Are doctorates worthwhile?
Australian Universities' Review
What did that degree do to you?
Re-visiting and Re-visioning
the Ph.D. Books
A publisher by principle
"Re-visiting and Re-visioning the
Books in Canada, June/July 2002, pp.32-3.
by W. Lambert Gardiner
Cude published The Ph. D. Trap in 1987 and now (at over twice the
length) The Ph. D. Trap Revisited in 2001. One major theme of a
"revisit" is the changes since the "visit". The verdict
here is "no change". This is no surprise. In what other profession
would reform be described as moving graveyards and management as herding
cats? We study everything but ourselves. We refuse to look at problems
within our own institution for the same reason perhaps that children refuse
to look under the bed to confirm whether there is a bogeyman there.
Why should we change? The author focuses on one central feature
of the institution - the Ph. D.. As the only recognized credential for
researching and teaching in the university, it often traps many students
in a frustrating and sometimes futile struggle to enter the academy. The
first two chapters document this problem and the last chapter offers some
recommendations for solution. The intervening chapters place the problem
in its larger chronological, logical, psychological and ontological context.
Cude is intelligently aware that the Ph. D. is an element within a system,
which can not be understood and reformed without studying and changing
the whole system.
Here's the argument. Time-till-completion and attrition rates of the Ph.
D. program are notoriously higher than in the programs to acquire the
credentials for the other professions. Within Ph. D. programs, the figures
are progressively higher for the natural sciences, the social sciences
and the humanities. By aping the natural sciences, the social sciences
and the humanities set impossible standards. The social sciences are at
an earlier stage of development than the natural sciences, partly because
they are younger disciplines and partly because they are dealing with
more complex systems. This is not rocket science. Rocket science is easy.
Expectations in the humanities are totally unrealistic. The humanities
are not sciences at all. They are concerned with values rather than with
facts. By aping the sciences, they leave no place for values in a world
of facts. We "Doctors of Philosophy" have long been embarrassed
when hearing "Is there a doctor in the house?". The author
argues that we should be equally embarrassed when hearing "Is there
a philosopher in the house?". Since there is no concern with values
in a fact-obsessed Ph. D. programme, we are not "real" philosophers
either. My own university boasts about providing "real education
for the real world", and sends students out into the world fact-up
and value-free. How then can those young people deal with both ends (the
domain of values) and means (the domain of facts)? Idealism and realism
are not incompatible we must pursue idealistic ends by realistic
means. But more importantly, it is the idealistic goals which lend value
to the means.
The problem is not with courses but with the thesis. All but dissertation
(ABD) is the consolation pseudo-degree of many candidates for the Ph.
D. Since education is viewed as an outside-in process in which the student
assimilates information from the professors and regurgitates it in the
examinations, it is not surprising that they can deal with the courses
which are a continuation of the outside-in system but can't deal with
a thesis in which they are suddenly required to turn the process inside-out
by generating novel research. Cude points to a surprising finding that
GPA predicts success in course work but not in thesis completion (Page
39) and indicates later why this is no surprise - students are put into
"a lock step of learning by rote during what ought to be their
most creative period" (Page 285).
Until the thesis, acceptable academic papers are collages of content from
experts. Here is an enlightening conversation with my 12-year-old niece
She: How do you write books, Uncle Lambert?
Me: (Hand sweeping over books I had assembled to write a chapter of an
introductory textbook in psychology) I read all those books by and
about Freud and then write a chapter on Freud.
She: Oh - you copy?
Me: No. If I take it from one book, I'm copying; if I take it from
many books, I'm doing research.
She: I don't see the difference.
Me: Beat it, kid.
There are excellent summaries of previous critiques of the Ph. D. - for
example, The Ph. D. Octopus by William James (Pages 71-72) , Higher
Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (Pages 72-73), and The
Credential Society by Randall Collins (Page 232). The author is intelligently
aware that the problem can not be understood or solved in isolation. He
considers then the parallel critiques of other aspects of the structure
of the academy. In Killing the Spirit by Page Smith (Page 82) and
in Petrified Campus by David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell and J. L.
Granatstein (Pages 219-223) , the authors focus largely on the tenure
trap. The Ph. D. trap guards the entrance to the academy and the tenure
trap guards the exit.
Between those twin traps, sits securely (and some say smugly) the scholar,
entrenched in what Collins calls the "sinecure sector"
where they receive "disguised welfare" (Page 78). Other
critiques document the various ways in which the resultant power corrupts.
Profscan by Charles Sykes (Pages 99-102) focuses on various inadequacies
of professors, The Invisible Faculty by Judith M. Gappa and David
W. Leslie (Pages 223-229) on the exploited part-time teachers who fill
in the gap left by professors, Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus
edited by Michelle A. Paludi (Pages 268-269) on the abuse of power by
professors, and The University in Ruins by Bill Readings (Page
203) on the transformation of the university from a community of scholars
into a corporation.
There are case studies to illustrate his argument in concrete terms -
for example, the case of Frank Bourgin (Pages 12-14), who finally received
his Ph. D. in a wheelchair at age 77, the case of George Grinnell (Pages
202-206), who had a long struggle to acquire his Ph. D. because he took
an unpopular position, and the case of Bernice Grohskoph (Pages 207-209),
who abandoned her Ph. D. studies after failing a Kafkaesque oral examination.
