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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/January 1903/Post-Graduate Degrees in Absentia

By A. L. BENEDICT, A.M., M.D.,


COLLEGE faculties have, within the last few years, conferred postgraduate degrees with conservatism and even reluctance. The time is long past when there was a germ of truth in the assertion that A.M. was a decoration for principals of preparatory schools who sent a sufficient number of students to college, or for young alumni whose interest in their alma mater persisted after graduation. The free distribution of honorary degrees, always a possible source of evil, is especially dangerous in the case of professional degrees, since the latter indicate the completion of an apprenticeship rather than the attainment of learning and confer privileges of practical commercial value and subject to abuse.

Unfortunately, the reaction against the old custom of applying degrees 'honoris causa' and with no very definite requirement of scholarship, has led the majority of colleges to insist that the master's and the doctor's degree shall be reached only by courses of study pursued under the immediate supervision of the faculty and has closed the path to these honors for all who are unable to protract their residence in a college town, except those who have distinguished themselves in the most signal manner. It is, doubtless, presumptuous for criticism of an educational system to emanate from one who has no closer contact with education than the training of a professional student and the practice of a profession, yet the general tendency of colleges to adapt their methods and aims to conform with the demands of practical life, encourages the writer in pleading in behalf of the worker in the great university of the world, who still desires to keep in touch with the scholarship of the college.

Through long custom, we have one degree which is admirably adapted to use as a decoration. This is the title of Doctor of Laws, which has come to be the patent of practical success in any line of activity, not incompatible with a reasonable degree of refinement and intellect. Its significance is executive ability and wide influence of the highest kind. If deservedly applied, it can never add materially to the dignity of the recipient, while any tendency to its abuse is checked by the reflex discredit cast upon the donor.

The master's and doctor's degrees in arts and sciences, on the other hand, represent purely educational attainments, of higher order than the bachelor's, but of the same general scope, and they may be sought with the same propriety as any other reward which represents a performance of a definite task and which is honorary only in the sense that the formal recognition of an accomplished work is an honor. The plea for conferring these degrees in absentia might, at first thought, be regarded as in the interests of young men and women, prevented by poverty—actual or relative—from pursuing their studies beyond the usual limits of the college course. On the contrary, few are prevented from continuing their education at college by lack of funds, on account of the generous provision of scholarships and because the experience of undergraduate life renders it comparatively easy for the post-graduate student to be self-supporting, as a tutor, a literary hack or in some other capacity. The real obstacle to postgraduate study in præsentia is that every young person of energy and ambition realizes, with the advent of that indefinable condition which we call maturity, that it is time for him to be about the serious business of life, that he must cease to be a consumer, even of scholarship, and that he must become a producer. Some few lines of life work admit of a protraction of residence at a university without interference with the demands which society justly makes on a well-trained intellect, some few are favored by accident of location, but, in the vast majority of all instances, the man or woman who decides to remain at college beyond the usual undergraduate period, must make a sacrifice of the best years of life, years which might better be applied to the preliminary struggle for position which is inevitable to success in every business or profession and which must be undertaken in the arena of actual life. The desire for thorough educational preparation, however laudable, must be recognized as futile in the sense that no scholar can hope to gain the point at which he can consider his past progress as having measurably subtracted from the infinite possibility of the future. On the other hand, all educational systems must frankly recognize that senility begins its inroads before full maturity is reached. The appearance of grey hairs before the beard is fully established is but the symbol of all physical and mental development. The man who waits for his judgment to be fully formed and his knowledge to be completed—even according to human standards before engaging on his life work, has already lost something of mental flexibility and of the vigor of innervating centers. It is impossible to translate this principle into terms of age and the formulation of standards must be left to the collective experience of educators, sociologists and of that paramount factor in education and social progress which we so often forget—the people. A surprisingly large number of great men have practically completed their work in life at thirty-five. A critical study of most others will demonstrate that, while the recognition of their labors may have been deferred by circumstances—mainly lack of opportunity—till later in life, they were actively engaged in their life work by the twenty-fifth year and had laid the foundation of success by the thirtieth. The late Dr. William Pepper, though one of the most earnest advocates of a liberal education for medical men as well as of thorough medical training, declared at the time of his ripest experience that any educational system was a mistake which would not allow the average man to enter upon actual practice at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four. It would prolong this paper unduly to quote his arguments, none of which however, was so convincing as his own life-history. Business men would, probably, assign a still earlier age. Among educators and scientists, there exists a considerable diversity of opinion; probably the majority would favor a lengthening of the period of preparation but it is questionable whether their personal biographies would support this opinion. On the whole, it would seem that the preparatory period should not occupy more than a third of the maximum duration of active life and that it should not extend much beyond the period of physiologic growth.

As a matter of abstract fairness, it may be argued that the advanced degrees are, at present, open to all college graduates on equal terms—let them accept or reject these terms as they please; if the A.M. or Ph.D. is not worth the sacrifice of a year or two of active life, why complain because one cannot eat his cake and have it too? But is this a wise attitude to assume? Granted that the privileges of the master or doctor and the esteem in which he is held by the community in no practical way exceed those enjoyed by the bachelor, long custom has established the post-graduate degrees, and they should stand for the best, ripest, most practical and wisest scholarship of the times. When the immature critic and student of other men's writings is eligible to a title that is denied to the man who creates literature that is deemed worthy of serious consideration, even though not of epoch-making value; when the laboratory worker who follows the lines laid down by others receives a tangible reward from which the pioneers of such study are often excluded; when field-work in science must radiate from a college rather than from a center which offers equal or greater scientific opportunities; when one museum or library yields not only information but a scholastic degree, while another, as good or better but not incorporated as part of a university, receives no such recognition; when second-hand knowledge of old-world linguistics and anthropology is placed on a higher level than original research, carried on independently, and dealing with similar problems in American fields; when one must be a 'scholar' in the incorrect sense of the grammar school to obtain a scholastic recognition which can not be earned by the slower self-denial and effort of the man who devotes his leisure from the earnest of life to broadening his own intellect and extending the limits of human knowledge—may we not well ask if the reaction against honorary degrees has not carried the colleges too far in the opposite direction?

The necessary regulation of study in præsentia may be applied with only literal alterations, to study in absentia. There can be the same supervision by a faculty committee, the same minima of time required after the receipt of the bachelor's degree, the same inspection of work or formal examination, the same insistence upon a thesis the same or even higher standard of originality, the same precaution against too great concentration, even the same fees unless the college prefers to guard against the superficial appearance of interested motives. The post-graduate student in præsentia is seldom held to a definite schedule of attendance; the student in absentia needs only an extension of the same courtesy, and he may be required to report in person at stated intervals. Evidence of adequate resources for the special kind of study undertaken may be required and this could be supplied, so far as museums, libraries, art galleries, laboratories, mechanical workshops, etc., are concerned, by nearly very resident of a large city, while there is scarcely a region of the entire country which does not offer opportunities for one or more kinds of scientific fieldwork, in which original investigation is urgently needed. A slightly less formal requirement in regard to the customary 'two minor' subjects of study, would probably be wise in most instances and more careful inquiry into the probity and reputation of the candidate would be necessary than in the case of the resident student who is under the immediate and almost constant observation of the faculty, but it would seem that these various modifications of the regulations of study in præsentia are feasible, without too great effort on the part of the college authorities.

In conclusion, the writer would again emphasize, as the main plea of this article, that the present custom of limiting the post-graduate degrees to students in præsentia, places the intellectual consumer on a higher basis than the producer while it has a corresponding tendency to lower the scholastic value of the titles which ought, par excellence, to represent the highest attainments of the broadest scholarship.