I mean where will the whole Western world be without us Africans? Our cocoa, timber, gold, diamond, platinum.”

“Everything you have is us,” she continued. “I am not saying it. It’s a fact. And in return for all these, what have we got? Nothing.”

Christina Ama Ata Aidoo and her twin brother, Kwame Ata, were born on March 23, 1942, in the Fanti village of Abeadzi Kyiakor, in a central region of Ghana then known by its colonial name, the Gold Coast.

Her father, Nana Yaw Fama, was a chief of the village who built its first school, and her mother was Maame Abba Abasema. Information about Ms. Aidoo’s survivors was not immediately available.

Her grandfather had been imprisoned and tortured by the British, a fact she later invoked when describing herself as “coming from a long line of fighters.”

She said she felt a literary calling from an early age. “At the age of 15,” she said, “a teacher had asked me what I wanted to do for a career, and without knowing why or even how I replied that I wanted to be a poet.”

Four years later, she won a short story contest. On seeing her story published by the newspaper that sponsored the competition, she said, “I had articulated a dream.”

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A ‘Lucky Child’ Writes His Way From Nigeria to the Global Stage



Ani Kayode Somtochukwu wrote his first novel without the benefit of the internet or even a computer. He scratched it out by hand on large white notepads, then transferred it, tap by tap, onto his cellphone.

Then he sold it to a major publisher.

That novel, “And Then He Sang a Lullaby,” a love story about two young men in Nigeria, will be published June 6 by a new imprint at Grove Atlantic, launched by the writer and social commentator Roxane Gay. Gay has said she plans to elevate writers from outside the usual publishing pipelines, and Ani (in Nigeria, the family name often comes first) is the imprint’s first author: a queer Nigerian man from a working-class background, whose manuscript, submitted without an agent, came from the slush pile.

Ani is also 23, quick to smile, quick to laugh, and he apologizes for making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves.

“He is both wise beyond his years and also charmingly 23,” Gay said. “You can tell that even though he is living in Nigeria, where it is challenging to be gay, he is living a vibrant life.”

Ani grew up in Enugu, the second of five children born to a schoolteacher and a storekeeper who sold stationery and gift cards at a market stall. He has always been a writer, scribbling stories and poems that he shared with his siblings and friends, but he never considered it a possible career, instead studying applied biology and biotechnology in school. Today, he lives in Lagos, where he moved for a job at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research.

“There are certain class backgrounds you grow up in where, when you think of your career, you have to stick with what’s very practical,” he said. “Being a musician, for instance, or being a dancer, being a writer — those are things you are allowed to enjoy, but you don’t really think of them as a career.”

As it’s turned out, however, “writing has taken me out of poverty,” he said. Today it’s his full-time job.

“And Then He Sang a Lullaby” centers on two very different young men who meet and fall in love in college. August is wealthy, athletic and passes for straight, while Segun is flamboyant, political, working-class and frequently targeted — same-sex relationships are illegal in Nigeria. The novel explores how people respond differently to homophobia, and how love is possible even under such difficult circumstances.

“It is a novel about queer love and about queer pain,” Ani said. “But maybe most importantly, it’s about queer resistance.”

Ani considers himself an activist first, and says his writing is in service of that work. He describes organizing campaigns in support of L.G.B.T.Q. rights and helping to raise money to buy the freedom of friends and strangers who have been kidnapped and held for ransom because they are gay or trans.

He has also been targeted: assaulted twice, he said, detained by the police and threatened many times. After a protest in Nigeria’s capital against legislation that would have sent people to jail for wearing clothing that didn’t traditionally align with the gender assigned to them at birth, Ani said he had to leave the city suddenly when commenters on social media said he and others involved should be killed.

“He came out so early in a very dangerous country, and I must say, it’s really a miracle that he got to this point,” said one of his sisters, Ani Uzoamaka Chinedu. “Kayode is one lucky child.”

While studying biology in college, he also joined a writers’ club. Later he learned on its group chat that Gay’s imprint was accepting submissions, and sent in a few chapters.

Gay said she was drawn not only by the book’s message but by the strength of Ani’s voice. By the time he reached out to Emma Shercliff, the woman who would become his agent, Ani already had an offer.

