Historically, university education was limited to the elites. There were exceptions but mostly students came from schools where they studied Latin and Ancient Greek and developed an affinity for Shakespeare by the age of 17. There weren’t that many of them, and consequently, they didn’t need that many professors to teach them.
A professor who could teach such students was an erudite, a pretty exceptional person. He existed in a leisurely universe of reading, thinking, and teaching an occasional course or two.
Gradually, higher education stopped being an elite pursuit. Women, African Americans, children of regular people started seeking college degrees. (And anybody who is getting ready to point out that there were always some women and black folks in higher ed should go directly to the Facebook page where people are discussing that the Obama presidency equals a post racial society.)
These students needed a lot of what we call “remediation.” They needed Intro, Beginners, and Basic courses because nobody could any longer expect them to know any Latin or recognize the names of Chaucer and Thackeray. As the time progressed, more and more “non-traditional students” came to campuses. They needed more and more remediation to the degree that one could barely fit anything but remediation into their programs.
For a while, an aberrant situation surfaced where the faculty catering to these students still could live the leisurely lifestyle of erstwhile erudite professors while teaching very basic courses that required no lengthy sessions at the library to be prepared and delivered.
It was a pretty cool gig and the lucky participants of the scheme forgot that it was an aberration. They decided it would go on forever. They thought they could live like the pampered erudite profs of the past but with nothing like their erudition. Hey, forget erudition. I met a tenured German lit prof a short while ago who told me she hadn’t read a book in at least 2 years. That answered my question about the reasons why the field of Germanic Studies was dying once and for all.
The agony of the aberrant model is painful and boring to watch like any agony. The sooner it dies and gives place to a new way of doing higher ed the better.