The Legal History of the Ph.D “Doctor” and Other Academic Masters and Doctorates: Quo Vadis Theses Dissertations?

A recent article at the Economist, Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic, alerts us to the fact that:

“PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour.”

That knowledge was confirmed already 10 years ago by Chris M. Golde and Timothy M. Dore in At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of today’s doctoral students reveal about doctoral education.

There is no doubt: the value of PhD programs and dissertations is questionable and greatly in need of reform.

What has happened to the academic doctorate in our day in age, and is “doctoral research” largely a waste of time?

After all, the more progressive professional doctorates dispensed with the need for research dissertations years ago. Is there any supportable value in terms of academic efficiency to superfluous doctorates copiously and subserviently footnoted to alleged authorities or are they merely drone theses that ultimately simply wind up in the archives, read only by exam referees? As James Frank Dobie (1888–1964) wrote:

“The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another.”

One of the problems is that the historical development of “academic” university degrees is understood by few, and surely not by many Ph.Ds, some of whom ignorantly even tout the superiority of research doctorates to law degrees, showing that human stupidity may be infinite, ala Einstein, who quipped:

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.”

We might as an academic “refreshment” consider that the word “doctor” is rooted historically in the Latin docere, meaning “to teach”.

Indeed, doctorates as university degrees all started with the law:

“In Europe the first academic degrees were law degrees, and the law degrees were doctorates. The foundations of the first universities were the glossators of the 11th century, which were schools of law [in a specific sense]. The first university, that of Bologna, was founded as a school of law by four famous legal scholars in the 12th century who were students of the glossator school in that city [The Four Doctors of Bologna: Bulgarus, Martinus Gosia, Jacobus de Boragine and Hugo de Porta Ravennate — see also Glossators, with a connection to ecclesiatical usages, such as Canon Law, the law of the Church].

Furthermore, as things progressed:

“The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as “master”, but those in theology, medicine, and law were known as “doctor”. As study in the arts or in grammar was a necessary prerequisite to study in subjects such as theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th and 19th Century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for Ph.Ds developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.”

Law led, the rest followed. Nothing has changed.

Advertisements

The Socratic Method and Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Model for Other Academic Disciplines

At the New York Times discussion of “The Case Against Law School”, former dean and former provost, Professor Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago in Learning to Think Like a Lawyer lists five “experiences [that] legal education can offer that are invaluable for future lawyers“.

In our opinion, the first of these is by far the most important. As Stone writes:

“First, and most important, it can teach students to “think like a lawyer.” As any lawyer will tell you, this is critical. The practice of law demands a rigorous, self-critical (and critical), creative and empathic (how will my opponent and the judge see this issue?) mind-set. In general, legal education does this brilliantly. This is at the very core of a legal education.”

There is a very good reason that people trained in the law have historically dominated and still do dominate leadership positions in society. “Thinking like a lawyer” is one of the principal causes.

Indeed, one problem with modern multinational corporations is that lawyers are being named CEOs less and less, and are being replaced by business “tradesmen”, who know their trade but do not know how to ask the right questions. The current world economy shows it — as it is suffering badly.

People who study the law are not like those who study the humanities or other professions, where the essence of learning is the learning of a trade. You can teach a seal to balance a ball, but not how to successfully resolve human conflict.

The only real way to measure the effectiveness of legal education is by the SUBSEQUENT societal effectiveness of those who were subjected to that education. Law-trained effectiveness puts many other professions in the shadows in terms of measurable performance. There is a reason why so many lawyers earn millions of dollars a year and many other professions earn far less. It is not chance.

Indeed, outside of the law schools and outside of business courses using “the case method”, your average university graduate earns his degree in other academic disciplines sort of like a an apprentice in a handicraft. He or she is taught “what the truth is” in that profession. Critical thinking is rare on the average classroom agenda. University exams test knowledge of facts, not the ability to think on one’s feet.

Outside of law school education, students learn to regurgitate the accepted state of knowledge in a given field. The better they do it, the higher they rise on the career ladder. They learn to quote the leading authorities of their day according to whatever school of thought happens to prevail at the time in their field, and, after graduation, they don their professional caps and pass on the system they have learned to the next generation. Errors in knowledge are thus subject to the domino effect. I face this ignorance continuously in my studies on the history of civilization, where the historical disciplines involved (Archaeology, Linguistics, Egyptology, Biblical Studies, Assyriology) are dreadfully marked by stong deficits in the capacity for critical thinking. People there tend to be interested in TELLING YOU what the history was, rather than trying to find out what really happened.