Most traditional publishing houses require that submissions come from agents, rather than directly from authors to editors, and it’s rare for a book deal to get done any other way. It is a practical consideration, because submissions from agents have already been vetted. But getting an agent is itself a steep hill to climb, so this setup means that many authors, even if their work is excellent, may not be able to get a manuscript in front of an editor.

When Gay first opened her imprint, with an announcement that she would accept unagented submissions, she was receiving 200 or 300 of those manuscripts each month.

“Does it require a lot of effort? Yes it does, and I’ve had to hire people to help me get through the queue,” she said. “But I’m happy to do it if it means providing that opportunity.”

The advance from selling the book allowed Ani to move into an apartment by himself for the first time, with a quiet place to write. His sister said he also gave some money to his father to support the family. Ani kept the African rights so the book could be published in Nigeria by a local publisher, making it less expensive for readers.

This month Ani will visit the United States for book-related events, his first trip outside of Africa. With his profile elevated, he said he doesn’t fear becoming more of a target in Nigeria, maintaining that his visibility offers him some protection, which he plans to use to push harder on what he believes.

“What I want people to know about me,” he said, “is that I am an African queer liberation activist who believes that Africa is my home, that it is a home for queer people. I truly believe that.”

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In Richard Ford’s New Novel, One More Trip for Old Times’ Sake



BE MINE, by Richard Ford

Richard Ford has long been our chief literary appraiser of bad men’s wear. Philip Roth also had an eye for this sort of thing. In “American Pastoral,” a loud shirt worn by a country-club type is “WASP motley.” But Ford is in a league of his own.

In his Frank Bascombe books — his new one, “Be Mine,” is the fifth and last — we’ve met fellows in “green jackass pants” and “tu-tone suede leisure sneakers” and “smushed-pecker shorts.” A few of the better descriptions aren’t printable here. We know these men. They are, in Ford’s argot, the change jinglers, with strip-mall haircuts and hamburger laughs. Don’t stare. You might look right into the “hairy spelunkle of a left nostril.”

Frank, on the other hand, is invariably turned out in aw-shucks Ivy League holiday-weekend array circa 1996 (though he went to Michigan and was briefly in the Marines): chinos, Weejuns, faded Brooks Brothers madras shirts. He’s thin, tall-ish, handsome enough; he shares his creator’s pale eyes. “A casual look,” he has said, “can sometimes keep you remote from events.”

The men he gawks at aren’t ogres, not entirely. As Frank slid from sportswriting into real estate — in “Be Mine” he is 74 and mostly retired — he has taken an increasingly long view of the human condition. His America is a big tent. The clods and old farts, well, they have their saving graces, and so does everyone else. In the American way, each wandering soul is a potential customer.

In “The Sportswriter,” the first novel in this series, Frank started out as a sensitive young literary man who had published a book of stories. Ford was wise to yank him, root and nerve, out of the word business. As John Updike asked, praising a Roth character who is a dentist (and not Roth’s alter-ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman), “Who cares what it’s like to be a writer?” Updike’s own Rabbit Angstrom ran a Toyota dealership.

Real estate put dirt on the spade of Ford’s thinking. He is a crucial and electric writer about houses and the potential for cracks in any foundation — the radon in life’s basement. Buying a house is an existential moment. The stress can make strong people throw up. Ford has made the most of these scenes. They are comic and harrowing.

Though the Bascombe novels are set mostly in New Jersey’s wealthier suburbs, they are, oddly, road novels. Frank is happiest and most himself behind the wheel, his windshield an IMAX screen though which he soaks up news about the state of his neighbors and of the American experiment writ large.

In this way, he resembles another explicator of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen — about whom Ford has written perceptively. They share another quality. Their late-period titles are flimsy, bordering on embarrassing. Springsteen went from “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to “Letter to You.” Holy moly. Ford went from “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” to “Let Me Be Frank With You” and “Be Mine.” Good Lord. Are these the most feebly titled books from any Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction?

The Bascombe novels are road novels, as well, because they are set during holidays, when families are in flux. “The Sportswriter” (1986) takes place over Easter; the title of “Independence Day” (1995) is self-explanatory; “The Lay of the Land” (2006) leads up to Thanksgiving; “Let Me Be Frank With You” (2014), a collection of stories, is set at Christmas; the candy heart-titled “Be Mine” is a Valentine’s Day reverie.

