Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Ph.D. Solution

The string of articles (like this one) involving academics whistle-blowing on academia continues. This time Louis Menand analyzes The Ph.D. Problem in Harvard Magazine: "The most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system." In short, Menand argues that the system is designed to produce A.B.D.'s (cheap teachers), not Ph.D.'s, for whom there are no jobs. Accordingly, long dissertation completion times benefit institutions, which may help explain why "You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years."

Add to this the fact that graduate students "are uncertain just what research in the humanities is supposed to constitute, and graduate students therefore spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with a novel theoretical twist on canonical texts or an unusual contextualization." Still, Menand infers that the theoretical twists are rarely original because most graduate students, in order to enter the system, conformed to its thought-patterns long ago.

Menand suggests the solution to a self-validating system where everyone thinks the same is Iconoclasm (and, eh hem, his wish is my command). Furthermore, he suggests the "academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction." For starters, why not return to the medieval roots of graduate education by considering it a form of the contemplative life? According to John Henry Newman, the intellectual life, at its best, "has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres." In an academic world where the very notion of an objectively beautiful cosmic order is dogmatically, instinctually resisted, that would be very Iconoclastic indeed.