Someone alerted me to this long lecture by Albert Jay Nock about the destruction of the classical university system in the United States. It’s worth your time to read the entire thing. Block out a half-hour and go through it. Nock gave this lecture in 1931, long before the real push to destroy standards even really began.
Here are some excerpts:
The thing now was to introduce the sciences, living languages and the useful arts, to make instruction vocational, to open all manner of opportunities for vocational study, and to induce youth into our institutions for pretty strictly vocational purposes. All this was done; the process amounted to a revolution, carried out with extraordinary thoroughness and in an astonishingly short time. Hardly any debris of the old order remains except, curiously, the insignia of certain proficiencies; these now survive as mere vestiges. You are as well aware as I, for example, of what a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts now represents.
This was used as justification for jumbling together what was a fixed curriculum of a true ‘undergraduate’ program with a lot of bizarre courses intended to better prepare the students for professional life.
What the latter day America could not tolerate was the setting-apart of a minuscule class of highly accomplished students, held to exacting moral standards. Instead, it was brought lower, into ‘practical’ service. It wasn’t so much a choice between promoting knowledge versus ignorance, but in terms of debasing what the entire institution was about. There is nothing there to ‘reform,’ because its entire character has been fundamentally altered into something unrecognizable.
The errors of education came from a vulgarization and misinterpretation of the older intents of American higher education:
This sentiment, I say, served as a quickening spirit, not an enlightening spirit. Its ministrations moved us to the construction, by no means deliberate but quite at haphazard, of an educational theory which may be decomposed into three basic ideas or principles. The first idea was that of equality; the second, that of democracy; and the third idea was that the one great assurance of good public order and honest government lay in a literate citizenry.
Nock goes on to explain how the ideals of Thomas Jefferson were vulgarized to open up the programs to a much larger population. These errors were only amplified in magnitude later on, based on the same initial errors.
Jefferson actually favored an almost impossibly selective higher education system that would shock most contemporary people: the purpose was to select for genius, rather than putting a mass of people through a jumble of subjects.
This confused interpretation of ‘equality’ to the vulgar use by which we know it today:
Thus, again, the doctrine of equality and its corollaries and implications have undergone the most astounding popular misunderstanding; you may remember, perhaps, the humorous and not much exaggerated popular formulation of it in the saying that “in the United States one man is just exactly as good as another, or a little better.” Indeed, in the social sphere, the doctrine of equality has regularly been degraded into a kind of charter for rabid self-assertion on the part of ignorance and vulgarity; in the political sphere it has served as a warrant for the most audacious and flagitious exercise of self-interest. So, when we set about the examination of this doctrine in relation to our educational system, we must first and above all ascertain which doctrine of equality it is that we find at the basis of our system; is it the philosophical doctrine recommended by Menander and espoused by Mr. Jefferson, or is it a popular doctrine which neither of them could or would recognize?
Acknowledging that the majority of people are not educable would be a positive step forward. Unfortunately, Americans have been unable to make that acknowledgement for more than a century. No evidence seems to be able to shake even the elites from their belief that all people can be elevated by a program of education.
Nock’s closing observation at the time is just as applicable now as it was when he spoke:
I do not think that our American society will ever return to the Great Tradition. I see no reason why it should not go on repeating the experience of other societies, having already gone as far as it has along the road of that experience, and find that when it at last realizes the need of transforming itself, it has no longer the power to do so.
Given that the link to the great tradition was severed in the early 20th century, everything that followed proved to be impossible to resist, as that trend grew exponentially. This is our current dilemma.