The late historian Tony Judt, Cambridge-educated and a man of the left (in case you didn’t know), says his generation has a lot to answer for regarding what they’ve done to education. Excerpts:
My greatest debt [as a King’s College, Cambridge, student], though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.
That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum. No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.
There is more of that in King’s today than there used to be. As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall—for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.
What does he mean? More:
For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.” The havoc wrought in higher education was well summarized by Anthony Grafton in this magazine , but the worst damage has been at the secondary level. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.
The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools (“public schools”) have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admissions standards accordingly; each new government has instituted reforms aimed at compensating for the failed “initiatives” of their predecessors.
“A system of enforced downward uniformity.” Boy, I’m glad that’s Britain and not America. Heh. More:
I suspect that all this began precisely in those transitional years of the mid-1960s. We, of course, understood nothing of that. We got both the traditions and the transgressions; the continuities and the change. But what we bequeathed to our successors was something far less substantial than what we ourselves had inherited (a general truth about the baby- boom generation). Liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances: these are manageable contradictions, but only in an institution unafraid to assert its particular form of elitism.
Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.
UPDATE: An Evans-Manning Award to Turmarion for this excellent comment in the thread below:
Excellent article, and I’d pretty much agree with Judt. The only thing I’d add is that there seem to be four really major problems in education here which have resulted in the dumbing-down at all levels.
One, the “reform” efforts of both left and right have pretty much devolved into pure ideology with no relationship to actually teaching anyone anything.
Two, of all the professions, teaching seems most prone to fads. Remember when TV in the classroom was supposed to revolutionize education? Then computers, then the Internet, then web-based classes–you get the picture.
Three, related to two, the belief that there is a “royal road to education”–some magic fix that if we just do it will make all our kids above average, just as in Lake Wobegone.
Four, related to three, the concurrent stigmatization of blue-collar work with the belief that “all children can succeed”, which usually comes down to telling the baldfaced lie that everyone is college material; which just feeds the educational-student-loan industrial complex, which donates to politicians’ coffers, etc.
Having said this, abolishing, destroying, or marginalizing public schools, as many would like to do, isn’t the answer. Fixing it is the answer, and a lot of that goes down to getting bureaucracy (federal, state, and local) off the backs of schools, reforming (not abolishing!) unions, going back to a more elitist core curriculum, and jettisoning fads, IMO.
Of course the hugest problem is the culture. People just don’t respect teachers (often, sadly, for good reason) or even worse, they don’t value education per se except in an instrumental way (i.e. getting the piece of paper to get a job). As a son of public school teachers, a public school teacher myself for two or three years as a substitute and two years full-time, and the father of a child in public school, I have to say that the extent to which parents just don’t give a damn is appalling, and has only got worse over the last forty years.
True story: when my daughter was in kindergarten, we arranged a meeting with the teacher to discuss a minor issue. When we got there, the principal was there, too. Not that there was anything bad going on; but that she was practically dancing with joy to be able to work with us to solve the issue, since we were the only parents that had actually showed any interest in being involved. She’s in the third grade now, and I teach CCD classes for middle schoolers at my parish; and my observations in all those cases indicates that unless it’s a matter of sports, parent participation doesn’t get any better with higher grades.
Of course, how one deals with such a culture I have no clue.
I do think this article  in The Atlantic today is interesting and relevant.