The Requirements for the Historical Doctorate in America (1893)

By Ephraim Emerton

American Historical Association Annual Report 1893

The degree of doctor of philosophy is to the scholar by far the most important of our academic distinctions. The bachelor's degree has long ceased to have any distinctive meaning. The master in arts was until recently the object of deserved ridicule and, in spite of all efforts to restore him to respect, he still remains an ill-defined being, of whom nothing in particular can be predicated. The term “doctor of philosophy” alone represents, at least to the mind of scholars, something tolerably definite and worthy of preservation. It owes this distinction partly to its newness. It is in the stage when an institution must justify itself or be lost. Unhappily the tendency to take the shadow for the substance, which has been so great an injury to all American education, is beginning to make itself felt here, and we are already forced into an attitude of defense if we would maintain for our only useful higher degree the meaning it ought to have.

This specific meaning of the philosophical doctorate should be that it represent at least two years of continuous study after the attainment of the highest baccalaureate that can be got, that this study be directed into some special field of scholarship, be conducted under the leadership of men who are themselves specialists in that field and be not interrupted by other occupations of any sort. Its method must be mainly that of research, in distinction from that of acquisition, and its aim must be the gain of power as well as the gain of knowledge.

The evils from which the degree has at present suffered are, the granting "causa honoris," the granting "in absentia," insufficient time for the study and insufficient equipment for its proper pursuit. In some quarters the granting of the degree for "independent" work done at a distance from academic resources and by men engaged in the practice of other professions is openly advocated as the best means of extending the usefulness of the doctorate. In other cases it is given for a book written, or for other service rendered to the cause of learning, or, as in a case I heard of recently, to a man who might well have done some such service, if circumstances had not prevented. The source of all these evils may be summed up in the one vicious tendency to make as many doctors as possible, whereas our aim ought to be to keep our degree as high a distinction as possible, and to extend it only in proportion as the resources of our educational system supply a solid basis for it.

The danger from the evils I have mentioned, to the doctorate in general, is especially to be guarded against in the case of history. In the several departments of natural science, for instance, the importance of adequate laboratory facilities is so well recognized that a student is not easily deceived into accepting any but the best equipped teaching he can command. He goes naturally to the few great centers where large and expensive plants have been established and where men of distinction in their branch are gathered. In regard to history the same conditions do not exist. It is comparatively easy to impress young men early with the idea that history is to be got out of a few books, and that no especial equipment whatever is needed for its study. If one decides, at the close of a college course, that he would like to go into teaching, and that history is the subject which attracts him, he is all too easily caught by the offer of a degree on pretty easy terms, and may well fail to grasp the immense range and bearing of his chosen topic. Those who have the real interests of our higher education at heart can not apply themselves too earnestly to maintaining the standards here as elsewhere.

In determining the positive requirements for the historical doctorate in America attention ought first to be given to the preliminary training of the college. The great diversity in the bachelor's degree makes it quite impossible to accept this alone as the foundation for future study along any specific line. We are constantly forgetting this and acting on the assumption that one A. B. is not only as good but the same as another. We are involved in the use of the unfortunate terms "undergraduate" and "graduate," though a moment's thought shows us that these words have no real meaning whatever and represent acquirements ranging, between minimum and maximum, over a variation of from one to three years. This variation in quantity is even less than the variation in quality and in variety of subjects. There are A. B.'s without Latin or Greek, without any modern language, without history, without philosophy, even without political economy. In setting our requirements for higher degrees we have been too much in the habit or overlooking these distinctions and assuming that our conditions were like those of Germany, for instance, where it is possible to assume that the graduate of the gymnasium, no matter where he come from, will have a certain well-defined equipment upon which later work may be based.

It will not do to say that our future doctor in history must be an A. B. We must prescribe certain studies which he ought to have followed before entering upon his specifically advanced historical course. In the first place he ought to have a good linguistic training. I have little sympathy with the notion that philology and history are the same thing, and might even hesitate to group them together as they have been grouped by the chief historical schools of Europe as the most natural yokefellows in the fields of scholarship. But, however one may think on this subject, it can not be denied that without a knowledge of languages no historical study can be anything more than elementary. It is idle to blind ourselves to the fact that the record of the life of almost all humanity, especially that record which is best worth the study of the historian, is written in languages other than English. If our doctor is to be a trained specialist in the use of this record in the sense in which the chemist is a specialist in the use of his material, and the economist in the use of his, and the theologian of his, he must be able to read the record as it was written, and the time for him to acquire this reading knowledge of the necessary languages is before he begins to specialize. Taking the languages in order of importance he ought to make himself able to read easily Latin, German, and French, and should have some knowledge of Greek. By far the best method is, after he has made a start under the direction of his college teachers, to spend his long vacations in the rapid reading of the modern languages, using such literature as will make him familiar with the best prose and at the same time be sufficiently amusing to keep up his interest. His teachers in college can not help him here beyond the start, and if he depends upon their aid he is wasting valuable time which might be given to other things. By this plan a capable and vigorous youth (and for our doctorate we can use none other) ought, by the time he leaves college, to get enough linguistic training, so that he can handle without great difficulty materials, original and second hand, in a half-dozen languages. His advantage here is great beyond all question. He has taken the first steps toward becoming not merely a specialist in one corner of his field but toward achievement in any part of the vast domain into which his taste may lead him. He has gained an instrument which will serve him wherever his work may lie and which he can never again acquire so easily.

