It’s true, our great-grandparents knew far more about language, philosophy, and history when they were in 12th grade than most Ph.D.s do today. They could usually read Greek, Latin, and a smattering of Hebrew, as well as at least one “living language” (usually French or German) and could describe the unfolding history of the Western Empires and Republics. They understood how to build a barn using trigonometry and geometry and how to figure the prevailing direction of the wind. They could plant and maintain a garden or a full farm, without pesticides or fertilizers. They knew the constellations and could find their way home from almost anywhere. They were familiar with the essential teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Hume, Smith, and Mill. They also had memorized long passages of Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, and Homer, as well as much of the Old and New Testaments.
This terrifying “dumbing down” of the education system has to do with sending people to college in the 1960s-’90s who didn’t like school and encouraging them to major in education because that’s easier than a “real” major… and to having tv sets and easy-to-read romance/adventure novels instead of old books in many languages on home and library shelves… and “everybody wins” instead of real challenges… and keeping kids the same age in one classroom instead of having younger kids watching (and wanting to catch up with) what the older ones are doing.
But, to be fair, the students of 100 years ago didn’t need to know much about driving in traffic, how to use hundreds of electronic tools and gadgets, what the constantly changing relationships are between various nations in the Middle East or Africa, what all the names of all the brands of food, household notions, or beauty products are, which famous athlete or actor is doing what with whom, or how Christianity is only one of many world religions and why. Those were things only a few people might ever have to understand–and that would be long after they left school.
Through the 1800s village and small-town schools were designed to give everybody all the tools they would need to be effective citizens of their community. Large urban schools were designed to train immigrants to work in American factories. Upper class education was handled by tutors in the home or very small, elite day-schools followed by a year or two at a college-preparatory school. Then in the mid-1900s our government decided everyone everywhere should have the same kind of education… and the “least common denominator” became the standard.
Since then, that “denominator” has continued to roll downhill, and with it, the standard.
So here we are… teaching basic English in college and wondering why.