CGE Update: Reforming Graduate Education—Then and Now

Philip M. Katz, January 2002

Periodically, academic reformers turn their attention to improving graduate education. One burst of attention came in the 1950s, when the AHA created its first Committee on Graduate Education (whose work culminated in the 1962 report The Education of Historians in the United States); another began in the mid-1990s and continues today. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, the current Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) is also "guided by two major convictions": first, that graduate education "needs improvement, not replacement"; and second, that recommendations for reform should be offered "not as absolutes but as the product of thought by historians who have responsibly sought (after a study of current practice . . .) to arrive at decisions about complicated and controversial matters."

Later this year, the CGE will offer a preliminary set of "best practices" and suggested guidelines for the graduate training of historians. These will be drawn from the CGE's detailed survey of doctoral programs, its ongoing discussions with various stakeholders in the profession, a series of intensive site visits to representative history departments (which began in October), and the committee's own deliberations. Members of the AHA are strongly encouraged to send their advice and observations to the CGE; in particular, we want to know more about the innovative practices of individual departments, especially those that address shifting patterns in demography, employment, and the intellectual content of the discipline.

While the CGE continues its work, it may be interesting to look at previous considerations of these same issues. Although the practice of history has changed profoundly in the last half-century, some of the issues addressed by the original Committee on Graduate Education still sound very familiar. Their recommendations warrant our attention and may provide a useful prompt to our own thinking.

In his 1951 presidential address to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, Elmer Ellis noted, "History, as a field of scholarship, has changed much faster than our training program for the profession." He also decried the "sweeping generalization" offered by senior members of the profession that "nothing [is] wrong with our graduate training that better teachers and better students would not cure." The first CGE, chaired by Dexter Perkins, was just as tough-minded when it came to reform. Their detailed recommendations ran to 13 pages, and can be found on the AHA web site (http://www.theaha.org/grad-survey/1962recs.html). Some of the main recommendations are discussed below.

First, in the face of perceived shortages of academic historians by the mid-1960s, they called for "special measures . . . to increase the number of serious and capable Ph.D. candidates in the country," starting with better scholarships and stipends, more persistent recruitment of talented undergraduates, and the intensified production of doctorates by the "top twenty or thirty" history departments. Strengthening the country's undergraduate and master's degree programs would also funnel more qualified students into doctoral training. However, the committee was strongly opposed to the creation of new PhD programs by "inadequate" departments.

Another priority for the Perkins committee was shortening the time to degree: in their view, a PhD in history shouldn't take more than four years of full-time study, even though most students by the late-1950s were already taking seven years or longer. The best way to speed the process, they suggested, was to provide better funding (especially nonteaching fellowships), but they also called for earlier training in foreign languages (that is, at the secondary level itself), fewer graduate course requirements, a narrowed scope and more realistic deadlines for general or comprehensive examinations, and shorter dissertations. "Doctoral training is an arduous undertaking," they reminded the profession, "and students who lack the qualities for success should early be channeled into other activities."

In response to many complaints about new PhDs who were unprepared to teach outside of their narrow research fields, the Perkins CGE suggested ways to improve "the balance between breadth and specialization" in graduate programs. To faculty members, for example, they recommended a "careful … guidance of PhD candidates," the desirability of special seminars on historical method, and "informal daily contacts" among doctoral students and faculty. To the students, they recommended "wide reading" (both on their own and as part of colloquia in comparative historiography) and dissertations that had a broad "relationship … to the general fields of history." But "neither the goal of breadth nor the goal of specialization," they concluded, "should be allowed to prolong Ph.D. programs beyond a reasonable time."

Finally, recognizing that "most of those who receive PhDs in history will devote more of their time to scholarly teaching than to research," the committee devoted about a third of its recommendations to preparing future faculty for teaching. At the very least, they felt, doctoral candidates in history needed more practical experience as lecturers and discussion leaders, bolstered by "an informal and brief seminar or colloquium on college teaching." Both graduate students and new faculty then needed better mentoring by their senior colleagues (what the Perkins report called "discovering teaching capacity"). Most important, they argued that good teaching needed to be "fostered and rewarded" throughout the academy, and that "teaching based on scholarship . . . as well as published works should be rewarded in policies governing tenure appointments, promotion, and compensation." Yet they understood this would require a significant reorientation of attitudes within American higher education and that the "Ph.D.-training departments ha[d] a special responsibility" to change the system of rewards, "for they do so much to set the tone that prevails in the colleges."

The Perkins report never had the impact that its authors expected or hoped. Instead, the discipline was rocked by external changes in higher education and American society, which diverted a good part of the energy that might have been devoted to reforming graduate training. To avoid the fate of the original CGE, we first need to reckon with persistent impediments to change that exist within the discipline—some of which have kept the 1950s-era concerns about graduate education alive to this day. But we also need to consider the changing context of higher education in the United States, in which corporate attitudes, global connections, and interdisciplinary studies are likely to play a larger role in the future, while the liberal arts play a smaller one.

—Philip M. Katz is research director of the CGE.