Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The PhD

This is the script from a recent presentation I gave at St Paul's College, University of Sydney.

The university attracts tradition. The values of scholarship, even those invented recently, seem eternal and universal. Like religious ritual and trainspotting, university traditions give a sense of order in a fundamentally disordered process: the unknowable journey that is the discovery and production of new knowledge.

Education scholars Angela Brew and Tai Peseta found in their research that academics tend to be irrationally attached to the PhD process as they experienced it, even aspects that were plainly cruel. In her contemporary study of the PhD at this university, Mary Helen Ward has found that this kind of reproduction of educational experiences seems to succeed in enculturating individuals into disciplinary norms but as pedagogy is anarchic: Ward calls it ‘accidental’.

It is this chaotic and yet highly ritualised phenomenon that is our subject today.

In the medieval university, the journey from inception as a scholar to master took around 16 years, the doctorate up to around 20. The doctorate indicated attainment of substantial professional stature in law, medicine or theology.

It was from the German enlightenment that our contemporary PhD emerged, based not on scholarship, which had dominated the humanities tradition, but on a dissertation of original research. Spreading to America in the 19th century and then to England in the early 20th, the PhD was the trademark of the wave that made universities rulers of knowledge.

By the mid-twentieth century, national and international wealth sat firmly on the research that universities provided – not normally humanities research, it must be said, but that did not really result in the decline in the Arts that we would expect, despite our frustrations with being what Stuart Macintyre calls the “poor relation”. That, I would argue is because of the reliance of democracy on knowledge to legitimise its decisions. Democratic nations had for some time realised their dependence on universal education and literacy: knowledge that would enable people to rule themselves. But after the second world war, I suspect that a new reliance on knowledge was developing. Experts – ideally, impartial academic expertise – was becoming a new source of legitimacy for parliamentary rule. Somewhat analogous to Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’, Menzies’ 1957 reform of the university system was in part based on the need for universities that would provide the public and the politicians that represented them with expert advice on the very complex diplomatic, political, economic and cultural transformations that the second half of the twentieth century would require.

By 1947, when the PhD was proposed at Sydney University, universities worldwide had taken control of knowledge. As knowledge was produced, it was reinvested into the community of scholars so that over the centuries their authority had become substantial. Other institutions gradually lost their purchase on knowledge: the church, the state, trade guilds, patenting offices, commercial laboratories even academies of science by the mid-20th century all lacked the authority possessed by the university - an authority that was no longer based on its tradition of protecting old knowledge but rather on its ability to produce new research.

To read the rest of this presentation, see The Humanities PhD

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