This one features a road trip of a darker sort. Frank’s grown son, Paul, has A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he is not long for this world. They drive in a derelict R.V. from Rochester, Minn., where Paul is in an experimental protocol at Mayo Clinic, to Mount Rushmore.

They’re an odd couple. Paul is 47, fat, warty, balding and often in a wheelchair. Frank thinks he resembles Larry Flynt, the pornographer. They display their love through puns and insults. “You’re a simpleton, Frank,” is a typical crack. It’s every father’s dream, surely, to have his son resemble an insult-comic version of Larry Flynt.

Paul refers to A.L.S. as “Al’s,” as if it were a bar. Frank has also had health issues, including prostate cancer. His own Mayo doctor told him that major stress is “like eating a Baconator every meal.” His goal? “To be happy — before the gray curtain comes down.”

Ford is among the elite American writers of the past half-century, and this book displays his gifts — the crunchy verbs, the crisp vision, the clocking of absurdities, the swift reasoning, his sense of the (mostly unintentional) damage humans inflict on one another and how most of our internal wounds utterly fail to clot.

This book is set just before Covid appeared. Here’s a typical snippet of Ford’s prose, as Frank glimpses a television screen:

President Trump’s swollen, eyes-bulging face filled the TV screen behind the honor bar, doing his pooch-lipped, arms-folded Mussolini. I couldn’t take my eyes off him — tuberous limbs, prognathous jaw, looking in all directions at once, seeking approval but not finding enough.

“Be Mine” is not unlike a welcome late-evening phone call, two scotches in, from an old friend. Ford’s readers have been through a lot with this man.

And yet. Valentine’s Day is a shoddy holiday and Mount Rushmore is a shoddy attraction. (In “Independence Day,” father and son drove to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.) Frank and Paul know these things. They hit the road anyway, hoping to squeeze out some of the happiness they might have left.

“Be Mine” isn’t shoddy, exactly, but it’s the thinnest and least persuasive of the Bascombe novels. The seams in these books have begun to show.

Too many strangers break into unprompted, and sometimes hokey, soliloquies. Ford’s penchant for summing up every other paragraph with a cracker-barrel bromide has begun to grate. A book derived from “Be Mine” called “The Wit and Wisdom of Frank Bascombe” would include throw-pillow slogans like “Fatherhood is a battle in any language” and “It is the thought that counts.”

There’s a long, odd, uncomfortable interlude in “Be Mine” during which Frank falls half in love with a much younger Vietnamese woman, Betty Duong Tran, who works in a massage parlor. Ford works to humanize Betty, but he only gets so far.

It’s to Ford’s credit, I suppose, that he isn’t running a P.R. campaign for Frank. He catches his desperation. The massage scenes reminded me of “The Sportswriter,” when Frank consults a palmist, “the stranger who takes your life seriously.” Frank’s one of those men who are extra-aware of the small neon “open” signs that, on the outskirts of most American towns, burn all night in at least one window.

The Bascombe novels have never felt especially up-to-date, culturally. Not everyone cares about pop culture, and Frank has a right to be among those who don’t. But what culture Ford does tuck into “Be Mine” feels random and unlikely.

Frank’s son, for example, is an apparently non-ironic superfan of the music of Anthony Newley, the cockney singer, long dead, who could taxidermy a song like few others; his material felt dated the instant he recorded it. Can we blame Frank for his son’s young fogeydom? He once took Paul on a “boys-only junket to see Mel Tormé at TropWorld” in Atlantic City.

From the start, the Bascombe books have leaned on Frank’s sense of his own mortality. He was still in his 30s when he was uttering things like “The older I get the more things scare me” and looking forward to a soft retirement.

There aren’t many major holidays — Groundhog Day? Hanukkah? — left for Frank to endure on our behalf. I hope “Be Mine” isn’t really the end for him. God forbid he loses his sense of humor, but to paraphrase late-career Leonard Cohen, I want it darker.

BE MINE | By Richard Ford | 342 pp. | Ecco | $30

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