A friend and colleague passed along a Gizmodo article today entitled “What exactly is a doctorate?” First, take a second to look it over, and make sure you sift through the comments, as well, because I think they’re important to the point I want to make.
I’ll begin by acknowledging three important things. First, the writer (Dr. Matt Might of the University of Utah) is intending a humorous take on an institution that’s pure arcana to the average American non-PhD. Heck, it can be pretty arcane to those who have PhDs (or are in the process of earning them). Since he prefaces the piece by saying this is something he uses on his own doc students every year, it’s safe to assume that it’s not intended as a body slam against education. And humor is valuable – we never get anywhere worth going by taking ourselves too seriously.
Second, It’s hard to deny that some PhDs are laboring away to very little effect. A lot of academic research is narrow, abstract and at a glance seems to suggest no potential impact on the real-life progress of society. Worse, too much Social and Humanities research self-consciously obscures itself in jargon that makes it inaccessible to all but the insidest of the insiders. Perhaps my proudest moment as an academic came when, as Dean Willard Rowland was hooding me in my graduation ceremony, he told the audience that my dissertation was “unusually readable.” (Yes, I just made that word “insidest” up – it signifies, given the context.)
Third, apologies if I seem a little sensitive, but if you’ve read me enough you know that I have some issues when it comes to education and anti-intellectualism in the US.
All that said, I can’t help feeling disappointed in the message the article communicates, and for evidence of what that message is have a close look at the comment thread. I believe that Dr. Might has inadvertently made the world a slightly more accommodating place for those who ridicule education. Here in America, which is surely the most anti-intellectual of the world’s developed nations, that’s a large and booming segment that hardly needs encouragement. We’ve never been much on the notion of learning for its own sake – education is only deemed of value if it serves some applied end. This philosophy was codified in the Morill Land Grant Acts (1862 and 1890) and is today evident in the fact that a runaway portion of university research spending is footed by corporate grants. Our universities are about product development and driving business profit, not performing the kinds of basic research that have historically underpinned our greatest discoveries.
We’re currently in the process of losing at least one or two generations to the legacy of George Bush’s spitefully anti-intellectual No Child Left Untested Behind and its spiritual progeny, Barack Obama’s Race to the Bottom Top, all because the money that buys funds elections has a vested interest in a workforce that does, not one that thinks.
And please, let’s not even wade into the swamp that is the Texas textbook selection process.
This is the landscape in which Dr. Might researches and writes and teaches his students.
None of this necessarily makes it wrong to expressing frustration, incredulity, exasperation, or even disdain for the PhD process. It would be horribly dishonest of me to suggest that he or anyone else shut up and toe the line, that we should only say things that are good for “our team,” that we should refrain from giving aid and comfort to the “enemy,” etc., when the truth is that in my day I’ve been brutally critical of things I’ve encountered in the academic world. In ways that weren’t even remotely light-hearted. I’ve also felt that it’s up to “us” to take the lead in addressing the problems we find in our own house. So no, this isn’t my complaint.
Instead, the argument his diagrams advance, even if it’s all intended as humor, seems intellectually dishonest (or maybe unfair is a better term, or at least insufficiently illuminated, because “dishonest” attributes bad faith to the speaker and I have no evidence at all that this is the case for Dr. Might). But even if I accept it as intended – as light self-deprecation – it’s still humor with too much self-loathing about it to suit me.
Here’s the problem. Are there academics whose work is so arcane and narrow as to be transcendently useless? Sure. Are there people who are working their asses off on problems that will never afford any recognizable value to the society that’s funding them? Absolutely. I see Dr. Might’s arguments and I can raise him a dozen more.
These aren’t real or helpful questions, though. The real question isn’t are there PhDs who are eggheads, it’s how do PhDs stack up against other professions? See, there are arguments denigrating every job I think I’ve ever encountered.
- Lawyers are ambulance chasers.
- Physicians are soulless robots who are only in it for the money.
- Priests bugger choir boys.
- People who work for government bureaucracies? Forget it.
- Retail clerks? Vapid slackers.
- Anything that requires or prefers an MBA? Whores, the lot of them.
- Engineers are well-respected, by and large, but it would nice if they’d put down the Wii and bathe every once in awhile.
- Corporate leaders rape their companies and the markets they “serve” and then walk away with multi-million dollar golden parachute packages.
