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Almost all teaching staff at Harvard have a doctorate or are pursuing one. From teaching fellows to professors, the Ph.D. path seems to be the essence of qualification. Without a Ph.D. it is almost impossible to teach at any elite American university. We must ask ourselves: What is it about the degree that gives it such a special quality?
The doctoral degree greatly emphasizes research and specialty, but the undergraduate needs a teacher with broader sympathies, skill in pedagogy, and a concern for the non-academic growth of the student above all else.
The modern Ph.D. has been in many ways shaped by the 19th century German University. These academic institutions focused on knowledge production, so-called, and approached their subject matters philologically. That is to say, the Gymnasium wanted students to discover rather than to learn, and in doing so they redefined the purpose of the university. When reading the Iliad, for example, a Gymnast may prefer to uncover original data on the origins of the work and how the language varies or is similar to Greek dialects of various epochs, as opposed to grasping the meaning of the work for its own sake. This style of study puts an emphasis on originality, creation, and specialization in contrast to the sympathy, understanding, and appreciation of studied works.
This academic style was imported across the Atlantic by Harvard University President Charles William Eliot and went on to shape Harvard and the intellectual advancements of the 20th century. With many brilliant minds hyper-focused on discovering new aspects of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, our scientific understanding soared and plentiful innovation followed. However, this new emphasis left the humanities in shambles. Surely in order to propose the Theory of Relativity one must already have a deep mathematical and physical understanding of the universe, but there is no such underlying necessity when postulating about the nature of the ghost in Hamlet.
This shift in the academic goal of the university is most obvious in the doctoral degree. The modern Ph.D. with a dissertation started to come into form in America in the late 19th century. Even the idea of “concentrations” at the undergraduate level is relatively new. History and Literature became the first concentration at Harvard in 1906, and it was not until 20 years later that the Senior Thesis requirement was introduced at Princeton.
The modern Ph.D. demonstrated to many that the purpose of the university was to create knowledge rather than to obtain it. If those who teach are mostly concerned by their university’s pedigree in writing new books, publishing journal articles, and contributing to scholarly research, they become less focused on gaining and sharing a deep and broad understanding of their field. One who is primarily tasked with finding out new things does not have the time to bother with the old things. A Classics professor whose job is now to figure out a new quality of a text undiscovered for two thousand years is not more qualified to teach than someone who has concentrated on everything said about that text for two thousand years.
Ph.D.'s can also create peculiarities and unsympathetic habits in the degree holders. If one is to spend many years of their life just studying Baudelaire, they may begin to place such importance and magnificence on him that they begin to lose grasp of the art of poetry as a whole. Their taste and critique of poetry will surely be filtered through a Baudelairean lens. Even if an undergraduate were to take a class on just Baudelaire, she would require someone who understands the poets who inspired him and those inspired by him.
While the Ph.D. requires general examinations to round out one’s knowledge, that does not undermine the research-oriented goal of the Ph.D. nor does it cure the narrow prejudices that come with the dissertation. We see the effects of this on class offerings. Professors are uninclined to teach courses on something outside their particular subject matter. So instead of a university such as Harvard having classes on all the artists and art movements that are essential knowledge for any art historian there are very particular courses. Professors are generally uninterested in teaching survey courses, and this causes the undergraduate student to suffer.
Doctoral programs are fact factories seeking originality over the truth. The humanities are meant to train the human, not the academic. Regardless of what research should be done in graduate programs, the undergraduate should be taught how to exist in the world, what it is to be human, and what is ephemeral or eternal. The scientification of the humanities achieved through the Ph.D. greatly harms the education of students at the College. Harvard should consider how to create teachers instead of manufacturers.
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.
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