I've had a few interesting discussions over the last couple of days regarding a hypothesis I'm developing about the current level of education and knowledge among the "educated" classes.
My thesis is that the modern definition of what it means to be "educated" is a much lower level than it was 100 years ago. A couple of anecdotal data points got me thinking along these lines, and I have been finding a significant amount of correlative evidence pointing toward confirmation as I've begun looking. The anecdotes come from the texts of two books I've read (or begun reading) recently - Pragmatism by William James, and On Growth and Form by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. They are both excellent works, an definitely stand the test of time in their respective areas (philosophy and biology), but in both cases the authors liberally quote contemporary and older works in languages other than English without translation. The expectation of both of the authors seems to be that one is fluent (at least at the reading level) in French, German, Latin, and Greek in addition to English.
However, while the well-educated person in the 1900s may have been able to read all these things, and while s/he may have possessed a tremendous grasp of the classical canon, that person was very much in the minority - only a tiny percentage of people actually attended a university, and the average person was either a laborer, tradesman, or perhaps a factory worker - none of which were occupations which required a canonical education in literature. The educated elite was a very small slice of the population. Nowadays, we fancy ourselves a more egalitarian society, and view education as something which should be democratized and spread to the masses - witness the various and sundry calls encouraging a university education for all. Sadly, one negative effect of the call for ubiquitous university is that trade education has diminished tremendously, and there is a tendency to look down at those who make their living at (traditional) trades rather than in (traditional) professions. As an example, consider a master plumber and a law professor. Which of the two occupations have higher status? Earlier in their careers, you would have a journeyman plumber and a law student - which of the two is more likely to be the subject of familial pride?
The bias against tradesmen is not the subject of my thesis, however; I'm more interested in the character of the education possessed by the elite themselves. It does seem reasonable to presume that a certain percentage of people are temperamentally geared toward intensive, thorough and catholic education, while a larger percentage of people are not - they may be lacking aptitude, desire, focus, or other qualities which render them less able to excel in an environment where these educational standards are the norm.
So my hypothesis as formulated is something like this: the increasing availability, desirability, and uptake of upper-level education has caused a decrease in the rigor of that selfsame education.
A few objections to my thesis have been raised - one objection was that there is more knowledge now than there was 100 years ago, and therefore the effect I am observing is a function of increasing specialization rather than decreasing knowledge. I will concede that doctoral candidates nowadays will be much more specialized than they were 100 years ago, but I do not believe that this analogy would apply to undergraduate or professional-level graduate coursework. Instead, I think that what we are seeing is more of the Dunning-Kruger effect: when a person acquires some knowledge about a subject, s/he can quickly come to believe that s/he has sufficient knowledge of that subject to characterize the boundaries of knowledge vis-à-vis that subject or related subjects. Upon a small amount of reflection, it is apparent that this is an obvious fallacy, and it is all too easy to forget that there are oodles of basic questions in nearly every subject for which the answers are unknown. A good example of an unknown question is "why is inertia an intrinsic property of matter?" Of course, the aphorism variously attributed to Will Rogers and Mark Twain is that "It's not what we don't know that's the problem; it's what we know that ain't so." An example of knowing something that ain't so is (of all things) heliocentrism. Now, that's a little surprising: we're used to the idea that Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler put away geocentrism for good, but a little-observed effect of Einstein's general relativity is the destruction of any sort of absolute frame of reference. So you can construct a frame of reference where the sun is treated as a stationary point, and calculate motions of other bodies relative to that stationary point, or you could do the same from the Earth's point of view, and neither frame of reference is inherently more true than the other. Now, the math is a hell of a lot simpler using a heliocentric model than a geocentric one, so that does show why it's taught and geocentrism isn't, but the point I'm making in bringing it up is that most people are taught that "the earth revolves around the sun" is an absolute, when it's really just a convenient fiction.
Another ongoing phenomenon is the increasing externalization of knowledge - it is easy to use google and other online repositories to find quick answers to general questions, but of course knowing the answer to a question posed in a specific form does not necessarily mean that you know the answer to a similar question in a different form. I see this as a concerning but unsurprising trend given my hypothesis - if we are approaching "education" with the idea that we want everyone to be educated, we will necessarily allow the definition of "educated" to slip to the level of "able to google for the answers." The larger problem with that phenomenon is that a person can understand the "how" without understanding the "why" and is more likely to apply inappropriate solutions to a new problem. This is the "if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. Consider the trends which percolate through modern medicine, or modern economic theory, and the problem becomes far, far more apparent: the pretension to knowledge not actually possessed is capable of tremendous harm in the short and long terms.
I think the only real answer to the problem is that those of us who are concerned about such things should strive for continuous self-education and try to espouse a modest outlook with regard to answers: as Pirkei Avot says, "teach your tongue to say 'I don't know.'"
As an afterthought, I wonder what term we should reserve for those aforementioned small percentage of people who are able to obtain a truly catholic education?