Welcome to a special edition of The Will Bunch Newsletter. I’ve played slightly with the usual format to go a bit longer on a piece I’ve wanted to publish for a while. In 2020, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the killing of four college students at Kent State University and how that day changed America. Now, previewing a major theme of my upcoming book, I add a vital part of the story that most folks aren’t aware of.
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1960s protests convinced politicians to make college expensive. America is still paying the price
At 12:24 p.m. on the sunny spring afternoon of May 4, 1970, or 52 years ago this Wednesday, National Guardsmen patrolling the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University during a protest against America’s war in Southeast Asia — suddenly and with no warning, let alone rhyme or reason — turned, kneeled and fired 67 rounds of live ammunition into a crowd of students. Some 13 seconds later, nine young people lay wounded and four others — Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer and William Schroeder — were dead on the ground.
Those 13 seconds changed America. A notion that had animated the boisterous 1960s — that America’s largest generation of young people, raised in post-World War II affluence and optimism, would change the world — seemed to also die on the hot asphalt of the parking lot where the victims fell. Even though no one to this day knows exactly who ordered the shots or why, many took what happened that May 4 as a warning: there are unwritten limits on dissent in the United States.
What became known as the Kent State Massacre caused days of rage, including a nationwide strike that shut down dozens of campuses in spring 1970. It inspired a song — Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” written by Neil Young — that still lights up FM radios, and it motivated the founders of the rock band Devo and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde (all enrolled at Kent State at the time of the shooting) to reject bourgeois life and become artists. More than a half-century later, some activists work to keep the memory of that day and the victims alive and to apply that spirit to protesting new wars or other outrages, in an echo of Young’s famous refrain, “How can you run when you know?”
And yet there is something else about Kent State — or, more accurately, what it represents as the blood-soaked beginning of the end of an American youth movement — that we rarely talk about, even though this aftershock continues to affect tens of millions of people, most of whom weren’t even born on May 4, 1970.
The shooting at this large Ohio public university, coming after years of similar youth-led protests from Berkeley to Columbia and everywhere in between, finally convinced a rising cohort of conservative “law and order” politicians that the movement toward making American higher education a public good — affordable and accessible to any young person wanting to better themselves — needed to end. What followed was the privatization of the American Way of College, a move to radically reduce taxpayer support for public universities, tuition that rose every year even more than health care costs, and the rise of a student-loan industrial complex that saddled new generations with a $1.75 trillion debt bomb. The political divisions and cultural resentments caused by this crisis have split America in two.
I spent a couple of years trying to get to the bottom of this as I researched my book, After the Ivory Tower Falls, that comes out this August. What I learned is that it’s impossible to understand the backlash that crushed the notion of college as the American Dream without going back to the moment of heady optimism that spawned the dream in the first place, with the U.S. on the verge of victory over fascism in World War II.
The 1944 G.I. Bill signed by Franklin Roosevelt included a free college benefit almost as an afterthought, since academic and political leaders thought that most returning troops wouldn’t be “college material,” in an era when only 5% of Americans earned bachelor’s degrees and a majority didn’t finish high school. Instead, the mostly working-class G.I. Bill recipients stunned the nation both in their large numbers and their devotion to taking classes. It was the start of a virtuous cycle that flowed into the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and the booming birth rate. By 1960, the rate of American youth heading off to college had skyrocketed six-fold to 31%
Yet this new American ideal of college wasn’t just a numbers racket. In the mid-20th century, the nation had emerged from a Great Depression, two world wars, and the arrival of the atomic bomb. Thought leaders wondered if the concept of liberal education — geared toward developing critical thinking and not just rote career training — could steer America away from fascism, communism, and nuclear war.
Young Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s embraced this idea. Enrollment in the humanities and social sciences soared. In one 1969 survey of freshmen, 82% said what mattered about college wasn’t career training but “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” But for America’s so-called Establishment, the problem was what CIA agents would later label “blowback.” Young people trained to venerate democracy and employ critical thinking turned their focus to America’s own hypocrisy — its senseless militarism in Vietnam, and racial apartheid in the Deep South, among other issues.
Top officials seemed less worried about the uproar at elite campuses like Columbia and more concerned about radicalism at the massive state universities —Berkeley or New York State’s university at Buffalo — that had exploded with working-class kids taking advantage of low (or free) tuition. They also nervously eyed rising enrollment and protests at HBCUs like Mississippi’s Jackson State University, where cops would murder two Black students on May 15, 1970.
Kent State skyrocketed from 5,000 students in 1954 to 21,000 by 1966, many of them kids of factory workers whose idealism had been forged in the New Deal-era union activism. By 1970, students exhausted by watching their neighbors return from Vietnam in body bags gravitated toward radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. The final trigger was then-President Nixon sending U.S. troops into Cambodia, which led to Kent State protesters burning down the ROTC building, which caused Ohio’s governor to call up the National Guard.
