Well, that has been going on for a while. In Pictures from an Institution, published 60 years ago, there is the genteel old professor who
must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat--to the world's astonishment--and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague's objection that all Benton students read that in high school: "There is no book that all my students have read. Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West. He gave a brotherly laugh and agreed: "Ja, dey haf de sense dey vere born vidt."Go back about ten years more to Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America, which closes the chapter "Columbia College, Columbia University" as follows
The unrestricted right to shop among electives may look like unrestricted freedom, but it may actually be confining, as a student from the Middle West confessed when I asked what his preparation in history had been. "I was going to be a minister, so I took Pre-Theological Rural Sociology." Custom tailoring is excellent for the human form, but in collegiate teaching it can soon become patchwork. Besides, its appearance of perfect adaptation is deceptive. There is no such thing as a separate sociology for rural ministers. The title betrays the touch of the salesman, doubtless well meant, but more congenial to the catalogue maker than the teacher.Or back to the Harvard of President Eliot. John Jay Chapman says ("President Eliot", collected in Manners and Morals) that
Besides this matter he had his "Elective System," which I have never understood, but which seems to have been a corollary from the axiom "size first." It was imagined that a university must be a place where everything was taught, and that all sorts of departments ought to be opened at once. It was perfectly natural that America, looking at Germany, and bent upon swallowing the whole of learning at one gulp, should invent some sort of great fair, where the students were to come and take their fill, following their own election under some sort of supervision. The thing which nobody seems to have thought of was the relation which any foreign University bears to the average literacy of the country it serves. Perhaps our pedagogues neglected this consideration with their eyes open. They conceived that a University need provide opportunities merely, and that the students would do the rest. Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.Santayana, a couple of years younger than Chapman, begins with the architecture of Harvard Yard in discussing that period:
On the whole, it was the architecture of sturdy poverty, looking through thrift in the direction of wealth. It well matched the learning of early New England, traditionally staunch and narrow, yet also thrifty and tending to positivism, a learning destined as it widened to be undermined and to become, like the architecture, flimsy and rich. It had been founded on accurate Latin and a spellbound constant reading of the Bible; but in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible. You might say that the professor of Hebrew did know his Bible, and the professors of Latin their Latin. No doubt, in the sense that they could write technical articles on the little points of controversy at the moment among philologists; but neither Latin nor the Bible flowed through them and made their spiritual lives; they were not vehicles for anything great. They were grains in a quicksand, agents and patients in an anonymous moral migration that had not yet written its classics.So what is one to do? I do not know. It seems to me that quite regularly the vivifying reform of year x becomes the stultifying, Procrustean system of year x + y. The schools that Peter Abelard enlivened gradually withered to be fair game for mockery by Erasmus and Rabelais. The curriculum that electrified the German Romantics struck Henry Adams, viewing it a couple of generations later, as utterly deadening. The educational reformer who can overcome this tendency will be long remembered.