The general difficulty in talking about ideas and culture in America partially derives from the abolition of fixed curricula in higher education. Without reference to a common set of books, without an objective definition of what it means to be educated, makes it so that discussion between strangers must fall to some lowest common denominator that all parties can comprehend.
Because of this, you often wind up with people talking around one another, in which both parties have bad mental models of what’s going on with the other person, because they both have such wildly different backgrounds. A reference to an important work or thinker is likely to be misunderstood in discussion, because it’s likely that one party or another has never even heard of it, or is only familiar with it in the abstract.
Further, because of the meaningless specialization of the last century or so, different schools of thought which cover the same topic may have entirely different methodologies and sets of jargon. The academics prize the development of new ‘discoveries,’ no matter how trivial, and reward originality even when the original work is either pointless or spurious. The arts and natural sciences, once unified under the humanities, have instead been balkanized and fractured.
In the world outside of academia, the arts and sciences are actually not fractured.
For example, software engineers in modern firms need to take into account market dynamics, aesthetics, user demands, and internal politics within their organizations to actually produce usable software. They coding part makes up a minimal portion of the labor-hours of a senior level engineer, who will typically be bumped into a political position which requires political-economic skills in addition to technical mastery.
High levels of technical specialization are less necessary than breadth, because apart from a small number of superb individuals, humans need broad political talent, especially on large projects, much more than they need narrow technical excellence.
So in this the centuries-long call for ‘practical’ education is almost always in practice impractical, because it produces overspecialized people who are mis-trained into the bureaucratic needs of the academy rather than the flexible, dynamic needs of the natural world. The degrees rewarded by these academies, although portrayed as standards, are instead mixed standards, because the curricula are not even close to uniform, and neither are the standards by which they are awarded.
So, what should we hope for from higher education for men? We should expect far less of it, and reserve it for a far, far tinier number of people, and stop considering them centers for ‘research,’ because research divorced from the surrounding society tends towards yak-shaving. The primary goal should be to preserve classical learning. The secondary goal should be to prepare graduates for their future specialization. The tertiary goal should be to acculturate the leadership class, help them to make social bonds, and provide a common cultural framework that facilitates cooperation within that class.
Finally, there is no reason as to why most of these goals can’t be achieved by independent tutors for most people of means, or otherwise bypassed by non-institutional methods. Mercantile success has rarely matched up well with academic success. If you are concerned about the undue influence of money in politics, it’d be a good idea to revoke many of the privileges that universities currently enjoy with respect to intelligence testing, as they serve as legal proxies to insulate companies from accusations of discriminatory hiring practices.
It might also be sensible to restore the religious purpose of universities, to reduce the temporal power accorded to the graduates, and formalize that distinction.
Reducing the scale at which higher education is expected to perform also makes standardization less necessary. When there is less focus on standardization, people can evaluate education on a more qualitative basis. It also becomes possible to make the programs far more rigorous.
In terms of increasing your understanding of your fellow Americans currently, it’s good to recognize that you may have almost nothing in common in terms of intellectual background with the people that you speak with. There’s a solid chance, especially if they’re younger, that they are totally unfamiliar with anything substantive.
They may be well-read in some small portion of human knowledge, but it’s likely that they are not familiar with something that you’re talking about within what you know. You have to suss out their level of knowledge before a productive conversation can happen. It does no good to reference some complex work that they have never read, and providing a summary is not likely to meaningfully transfer knowledge to them, either.
To the extent that you do know a thing or two, your character, from the perspective of the other person, will be that you are a foreigner from the past, and your language is unlikely to be understood by the listener. Because modern newspapers, magazines, and websites must be written to the standard of a child. People are much more likely to recognize references from television shows than they are to books, because the typical American spends about three hours each day watching television.
According to Pew, the average number of books read is about five per year, but this is a bit distorted by the heavy readers. 54% read five or fewer. I write this blog with the assumption that you are in the category of 15% that read 20 or more books each year. And those quantitative measures of course mix in fans of pulp literature designed to be read quickly and in sequence.
The key problem with the modern scattershot education is that it makes it so that the people who have it have trouble coordinating with one another. They squabble and misunderstand each other continuously. They’re held together by weak, watered-down glue. They can’t handle competition from a unified opposition with a common high culture and reading of history. That doesn’t exist right now, but it could be reconstituted.