Today, polls show most people who know about the May 4 shooting consider it an abuse of government power, but it didn’t look that way to Middle America in 1970. An instant Gallup Poll showed 58% of Americans blamed the students for the bloodshed, with only 11% blaming the Guard. At a memorial service in Kent, locals disrupted the event chanting “Kent State Four! Should have studied more!”
A new breed of conservative politician was poised to jump on the backlash -- including Nixon, who’d called student protesters “bums” just before the shooting. But the king of the new resentment politics was Ronald Reagan, who’d won a shock victory as California governor in 1966 by railing against chaos on the Berkeley campus and the new hippie “who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” Reagan pushed (and was met with pushback) to end California’s once-cherished tradition of free public university tuition for residents, arguing that “taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize intellectual curiosity.”
That movement gained steam in 1970, around the time of the Kent State massacre. That year, a Hoover Institution economist who advised both Nixon and Reagan named Roger Freeman said the quiet part out loud when he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.”
An even more influential right-wing economist, the future Nobel laureate James Buchanan, who’d later become a key advisor to the Koch brothers, published Anarchy in Academia that made an explicit link between higher tuition and curbing protest. He argued that free college in California made students view “the whole university setting with disrespect or even contempt,” as he argued for a privatized, capitalistic reinvention of higher ed.
It didn’t happen overnight, but America’s drift to the political right did ultimately impose this vision. After Reagan was elected president in 1980, he slashed direct federal aid to college students and accelerated the shift to a model based around student loans. Meanwhile, the state legislatures that had spent generously on new dorms in the 1960s now put higher education on the chopping block. In Pennsylvania, taxpayers who paid 75% of the cost of public universities in the late 20th century now pay 25%. That gap is filled in by the state’s working families paying more tuition, which invariably means taking out student loans.
I won’t dwell for long on the impact of killing the idea of higher education as a public good, because you know a lot of this story. Some 45 million Americans owe an unthinkable $1.75 trillion in debt, forcing today’s young people to put off the markers of adulthood like buying a home or getting married. Millions more are shut out of college, and any doorway to the middle class, as “deaths of despair” mount among those without degrees. And remember that idea that critical thinking would keep away fascism? What about the popularity of QAnon? What about January 6? Isn’t that exactly what the 1940s pushers of liberal education wanted to prevent?
On Wednesday, take a minute to reflect on the tragedy of the all-too-short lives of Krause, Miller, Scheuer, and Schroeder, but also think about the other loss that day: the death of a powerful idea. We have the ability to bring these things back to life: liberal education as a public good, and the dream of an engaged citizenry who can think critically about America’s future. How can we run when we know?
Yo, do this
If you liked today’s column, I’m predicting that you will love my book: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — And How to Fix It, which comes out on August 9 in hardcover, Kindle, and in an audiobook. It argues that the history of college since World War II and the history of America — our political and class divisions, and movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the rise of Donald Trump — are inextricably linked. The historian Heather Cox Richardson calls it “a must-read for anyone trying to understand how we got to our current political crisis ... simply terrific.” I’m asking my newsletter readers to preorder the book, which you can do through the links on this page. That guarantees that you’ll have your copy in hand when the Will Bunch Culture Club discusses it in August!
If you’re a journalism geek, you’ve been following the story of new New York Times top editor Joe Kahn and the debate over whether America’s bellwether news org is doing enough to cover the threats to our democracy. This week, the paper answered that question emphatically with a three-part series and deep analysis of the rise and authoritarian right turn of the highly watched Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The pieces did not shy away from the r-word: “Racist.” It is a must read.
Ask me anything
Question: Why are people more concerned about a leak [of the Supreme Court vote and opinion overturning Roe v. Wade] than about the contents of the ruling? — Via Anne Ward (@AnneCW) on Twitter
Answer: Anne, there’s nothing more important today than the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and leaked Monday night to Politico, which will undo 49 years of reproductive rights in America. The High Court’s maneuver is both a wake-up call — which folks should have received already — about this nation’s drift into authoritarianism, and a likely prelude to similar moves against LBGTQ+ rights and God knows what else. The leak? As a journalist, I support the efforts of whistleblowers to remove the shrouds of secrecy and let the American people know what our government is up to. In fact, I applaud the leaker.
Recommended Inquirer reading
A quick look at my other recent pieces: In my Sunday column, I highlighted a potential bright spot in a grim political year: The U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, whose aspirational message for young voters and the multiracial working class is just what the party needs. Over the weekend, I wrote a prequel to today’s column, looking at President Biden, the moral necessity of eliminating college debt, and the need to think even bigger.
The Inquirer’s racial reckoning that arose from 2020′s George Floyd protests inspired our series called A More Perfect Union. The latest installment looks at how racial segregation worked in Philadelphia’s tony Main Line suburbs, and calls out the newspaper’s own role in making that happen. If you want to join Philly’s big civic conversations, read all of my columns, or follow the 76ers deep in the NBA playoffs, you won’t be able to ... unless you subscribe to The Inquirer. Please consider doing so today.