In my view, all this discussion about the sense of law school education is therefore superfluous. The real problems are elsewhere.

Law school education and especially the Socratic method of dialogue — whatever their defects — are for the most part breathtakingly effective in producing agile minds prepared for the stressful intellectual demands of the modern world. Perhaps law school education can be improved – everything can – but it is far ahead of the game when compared to other academic disciplines.

Where legal education in my opinion should INSTEAD start to become active is by offering special Socratic dialogue-type courses at law schools for ALL the OTHER professions, thus giving college graduates other than lawyers a chance to come out of their universities with some capacity for independent critical thought rather than being robots that repeat like parrots whatever their professors, parents, role models, celebrity idols, or other supposed “authorities” have taught them.

Twenty bishops swearing on a Bible do not make a fact true, if it is false. Children of Republicans become Republicans, usually. Children of Democrats become Democrats, usually. This has nothing to do with the viability of their political dogmas. Rather, political views are largely “inherited”. “Critical thinking” about politics has nothing to do with it.

The same is true for religious beliefs, where it is a rare man or woman who has a religious belief system that diverges significantly from what mama and papa taught them. Children for the most part are not taught critical thinking by their parents — quite the contrary — they are taught obedience. Families are seldom democracies. Christians become Christians. Jews become Jews. Muslims become Muslims. I have, by the way, great respect for some modern Buddhists I know in the West because they at least CHOSE their religion during their lifetime, and focus thereby on doing GOOD WORKS, rather than on proselytizing and burdening their fellows with THEIR BELIEF system. A belief is the absence of proof. If we had evidence for religious dogmas, belief would be unnecessary. And yet, all sorts of economic “beliefs” guide most of the discussions one hears or reads about political and economic problems. People are merely just repeating what they have heard and what they agree with. That does not make it “true”.

For example, many people have “opinions” about taxes and the economy, especially methods of government financing — even though most people almost always know far less about those subjects than they do about their favorite college or professional athletic teams or players. This does not however keep from them mixing into the discussion and even basing their political voting decisions on insufficient knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are also a good many people in Congress who know not much more than what has been ladled into them by people not knowing much more than the Congressmen/women do about the subjects in question. One could have a great time asking Congressional representatives to explain modern institutions to us, e.g. the Federal Reserve System or the International Monetary Fund. Just ask your Senator: explain that to me please. The classic example here is the late Arizona Senator Ted Stevens who hilariously but seriously — and totally erroneously — described the Internet as “a series of tubes“. It was too funny for words, except that Stevens, the longest-serving Republican Senator in history, held Congressional seniority positions putting him in charge of Internet regulation. When a country like the USA is in the economic difficulty in which it currently finds itself, it is not without reason. You can not have the blind leading the blind.

Indeed, many people spend some of their leisure time — we erroneously call this “entertainment” — listening to and applauding people who have no other real talent other than that they think and/or utter opinions like their audience. NOT TOO CRITICAL, that kind of thinking, or living. A man of intellectual power, by contrast, constantly himself challenges what he knows, “knowing” full well that such a critical path is the only path of true human progress. “Yes men” are a dime a dozen, but that is the way most of the world operates. Nodding is approved.

Try this experiment the next time YOU listen to someone in Congress. Take what they say sentence by sentence and ask: how does he or she know that what they are saying is true? where did they get it? what is the evidence? where is the proof? how has it been checked? who did the checking? what empirical data supports it? who says????? do that with ALL the political parties, not just YOUR favorite. Blind tests with sports fans show that fans as referees call close plays in favor of “their favorite team” 2 to 1 on both sides of the same play. Where e.g. a Husker Big Red fan will see an Oklahoma Sooner personal foul, the Sooner fan will see a Husker foul — on the same play! It is the same in Congressional partisanship, also in lawmaking, you better believe it. That is why we have a U.S. Supreme Court — to keep everybody honest.

Someone who has properly assimilated a legal education asks the tough and self-critical questions — but that may not even be a majority of law school graduates, judging by what we see among JDs in politics. Much of the rest of world BELIEVES what it wants to believe, regardless. Unfortunately, that is no solution for concrete problems.

That is why critical thinkers ultimately always run the show. They are the only ones RATIONALLY examining contemporary issues as problems to be solved, not as battles of political dogma. To obtain that skill status, a legal education via the Socratic Method is a great help.