In defence of the doctorate

I finally got my doctorate last week, after the best part of six years (part-time) study. So I was peculiarly irritated to read two recent articles in the Guardian (by Mary Midgley and Geoff Dyer) decrying experts and specifically those who had doctorates. The complaint was the old one, about expertise narrowing the mind. This is rubbish. In the years I’ve studied for the masters and then the PhD., I’ve learnt more not just about the early Middle Ages (and my specific interest of masculinity and morality), but about archaeology, theology, contemporary gender issues and the principle of the Panopticon, to name just a few things. Perhaps in philosophy (like Mary Midgley) a very narrow topic is necessary for a thesis, but in history, you can certainly choose a topic broad enough to get most of a society in, if you’re inventive. And the interactions you get with other researchers, the subjects you have to teach on (I’ve given tutorials on early Islamic history, about which I knew almost nothing before an intensive read up), the books you have time to read and the lectures you have time to go to, all give opportunities to learn more. As for expertise making people unwilling to look beyond their own little furrow, I’ve no idea where that comes from. Perhaps it’s a recollection of Sherlock Holmes’ utilitarian attitude to knowledge, because it doesn’t seem to reflect the scholars I know. (Did Geoff Dyer actually ask whether his jazz expert had read Roland Barthes, or did he just presume he hadn’t?) One of the things that most struck me when I went to Oxford as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago), was how broad the interests of my fellow students were. At my school I’d been thought very strange for studying mathematics and German for ‘A’ level; here, it was taken for granted that a physicist might be fascinated by Schoenberg or a theologian by learning Old English in his spare time. In contrast, when I was later in a job surrounded by a lot of students from redbrick universities/polys, although there were a lot who were very intelligent, I didn’t often find people with that same kind of wide-ranging curiosity.

I think this breadth of interests tends to be one of the marks of the best scholars, but it’s also combined with a depth of knowledge of specifics: the ability to remember the details of specific texts, an article you read a few years ago. And for this the doctorate is useful. It teaches you how to work with a familiar text and extract something no-one’s ever seen before; how to keep going through sometimes unrewarding material to find the interesting nuggets. I’m not saying that every scholar has to do one, but it is good training to produce a ‘masterpiece’ in the sense that a medieval apprentice did one: a substantial piece of your own original work, made to professional standards. I don’t see an obviously better alternative to the current system.

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