Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Universities and Mastery

Hang around a university long enough and you'll run across students trying to grind out a thesis on "The Influence of Rabelais on Goethe" or "A PostModern Analysis of Achebe" or some other apparently nonsensical labor. Such theses stand as conclusive proof of a mis-spent youth.

The purpose of these things is really not as insane as the result. Students are supposed to learn from teachers, books, and each other; and then be able to show mastery of the subjects they studied.

The trouble comes in with the "show mastery" part. Different fields of knowledge use, or ought to use different ways of proving that you know what you're doing. Take a few examples: Swahili, ancient Greek drama, polymer chemistry, and pre-Kantian philosophy.

  • The student of Swahili should be able to translate to and from accurately, be familiar with the literature, and if he has any creative bent at all, be able to write poetry in the language. To prove this his professors give him tests to demonstrate his ability to translate to and compose in Swahili. If his skill is greater than theirs, it will be difficult for them to test. They also will require that he show a knowledge of works of Swahili literature or oral works with which they are familiar; and if possible that he be ready to introduce them to new ones which have come to his attention. Ideally the student will be able to prove mastery by creating an original work using some Swahili genre, though the best the professors can hope for is that he'll produce mediocre junk.
  • The student of ancient Greek drama had best know his Greek, his Greek history, and all the Greek dramas and fragments (and something of the modern revivals of them). There aren't very many Greek dramas left, so a diligent student can learn all of them. Over the years they have been translated and adapted by much more skillful artists than your average student. The professors have not many useful methods for testing the hapless student. They can test for knowledge of the entire corpus of Greek drama, make sure he knows Greek and is familiar with the history. The student cannot create a new ancient Greek play (though he might be asked to try to redo a scene from a modern play in Greek style).

    But the professors can require that the student be able to compare Greek to Egyptian drama, or trace the evolution of drama and show the Greek influences. Here the devil creeps in. The first time someone studies the influence of Greek drama on Medieval passion plays, it is a breakthrough, all fresh and new. Alas, there are only a finite number of schools of drama you can compare with each other, and the comparisons are soon exhausted. But maybe you can squeeze one more analysis out, or find something to criticize in some earlier analysis--something you can do that is novel. And so the expectation grows that a student will be able to prove himself great by finding some undiscovered similarities between ever more obscure artists' most obscure works.

  • The student of polymer chemistry is in a different situation. He must understand the principles of chemistry and chemical engineering as they apply to polymers, but he cannot know everything there is to know about polymers because nobody knows it all. There is always something else to discover. At work the graduate will need to be able to design synthesis systems (requiring a thorough knowledge of the existing methods) and be ready to develop new polymers or understand something new that turns up. So the professors must expect that the student not only show breadth of knowledge of the field, but that he will show himself able to do or participate in original research. It being impossible to completely understand the field, they will heavily weight the ability to experiment and analyze new data. Contrast this with the Greek drama student, for whom "original research" means dusty cobwebs.
  • The student of pre-Kantian philosophy is in a different situation from the others. He has to have the same familiarity with what people said that the other disciplines require, but the philosophers meant different things. A thorough understanding of them requires that our student be able to understand the conflicts between them, and interpret each in light of the others. He won't find much he can seize on as proven in a mathematical sense. Worse yet, our student will find that he is unable to improve on the wisdom he is studying, unless he is one of the very rare great thinkers.

    He must demonstrate his mastery through debate, through finding similarities and through explaining differences.

We mustn't expect the demonstration of mastery suitable for one type of study to be appropriate for a different type. In fact, using the "original research" model in some fields is actually poisonous. Remember the Greek drama student. A few years of "original research" and "scholarly publications" will fill the field with so much useless rubbish that the whole point of the study becomes obscured.

Consider this a plea to let the demonstration fit the type of scholarship. Let the University recognize that some fields are utterly unsuited for "publish or perish," and accept breadth of knowledge or acclaim, instead of the number of pages as the standard for a degree, or respect, or tenure.

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