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William James – The PhD Octopus

A century ago, yet nothing has changed: William James, March 1903:

…………..Human nature is once for all so childish that every reality becomes a sham somewhere, and in the minds of Presidents and Trustees the Ph.D. degree is in point of fact already looked upon as a mere advertising resource, a manner of throwing dust in the Public’s eyes. “No instructor who is not a Doctor” has become a maxim in the smaller institutions which represent demand; and in each of the larger ones which represent supply, the same belief in decorated scholarship expresses itself in two antagonistic passions, one for multiplying as much as possible the annual output of doctors, the other for raising the standard of difficulty in passing, so that the Ph.D. of the special institution shall carry a higher blaze of distinction than it does elsewhere. Thus, we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingues in intellect to pass our tests.

America is thus a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to cast a critical eye upon this decidedly grotesque tendency. Other nations suffer terribly from the Mandarin disease. Are we doomed to suffer like the rest?

Our higher degrees were instituted for the laudable purpose of stimulating scholarship, especially in the form of “original research.” Experience has proved that great as the love of truth may be among men, it can be made still greater by adventitious rewards. The winning of a diploma certifying mastery and marking a barrier successfully passed, acts as a challenge to the ambitious; and if the diploma will help to gain bread-winning positions also, its power as a stimulus to work is tremendously increased. So far, we are on innocent ground; it is well for a country to have research in abundance, and our graduate schools do but apply a normal psychological spur. But the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption. Observation of the workings of our Harvard system for twenty years past has brought some of these drawbacks home to my consciousness, and I should like to call the attention of my readers to this disadvantageous aspect of the picture, and to make a couple of remedial suggestions, if I may…..

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  1. #1 NM
    September 1, 2008

    Then again it might be a good thing if medical people had professional medical degrees and training, lawyers had professional law degrees and training and accountants had professional accountancy degrees and training.

    Science is not different in many aspects- one does need scientific training. A PhD is simply our professional terminal degree. James was speaking as the age of the gentleman amateur was coming to an end. Many people who were highly regarded in various fields did not have PhDs (partially because they did not exist in many countries) and their contributions should not have been ignored for lack of a PhD. So whilst Darwin may not have needed a PhD that does not mean that he would not need one today.

  2. #2 tevebaugh
    September 3, 2008

    Ha! Thank you for this post.

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