Next, our candidate should have some training in philosophy. The study of history is largely the study of evidence based upon human testimony. The chief defect of historians, the chief source of differences among them, and of uncertainty in our knowledge of the subjects they treat, has been their incapacity to understand evidence and to interpret it aright. Perhaps no people has illustrated this defect more thoroughly than the one which has done most in the cause of modern historical research. The student who should trust the inductive capacity of the most diligent and most highly trained German, without careful examination, would be putting himself in danger of endless error. The only safeguard against this danger is the cultivation of a habit of close and methodical thinking, and the best academic aid to this is the study of philosophy, especially of formal logic. On the other hand it should be remembered that the science of historical evidence is not an exact science. It does not proceed by the rules of mathematics; it deals only with high degrees of probability, not with certainties, and, therefore, the candidate for historical honors ought to practice himself in that kind of argument which brings in the element of human judgment and even of human error. It would be well for him if be could read and ponder carefully some treatise on the law of evidence, such as a special student of law might use. If it could be made clear to him early in his course that he is dealing with matters which will not let themselves be regulated by the laws of mathematics, nor even by the principles of formal logic, but have, nevertheless, a law of their own, which it is his business to interpret, he will be in a state of mind the most useful for the historian of the future.

Again an early study should be the elements of economic science. After all, the primary need of man is daily bread and underneath all the great combinations of political and national life which the historian is called upon to study, there lies the impulse of self-preservation and of advancement in material things, which form the subject of economic study. The principles of this study are not difficult. They can be comprehended in their outline by a bright schoolboy and the college student is capable of taking in a considerable deposit of this kind of information, which can not fail to be of use in historical work. If, for example, he would rightly comprehend the great movements of nations from one country to another, the decline of races remaining upon one spot of earth, the rise and fall of populations, by which the course of political history has so often been determined, he must be able to give its due weight to the economic element.

The last subject which I should urge as a fitting accompaniment to the early stages of historical work is that of the fine arts. It would be a lame historian indeed who should wholly have left out of his vision the most wonderful product, next to the great literatures, of the human mind. I do not forget that the American student is here hopelessly behind the European, not only in the absence of great works of art for his study, but also in that general depression of the aesthetic sense from which our community suffers. But, on the other hand, I know with what eagerness our youth catch the suggestions of the aesthetic progress of mankind, when they are offered to them, and how valuable the knowledge, even if it be mainly book knowledge, of what man has done in this direction may be to the historical student. It offers him a key which unlocks the secret of many a period of history otherwise obscure, and these periods are among the most instructive, in every sense, with which he will have to deal. The resources of modern photography have put within the reach of every one reproductions, which, for purposes of instruction, are almost as valuable as the originals. The reaction of such study upon the more technically historical work of any student must be healthful in the extreme.

As to how much of this more distinctively historical study we may properly demand of the college student who is looking forward to the doctorate, I have thus far said nothing. I place it last, because it seems to me on the whole, the least important. If I were required to take my choice between a candidate well equipped in language, in philosophy, in economic science, and in the history of the fine arts, and one who had spent the same time in reading history without any of these aids, I would take my chances with the former. But we are not driven to this alternative. The college course, resting upon a solid preparation in school and beginning at about the eighteenth year of a man's life, has room, besides the studies I have mentioned, for a good deal of actual acquisition in history. It may fairly be assumed that the youth who has gone through the normal process of an American student, will have a smattering of Greek and Roman history, and some knowledge of the history of his own country in school. If now be can add to this the work of one year in college, not an extravagant demand for a man who is going to be a specialist in this field, be can get a fair amount of purely historical knowledge with which to start on his course for the doctorate. This work would not, in the natural course of things, be taken all in the same year. It would include a considerable elementary knowledge of medieval and modern history as a basis for further study. To this might be added one course in medieval work, one in modern European, and one in American constitutional history, with one year's membership in some practice course, where the work should be directed mainly to the acquisition of method in the handling of historical documents, rather than to getting information about facts. It would be undesirable, as it would in fact be impossible, to prescribe at this stage of progress a precise course of study which every student ought to follow. The most that can be said is that he ought, during this preparatory period, to acquire a tolerably rounded knowledge of the critical periods of the history of civilized man. If it were possible at this time to learn something of archeology, as distinct from the fine arts and with especial reference to the development of man as a working and creating animal, the scope of the student's understanding of history would be effectively widened.

