The occasion for my response was an essay by Patrick Dineen at Notre Dame, How A Generation Lost Its Common Culture. I remember it when it came out this winter. It is a good example of a standard theme in discussing modern students.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno? Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?
First, most people have never known these things, even in our previous ages of supposed great educational system and common culture. ED Hirsch and Allan Bloom were moaning about this 30 years ago as if the collapse had already occurred and we could just now be brought back from the brink. CS Lewis says something like it in his 1954 Inaugural lecture De Descriptione Temporum at Cambridge where he was appointed to a chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature near the end of his career. Think of that: At one of the two elite universities in England in 1954, in a much more hierarchical culture where the middle and lower classes seldom qualify, speaking to students who are actually studying many of the great works of common heritage, Lewis is conscious of a divide between his culture and theirs - a loss of common ground that is new in the world with their generation. And Lewis pushes it very far back indeed. "As for the area and the tempo of the two deaths, if one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth."
A personal example. You may remember that I went to College with Glenn Close, back when she was Glennie Wade. She was a year ahead of me at W&M in the Theater dept and we had four courses together. She ended up Phi Beta Kappa, and was generally knowledgeable about Stuff. When she did that movie...hmmm...hmmm..."The Big Chill" they played Trivial Pursuit on the set a lot which was one of the things that launched the game in popularity, and she was known to be very good at it. She was also something of a missionary kid, as her family joined Moral Re-Armament a rather cultish Christian groups when she was 7. When we discussed John Osborne's play "Luther" in class, she barely knew who he was. She had no idea what the 95 Theses were, and this would have been her senior year. Nor did several others in the class. So even among those who know a great deal about our common culture, there are gaps We falsely remember that we "knew about" Plato when we were 16, when the reality is we had heard of him at 16, and gradually added bits of knowledge about him over the years. The common culture of even the wealthy sons who read Greek and Latin was pretty narrow. They all read Livy in high school, and no one reads Livy anymore, so it looks very impressive when they publish entrance exams or graduation tests from the 19th C to intimidate the modern reader into how smart those previous students were and how little we know now. Whoa, look, there's Livy, who is a really obscure Latin writer that they apparently knew a lot about. Wow, they musta been really smart! Not really. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, when discussing William James Sidis, who supposedly had the highest IQ ever. (Sidis didn't, BTW. He was very smart, but the claims are overstated.)
I don't think, as is blithely claimed, that every age thinks that the previous eras were smarter and the rising generation poorly educated, but there's no difference every century really. I believe something of both claims. We are much smarter now, and since nutrition started improving for the general population in the past few centuries, we are smarter every decade. I think that accelerated about a hundred years ago and topped out in the late 20th C. If you traveled in time to 1880, nothing would impress you so much as what dolts people were, and how hard it was to find an intelligent conversation. On the other hand, the amount of common culture among the educated and even partly educated was much greater than now. Everyone, absolutely everyone in America read the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Even when they misunderstood what was in front of them, because they extracted what meanings the could from single texts - "Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit" - it was at least a single stewpot that everyone was eating from. Did you ever wonder why memorising single verses and relying on proof texts is so common in the Church, and most of what we know of Shakespeare is individual phrases that have embedded into the language, even though we forget where they come from? That's why. There were two things people read, plus maybe Pilgrims' Progress or something about agriculture or etiquette or a copy of the Constitution, and if you were lucky a book of ancient history might show up. And newspapers once/week. Only if you had a tutor or later schooling did you hear about Plato or Marcus Aurelius. Though if you did have a tutor or later school, that's who you got. There weren't many choices on the menu, as there are now.
The fragmentation of our shared literary and historical culture, then is simply a place farther down the road we started traveling decades ago.