No matter what job title you decide to pick on, we can tear it apart if you let us cherry-pick the fringes, the dysfunctions, the bottom 10th percentile and the bad actors. That’s what Dr. Might has done here – he’s isolated a phenomenon that’s real enough and allowed it to lampoon an entire profession – except that it’s not the rule of the profession, not by a long shot.
Here’s the truth of the doctorate. First off, that PhD who’s hammered away at a speck of human knowledge so small you need a microscope to see it, that speck might turn out to be something significant. I mean, heck, Wilhelm Röntgen “wanted to determine if he could see cathode rays escaping from a glass tube completely covered with black cardboard.” Who knew that would add up to anything?
Second, a good number of those irrelevant researchers also teach, and in most cases they’re teaching about subjects that are more broadly applicable than their own research. Because they have to be experts in the entirety of their field – they have to pass those comprehensive examinations before they write their dissertations. If you have a good college education, you have almost certainly benefited, perhaps dramatically, from your interactions with a professor whose own narrow research you know nothing about.
Finally, and this is the most important part, the doctorate process is a brazen assertion that smart matters. The brain is like the body – exercise it and it performs better. You lift weights and you get stronger. You do distance training and you can run farther. Depending on what you’re working on, you can make your body jump higher, run faster, endure more. Studying martial arts? If so you can develop muscle memory that might pay off if you’re mugged. You can lengthen your life and make yourself healthier and happier.
You can train the brain, as well. Education generally exercises mental faculties, resulting in a mind that knows more, remembers more, solves problems more quickly and creatively, and one that’s capable of exploring greater and greater depths of intellectual space. And the piece that Dr. Might leaves out, as he’s good-naturedly kneecapping his fellow PhDs, is that academics tend, by design, to be smarter. It’s a self-selecting profession – as a rule, you have to be pretty smart and have posted a track record of academic accomplishment and dedication to even assault that mountain. And once you do, the process works to transform the mind, making it capable of even greater feats. This doesn’t mean that all PhDs are smarter and it doesn’t mean that people in other professions aren’t smart – any number of non-academics are brighter than any number of academics. I’m merely pointing to the general tendencies of the system.
I know a lot of PhDs. Despite what Dr. Might’s series of circles would suggest, they’re not narrowly focused types. One close friend (a hard sciences doc who had seven of his own experiments up on the space shuttle before he even finished his dissertation, and someone who hangs around S&R a good bit) also knows a tremendous amount about music. He was a D1 letterman. While I don’t share all of his views, he’s nonetheless an astute thinker who can handle pretty advanced conversations on politics and culture. Oh, and he’s also a writer of fiction. Pretty well-rounded guy.
He’s not atypical, either. Most PhDs I know can walk into just about any cocktail party and hold their own in a range of conversations, including any number of topic areas they don’t know about. How? Well, they’re trained to learn and assimilate information, so they listen well, they ask good questions, they triangulate and associate to see if other things they know are applicable, and above all, they respect the knowledge that other people have. They’re not intimidated by brilliance, they’re drawn to it, and they’re comfortable being in the learner role. That’s how you climb that academic mountain.
My guess is that Dr. Might wouldn’t dispute a word of this. Up until you get past the fourth or fifth circles in his series of diagrams he’s doing a fair job of noting that education does fill up that white space. But that isn’t the point of the article – it’s the point where he begins blowing up the speck on the periphery that’s the point, and that’s where I feel he begins to do a disservice not only to his fellow PhDs and to the culture as a whole, but really to himself as well. If you’re an invisible blip out beyond the frontier and your work is that irrelevant, why should you be paid? Why should we afford you tenure, which is really nothing more than academic welfare? I’ve heard these arguments and I’d bet he has, too.
I don’t know Matt Might, but he’s an Associate Prof at a good school, so my guess is that he’s pretty damned bright. I’ve been through the PhD process myself, so I know how hard he had to work to get where he is and I know they kind of competition he had to beat out to land his current job. He’s in a computer science program at a Research-1 institution, so tenure is going to be a bear to earn. He’s clearly a guy who values education, and my guess is that he didn’t really see his piece from the perspective that I do. If he reads this commentary, he might still disagree with me.
In the end, though, America is a nation where education often feels like it’s hanging on for dear life. I appreciate humor as much as the next guy – I try to be funny as often as I can myself, and as I said earlier, it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. By the same token, though, it’s critically important to take yourself seriously enough, especially in a world where there are so many looking for any opportunity to undercut you and the principles you stand for.