You asked how college was when I was a kid, in the late Epicene, and what I thought of schools today. Herewith an answer which I will probably post on my website as I think the matter important:
Much has changed.
Long ago, before 1965 say, college was understood to be for the intelligent and academically prepared among the young, who would one day both provide leadership for the country and set the tone of society. Perhaps ten percent, but no more than twenty percent, of high-school graduates were thought to have any business on a campus.
It was elitist and deliberately so. Individuals and groups obviously differed in character and aptitude. The universities selected those students who could profit by the things done at universities.
Incoming freshmen were assumed to read with fluency and to know algebra cold. They did, because applicants were screened for these abilities by the SATs. These tests, not yet dumbed down, then measured a student’s ability to handle complex ideas expressed in complex literate English, this being what college students then did.
There were no remedial courses. If you needed them, you belonged somewhere else. The goal of college was learning, not social uplift.
Colleges were a bit stodgy, a bit isolated from the world, and focused on teaching. Most had not adopted the grand-sounding title of “university.” Professors were hired for a few years to see whether they worked out with the expectation that if they did, they would get tenure. At schools I knew, “publish or perish” did not exist. The students, almost entirely white and with the cultural norms associated with that condition, were well behaved within the limits imposed by late adolescence.
The purpose of college was the making of cultivated men and women who would understand the world to the extent that it has proved willing to be understood. This meant the liberal arts. “Liberal” didn’t mean “lefty” or “nice.” It implied a broad grounding in languages, literature, history, the sciences, mathematics, economics, philosophy, and art and music.
The emphasis was on “broad.” For example, if the student took a reasonably rigorous course called “A Survey of Art from Classical Antiquity to the Present,” he—or, most assuredly she—could go into any museum or archaeological site in the Western world, and know what he was seeing. In discussions of politics or literature he would not feel like an orphaned guttersnipe and, having a basis in most fields, could rapidly master any that proved of importance or interest.
There was of course, the young being the young, parallel interest in beer, the other sex, and the usual foolishness that we geezers remember with fondness.
That is how things were. Then came what are roughly called the Sixties, actually the late Sixties and early Seventies.
They changed everything.
The first and worst change was the philosophy that everybody, or much closer to everybody, should go to college. Disaster followed. There descended on the schools huge numbers of adolescents without the brains, preparation, or interest needed for college. They had little notion of what college was for. The very idea of cultivation seemed undemocratic to them, as of course it was. They set out to avoid it. And did.
Since they were not ready, and for the most part could not be made ready, colleges dumbed down courses. Remedial classes proliferated. These worked poorly. When a graduate of high school can barely read, there is usually an underlying reason why he will never be able to read.
Colleges, which had not been focused on money, realized that these swarms of the intellectually bedraggled paid tuition. Schooling became a business. Tuition rose sharply, much in excess of inflation. Banks, seeing a vast new market, began making student loans and soon learned to tie these loans to the parents’ houses. This kept the student from escaping by filing for bankruptcy. It was a gold mine.
The universities, become businesses, acted like businesses. They cut costs by using adjunct professors, often of low quality, as academic migrant workers instead of far higher-paid tenured staff. Academic quality dropped further.
Students became customers buying diplomas. On the principle that the customer is always right, colleges gave them whatever they wanted. One thing they wanted was grades. Grade inflation boomed.
What the students didn’t want was an education, to the extent that they knew what the word meant. They wanted courses that were easy and fun. Soon there were things like “What if Harry Potter were Real?” and “The Comic Book in the Struggle for Gender Equality.” These were vacuous, but the students didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared. They were in a USP—a university-shaped place—that had the form of schooling, such as numbered courses with solemn-sounding titles, credit hours, and buildings with blackboards. They thought they were in college. They weren’t really, but didn’t really want to be.
College, once a passage into adulthood, became a way of avoiding it. Immaturity and narcissism flourished well into the students’ twenties. This was perhaps because they had never had the experience of having to do things, such as work in a gas station or manage a paper route. They confused universities with their parents and worked to outrage them. With the righteousness of the still-pubescent, they demanded justice for everything and, having no experience of rational argument, or of thought of any kind, called for the abolition of anything that didn’t suit them. To their delight, they discovered that administrations would cave. Expelling them would have been a wiser course. They became the prissiest of prissy moralists.
Many professors were products of the Sixties and saw the role of universities to be the pursuit of social change. Students with little desire for learning were content with this. Black students were a particular problem, as they were usually even less prepared than the white. Largely to hide their deficiencies, universities began to abandon the SATs which made unpreparedness obvious. This was said to foster “inclusiveness.”
Universities recruited blacks competitively as evidence of social rightness. These trophies lacked roots in European civilization, literature, history, sciences and mathematics. They demanded, and got, departments of Black Studies, academic ghettos lowering standards yet further.
Meanwhile the federal government had taken control, almost unnoticed. Washington taxed the states and then gave some of the money back to the universities, provided that they behaved as desired. They invariably did. The Supreme Court decided admissions policies. Big schools became research centers for the government, largely the military. The education of undergraduates took third place, behind football.
Oversupply of graduates raised its ugly head. When degrees had been scare, and went to the intelligent, they carried advantage. When everyone had a college degree, they didn’t. The number of jobs actually requiring an education was far smaller than the number of young who had diplomas, though not educations. Soon there were countless college-educated taxi-drivers, parking-lot attendants, and servers of over-priced coffee at Starbucks.
Potentially far worse, though this wave is just beginning to break, employers noticed the falling capacities of graduates. They began to think of hiring people according to what they knew and could do, instead of according to possession of diplomas that increasingly meant little. Survey after survey showed that graduates couldn’t read documents with understanding, didn’t know in what century the Civil War was fought, couldn’t name the three branches of government, and had trouble with arithmetic.
The result was that students who wanted to learn nothing did so, at great expense and to little advantage to themselves or society, and were ruthlessly exploited by banks and rooked for exorbitant tuition while failing to grow up.
I hope these cheerful notes answewer your question.