Two of the case studies - the murder of his advisor by graduate student
Theodore Streleski (Pages 194-200) and the murder of four of his colleagues
by professor Valery Fabricant (Pages 114-129) could be considered as the
tip of an iceberg of resentment with respect to the Ph. D. and the tenure
traps respectively. However any one who makes such an argument is met
by as much resistance as those who made the same argument with respect
to the events of 11 September 2001. The academy remains unchanged with
its twin towers still intact.
Cude recommends that the Ph.D. should not be the exclusive credential
for university teaching. The M. A. and the Ph. D. degrees developed independently
as credentials for teaching and doing research at the tertiary educational
level. Over time, however, because of the relative prestige of research
over teaching, of creating new knowledge over passing on old knowledge,
the M. A. became subsumed under the Ph. D. as a sort of consolation prize.
The author phrases this elegantly in terms of "teaching loads
and research opportunities" (Page 95) and argues for the reinstatement
of the M. A. and a corresponding respect for teaching.
Demonstrated competence in the real world should be considered as another
alternative. The author marshals an impressive list of undoctored scholars
- Kenneth Boulding, George Lyman Kittredge (Pages 245-246) in the United
States and Michael Ondaatje, Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies, George Woodcock,
and Farley Mowatt (Pages 279-281) in Canada. Since those illustrious scholars
had at least some academic qualifications, they are grudgingly admitted
into the academy. Autodidacts, like Eric Hoffer and Robert Fulford, are
however excluded. While Chairman of a Department of Communication Studies,
I tried to hire Pierre Juneau, who had just completed an illustrious career
in which he had been President of CBC and Chairman of CRTC. My colleagues
balked. He didn't have a Ph. D.! The scholar believes that "the
unexamined life is not worth living" and the retort from outside
the cloisters is "the unlived life is not worth examining".
recommendation from Cude is that we should explore the old adage that
the professor is to graduate student as master is to apprentice. Analogies
are useful even when they break down especially when they break
down. This one breaks down because subjectivity in judgement increases
with the abstractness of the product being judged. This pinpoints the
essence of the Ph.D. problem.
an analogy which comes closer to the real-life situation: professor is
to graduate student as king is to knight. The king sends the knight off
to fight the dragon in order to get the hand and the rest
of the princess. Fighting dragons is not useful preparation for keeping
up the mortgage on half a kingdom, just as writing a thesis is not the
most useful preparation for teaching in a university. Both tasks are more
tests of motivation than of competence. Besides it's a way for the king
to get rid of the dragon without suffering the fate of Beowulf who got
killed fighting it himself, just as professors too often use graduate
students as unpaid assistants on their own projects.
reading this book, I realize that my own graduate experience was benign
only because my committee was benign. Its members were gentlemen as well
as scholars who had no axioms to grind. Thus, total immersion in a scholarly
environment for four years produced that magical metamorphosis of a student
into a scholar. This is as it should be. David Solway argues in Lying
about the Wolf that an academic discipline is a high-context sub-culture.
We have to pay our dues in order to participate in the Great Conversation.
However, I've heard the horror stories, where the demand for dues is unreasonable.
The author has the courage to tell such tales out of school.
One academic tradition that the author does not honor is the provision
of an index. This may be a conscious attempt to avoid one of the TRAPpings
of scholarship. Some scholars insist this is a capital offense. Though
not so strict, I would have appreciated an index for re-visiting sections
I wanted to take a closer look at and for re-finding all the examples
of case studies listed above.
The author concludes correctly that there has been little change in the
Ph. D. program between his visit and his revisit, and implies that the
academy is a rigid institution. This is a wee bit unfair. Between 1987
and 2001, the academy has been flexible in admitting women and minorities
into its tenured ranks. Indeed, some male WASPs (who view themselves as
the only underprivileged group left) argue that it has been so flexible
that it has bent over backwards - and forwards? - on this issue. The author
states that there are "over 550 distinctive fields in which the
doctorate was awarded" (Page 61). That would imply that the academy
has been, if anything, too flexible.
Despite this quibble, I agree that the academy is a very conservative
institution. Conservatives are, of course, those who have something to
conserve. Professors seek to preserve their virtual monopoly on the generation
of new knowledge and the transmission of significant old knowledge. Priests
resisted print because it threatened their position as middlemen between
God and their parishioners. That's what the Protestants were protesting
about. When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door, the medium
was part of the message. The knowledge monopoly passed from priests to
professors, who are in turn resisting video- and computer-based media
which threaten their privileged position. Our best hope for reform is
to embrace video- and computer-based media so that we do not go the way
of the priests who initially resisted print. In his limited focus on new
media as delivery techniques for distance education (Pages 220-221), the
author dismisses it too easily.
This is a tough-love plea for reform. Wilfred Cude has spent his life-time
in and out of the institution and is obviously fond of it. He has acquired
all the tools and mastered all the skills of the scholar. The sound you
hear as you read his book is not the hammering of yet another nail into
our coffin. He's one of us. It's a wake-up call, a heads-up message to
ostriches in a very vulnerable position. We would do well to heed it.
from the decade he took off to write The Psychology of Teaching,
W. Lambert Gardiner has been teaching at Concordia University for 35 years.
its possessors may say to the contrary, the North American
doctor of philosophy degree is not so much about scholarly
attainment as it is about power: sheer, naked, inexorable
economic and social power. Originally intended as the certificate
attesting specialized preparation for research in the major
let me stress at the very beginning, is designed to effect positive
change in a central academic institution now painfully and destructively
faltering. While nearly all the standard literature concerning our
contemporary university structure is unrelievedly laudatory,...