These numbers aren’t exact. But there are in the ballpark. Something like 14% of all institutions of higher education in this country are large land grant public research universities and this 14% hands out about 50% of all four year college degrees in the country. The large land grant for which I work is fairly typical I do believe of all the others, and if this is the case then the right wing of this country that would prefer people live in ignorance has won big time.
For in all these land grants I expect general education is in disarray, ill-coordinated, poorly taught and generally resented. These courses scattered here and there represent the broken shards of what was once called a liberal arts education. Now we have the reactionary arts—I suppose they are best called—or no education at all.
For diverse reasons—economic and political—the university or more properly the multiversity when it came to general education just caved. Part of it had to do, I guess, with the death of the canon and the fact that most of that dead canon was written by dead white men and not progressive and hip living people of both sexes. By attempting to appear the flagship of political correctness the humanities reamed themselves, having then to throw out, not without bitching, moaning, and bitter in-fighting the very materials, subjects and author that had been their bread and butter.
And to my dismay all throughout the 70s and well into the 80s deconstructionism spread its obscurationist haze over the whole mess. The result was, well, appalling. And to put the matter clearly, I am not opposed to obscure writing. I think Hegel terribly obscure but still worth the attempt, but not Derrida or his midget minions who began to turn the teaching of literature into a way of talking, a discourse—I suppose the terminally hip would say—available to and understood only by the initiated.
People were coming in droves out of the universities, especially the East Coast ones, not educated but schooled. I didn’t know what schooled meant until I attended a summer seminar—six weeks, I think it was—on the topic of the Sublime, taught by a young woman of impeccable credentials, Yale by way of parents who had been on the Freedom Buses down south. And after each of our two hour sessions, we ordinary teachers from small liberal arts colleges across the country would come out furrowing our brows and wondering just how stupid we might be since we couldn’t understand a word of what she said, though she was apparently speaking English.
But I digress. Though not exactly. This was part of it, but as I said many factors contributed to the demise of the general education and the liberal arts education. The university, in financial crisis due to things like Proposition 13 in California, found itself hustling for students and the bucks they brought. And the students were not going where they used to go. They were going especially to places that had business degrees and to places with degrees in communications (whatever the hell that was).
One result of this was “impacted” majors—way too many students to handle, and this led in turn to the creation of the pre-major, actual courses students had to take, usually with a C average or better, in order to qualify for the major, during those first two years especially when students had traditionally taken their General Education courses.