We come then to the period of special study looking directly toward the winning of the doctorate. Of the three pedagogical processes of acquisition, comprehension, and research, the student should now be led mainly into the last, but with a constant accompaniment of the two former. He should never cease to acquire; never for a moment can he venture to think of himself as having enough knowledge of historical "facts?' Especially in those fields of history which lie outside his main interest, he ought to do wide and thoughtful reading, searching there for the analogies and illustrations which will serve to connect his narrower study with the great course of human experience. The specialist in American history, for instance, can never afford to give up careful reading in the history of the great republican experiments of Greece and Rome and mediaeval Italy and modern Switzerland, by which alone he can comprehend what the wonderful story of our American political experiment means. So also with the effort to comprehend the more obscure relations of constitutional and institutional life in which he may be helped by the work of experienced teachers. He should not cease to attend the lectures of skillful expounders of these things, since this time of his professional study is the precious opportunity, the last he will ever enjoy, of profiting by personal contact with men who have traveled before him the long road he is to follow. Only as he continues these two processes of acquisition and of an ever-widening comprehension is he in a condition to profit by the narrower work of research.

In mentioning two years as the period of special study for the doctorate, I should wish to be understood as indicating a minimum time. Experience shows that almost every candidate finds himself at the end of two years still hesitating to put into definite shape the results of his study and glad of another year before him which he may devote wholly to this purpose. As to how the two years of study should be filled no precise course can be laid down, which every candidate ought to follow. A few suggestions of experience may however be made. The future doctor is to be a specialist, but let him be guarded against being a too narrow specialist. If the phrase be intelligible, I should say, let us try to make hire narrow in order that he may be broad. Let him be directed into a line of inquiry which shall be, in the stating of it, as limited as you please, but which shall, by the nature of the study into which it leads, tend to draw him on and out beyond the limits of the mere statement into ever wider and wider circles of interest and of possible future research.

If the too great narrowing of the scholar's vision is a danger in Europe,--and we are now beginning to be told that it is so--this danger is especially great in America. The work of the European teacher of history is very closely specialized; that of the American teacher must long remain, greatly to his personal advantage, wide as the field of history itself. Even in Germany, the great teachers of the last generation, the men who led in the work of scientific development of historical instruction, were men of the widest interests. It was not at all uncommon to find among them one who lectured at the same time on the history of the ancient world and of the most modern times and there can be little doubt that this work was thereby made the more effective in both directions. We have been learning from Germany the lesson of specialization; let us beware lest it prove that we have learned it too well.

The remedy against this threatening evil is that the idea be constantly held before the mind of the youthful scholar that history is but one subject, within which there are indeed many branches, but that these have their value for him only as they are seen to depend upon the main stock. To do this most effectively, he should be helped into a knowledge of many things which apply to history as a science, without regard to its periodisation. Such for instance, is the instruction known in Germany as methodology and encyclopedia, a clumsy enough designation, but of great use to the historical specialist by bringing together under one point of view all that is best worth knowing theoretically about the history and method of his science. If it be objected that the best way to learn method is to use it, I reply that whatever tends to give the professional historian a sense of the unity of his subject, of its quality and its value as distinguished from other subjects, of his association as a member in a great community of scholars all over the world who are pursuing the same interests with himself all this helps him on toward higher conceptions of his life-work and makes him more effective in it. The time to get hold of these impressions is when he is taking his apprenticeship.

In the same line of usefulness I place all that group of studies which have as yet no fixed name in America, but which are known in Europe as the auxiliary sciences of history. These have reference to history as a whole, and are of use to any one who means to be a thorough student in it. They include chronology, geography, anthropology, numismatics, diplomatics, sphragistics, heraldry, and palaeography. Others might be added, but these are subjects upon which every historian
of the future ought to know something. Indeed, it seems hardly to need argument that the specialist in a science which involves constant reference to the succession of time ought to know something of the ways in which that succession has been determined; that one who is continually dealing with the movement of events in place ought to know something of the science which tells how the theater of history was prepared for it, and that no one can be a passed master in a science resting almost wholly upon the evidence of documents who has not some information as to the process by which these documents were prepared, and of the language in which they were written. And yet, simple as this argument appears, I know of but one place in America where any systematic attempt has been made to instruct pupils looking towards historical honors in this group of auxiliary sciences, and that attempt has been allowed to fail by the indifference of trustees. As our discipline grows in favor we may hope ultimately to demand this kind of knowledge from every candidate for the doctorate in history.

