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.

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