Much has been written about the education divide in American politics: Those with college degrees tend to see the world in ways that those without do not. But I think there is more to the social effects of American higher education than simply whether or not one has a degree. The meaning of a college degree has changed over time in ways that may explain why our elites are consistently so much less than we hope for.
In 1940, just 4.6 percent of the U.S. population had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, the number is 37.5 percent. Politicians celebrate the growth of higher education as proof that we are smarter, more learned, and readier for the information economy than ever. But the content, rigor, and quality of that education has changed dramatically. Grade inflation, the disappearance of a meaningful core curriculum, and the rise of vocational training means that a bachelor’s degree does not mean what it used to mean. Having a college degree in 2021 is drastically different than having a college degree in 1921.
To get a college degree 100 years ago, students had to master Latin, Western history, rhetoric, English literature, higher mathematics, and a smattering of theology and philosophy. This was considered to be a classical liberal arts education. The point, ideally, was to immerse a student in a breadth and variety of subjects to encourage broad-mindedness, liberality, imagination, intellectual flexibility, and critical judgment. With roots as far back as ancient Greece, the liberal arts were believed to be essential for the growth of leaders, thinkers, and creators.
Today, students get almost none of that content. Student activists revolted against the classics in the 1960s, believing them to be irrelevant and racist. They demanded fundamental changes to make college curricula more relevant and representative—and they won. While broadening the canon held promise, reforms generally subtracted more than they added and threw the entire idea of a canon into question. Today students get, at most, a mere sampling of a classical liberal arts education. The most popular majors are business, health, engineering, medicine, computer science, communications and journalism, and (decreasingly) education. In other words, they are job training programs rather than courses of study in the liberal arts.