In regard to one other topic of general value to the historian, I speak with more hesitation. The true place for any profound study of the philosophy of history is, in my judgment, not the early, but rather the later years of a man's professional life. It is so largely a speculative subject, its fascination is so dangerous to the untrained mind, that I should warn any one without a knowledge of history that might really be called profound from going very far into it. Yet with such warning, with the clear understanding that he is dealing with speculative matters and must not look for certainty, the candidate in history may very profitably venture upon a brief excursion into this field. It may do him the service of making it clear to him that there have been many very different theories as to the motive power of human society and save him from a one-sided conception of its underlying principles. At all events it is worth his while to know that all historical knowledge is but ill-assorted cram unless it be interpreted by a sound philosophy, however elastic this may be.

I come finally to the method of awarding the great honor we are called upon to administer and to guard. In the first place, we ought to insist that the preparatory study should be conducted under the close personal guidance of qualified instructors. The candidate for the doctorate should be a marked man at the university. He ought not, however, to be called upon to do any considerable part in its work of instruction. How much of such work he may properly do should depend wholly upon the question whether it is likely to advance his professional interest. The utmost care should be taken on the one hand that his work be systematic, regular, and methodical; on the other, that he be not hampered by any of the petty restrictions as to times and places supposed to be necessary to the undergraduate period. His relation to the teachers of the department should be that of a personal friend, working with them toward a common goal. The knowledge of his work gained by this close personal intercourse makes the ordinary methods of academic test, by frequent examination or otherwise, superfluous in his case. If lie be not capable of utilizing the freedom of his position to his advantage it would be better to exclude him at once from candidacy.

So much the more important, however, does it become that his attainment in power--the thing we are, after all, trying chiefly to give him--should be tested by more or less frequent pieces of work. I value such intermediate tests partly as a preparation for the final thesis and partly as diminishing the undue importance sometimes attached to that production. In many cases if the candidate were required to present several times in his coarse the results of less prolonged investigation, he would come to know his weak points and be spared the mortification of finding at the close that his one great effort is, after all his pains, only an attempt and a failure at that. Furthermore, in considering the question of the award such weight might be given to these preliminary tests that any undue prominence of the final thesis might be avoided.

As to the nature of the doctor's thesis, a very high standard ought to be set, but we are in danger of exaggerating one of the most useful demands usually made. It may safely be required that the thesis should be a contribution to the learning of the subject, and in that sense original. It is only in the interpretation of the word "originality" that I find a serious difficulty. Hardly anything has done more harm to the modern German scholar than a morbid craving for the kind of distinction which comes from finding some new thing. Now and again it has had great results, but it has begotten a feverish dread of the commonplace which our American scholars can not afford to imitate. The field of history is full of unsolved problems, and the honest attempt to enlighten any one of these, if it be accompanied with a wide study of the surrounding material, is all we can ask. The actual discovery of new matter can not be made a test of success, unless we desire to limit our students to the narrowest of all fields, the history of our own country.

As to the need of a final examination, oral or otherwise, upon the candidate's general command of historical knowledge, opinions differ. One view is that if the candidate has been frequently examined during his preparation, this is evidence sufficient as regards this part of his fitness for the degree. No man, it is said, can be expected to know everything, and an examination ranging over a very wide field must of necessity be superficial in its testing power. There is in this comment too much of that tendency to speak of academic work as "gotten off" and laid aside, which can not be too greatly deplored. Even though a man had been examined in the earlier stages of his course, the knowledge he had then ought not to have slipped away from him without result; it ought to have been enlightened and enlarged by all his later study, and it is precisely this final condition of his intellectual stock that the special examination for the doctorate is well calculated to reach. If such examination be oral, it may, without injustice, take the widest range and give to the candidate the best of opportunities for telling what he knows, not, be it well understood, of showing the results of a cram, but of giving the orderly product of his thought on his chosen subject. If it be written, the candidate may be allowed such a wide option of questions that the result may to some persons seem even more satisfactory. In no case should such a searching final examination be dispensed with.

An experience of some years in the administration of the doctor's degree leads me to the conclusion that it has a very large part to play in the development of our American scholarship. There are those who despise all academic degrees as fictitious and valueless. Their value must depend wholly upon the strictness with which they are administered. There is no more impressive lesson in our educational experience than that making distinction difficult not only increases its value but actually incites a greater eagerness to get it. The American youth, easily deceived for a time by educational charlatanry, is yet able to take in this idea with considerable readiness, that whatever costs much is probably worth working for, and,
within reasonable limits, we need not fear to alarm him. He will only make another effort, and eventually, if he has the stuff in him of which scholars are made, he will reach his aim. Let us, in whose hands lies the future of the historical doctorate in America, see to it that our part in this endeavor be not wanting.