The End of Moral Education

The Graduate School Messby Leonard Cassuto

Harvard University Press. 320p $29.95

The “mess” in question in the title of this book is not actually the graduate school; the real mess is the market. By and large, graduate schools do what graduate schools are supposed to do: train new professors to replace old professors. Unfortunately, producing professors is woefully out of sync with the demand for Ph.D.’s in the academic market place. Positions for newly minted Ph.D.’s in four year colleges and universities have been declining since the mid-1970s and in some fields are now virtually nonexistent. Professor Leonard Cassuto in The Graduate School Mess sharply criticizes the self-replicating model of graduate education. He offers a host of valuable suggestions for changing both graduate education and the market. The book should be read by every university president, graduate dean and professor.


So much for the book’s basic thesis—now for the essential qualification. As I worked on this review, I sipped coffee from a mug manufactured by—so the logo on the bottom indicates—“The Unemployed Philosophers Guild.” The mismatch of graduate training and market is, as Cassuto clearly indicates, largely confined to the humanities. Not all graduate education is “out of market”: Ph.D.’s in science, engineering and the hard-nosed social sciences find employment, but not necessarily in colleges and universities. Scientists get jobs at high-tech companies and economics Ph.D.’s can migrate to Wall Street. Cassuto thinks that graduate education in philosophy and the like needs to follow the pattern of the sciences, pointing humanities Ph.D.’s toward appointments outside the academy. He labels this the “alt-ac” (alternate academic) pathway.

The problem with alt-ac is the institutional drive for academic prestige. A glance at self-promotion ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that every university is now moving to a “higher level.” “Higher level” is defined by measures like selectivity of students, size of the endowment, outside research funding and faculty reputation. Graduate education conforms to the prestige gradient. Ideally, your Ph.D.’s will be placed high in the prestige ranking of universities and colleges. It is this “drive to the top” that Cassuto questions. Not every institution should be Harvard; not every graduate student should pine for an appointment to Stanford. Cassuto offers detailed suggestions for changing graduate education to diversify worthy careers. He covers the graduate school world from admissions through classwork, comprehensive exams, advising, degrees and professional placement.

Admissions. The growth of graduate education has transformed admission to graduate school from a careful negotiation between professors about worthy students to full bureaucratization with graduate deans, admission committees and G.R.E. tests designed to restrict admissions. Why? To improve “quality.” Cassuto illustrates the downside of this graduate race to the top by the decision in 2013 of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to reduce graduate admissions and increase fellowships to “bring its policies in line with more elite institutions.” Cassuto wonders whether upping the academic ante is consistent with CUNY’s mission “to serve New York’s citizens more broadly.”

Classwork. The research model shapes graduate education to the internal demands of the discipline. Cassuto argues that the first concern should be students. What do they hope to achieve through graduate study, and how should they be taught to realize that end?

The Comprehensive Exam. Passage of the “comp” is generally understood as qualification for a dissertation. Comps date back only to the 1930s; they proliferated after World War II as a means for separating the Ph.D. sheep from the M.A. goats. (In many programs the M.A. has become a consolation prize for those sent along and out.) Cassuto criticizes the comp-as-qualifier and suggests it should emulate the practice of science programs, in which the comp is often a defense of a student’s research proposal or vocational direction.

Advising. Faculty need to advise the student, not the dissertation. The aims and interests of individuals within a graduate program are often varied and, given the job market, should be expanded. Cassuto is proud to recount advising a student whose aim was to teach at a community college. Her experience in that setting had been so transformative that she wanted to make her career in such a setting. Her decision to teach “down-market” needs to be honored fully. Women and minorities often have personal needs or vocational aims that run counter to the time table or placement goals of the normal doctoral program.

Degrees. The average time to a Ph.D. degree is now nine years. The press toward prestige can distort the time line. The Ford Foundation decided that if students were not burdened by financial concerns they would finish earlier. Generous stipends were offered to students at 18 leading universities. The result was that students took longer to finish in order to burnish their dissertations. As Cassuto notes, they chose “completion with distinction over completion with alacrity.”

Prestige focus on the research Ph.D. fails to reflect the variation in skills attained and career prospects sought by graduate students. An example of a successful alt-ac track occurred in the mid-1990s. Science-based industries were seeking “T” shaped graduates who understood business and enough science to fit the corporate culture. With the help of the Sloan Foundation, various universities created the P.S.M. (Professional Science Master) degree. Some 120 programs were set up and the P.S.M. degree has prospered. Not so the P.M.A. (Professional Master of Arts) degree. Funded for a time by the Ford Foundation, it did not gain traction before the funding ran out.

I suspect that there was more than lack of funding that defeated the P.M.A. degree. Why is it that alt-ac works in science and not the humanities? Alt-ac works for the natural sciences and the “hard” social sciences because out-placements often return the discipline to its historic home. The modern research university developed by the incorporation and professionalization of skills that previously existed largely outside the academic study. A successful chemical industry existed before chemistry Ph.D.’s. Sociology as an academic study is an off-shoot from social reform movements at the end of the 19th century. When philosophy moves into its historic home base, it is back with Socrates in the public agora. Socrates offers a bad career choice; he charged no fees and came to a bad end.

If the name of the academic game is “prestige,” the fundamental problem for the humanities today is its low prestige rating. In his last chapter, “In Search of an Ethic,” Cassuto applauds former Fordham dean Nancy Busch’s suggestion that the history of higher education be required in the core curriculum for graduate study. A great idea! If one looks at the history of American higher education, the prestige of the humanities may become clear. College education before the research university revolution was all humanities. Today that curriculum may seem to be only a quaint combination of classical texts and Christian piety, but its advocates thought it had great prestige and practical utility. Lawrence Cremin, in his monumental study of higher education in the early days of the republic, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876, spells out what educators hoped humanistic education in the classics would achieve:

In a torrent of sermons, tracts, learned disquisitions and utopian proposals [preachers and educators] attempted to determine the moral substance of American citizenship and to devise educational arrangements that would prepare a responsible citizenry.

Where in the current college curriculum do we educate students in “the moral substance of American citizenship”? In what alt-ac jobs in society is that goal pursued? The humanities are the curriculum for citizenship. It doesn’t seem too radical to suggest that the plight of the humanities has become the plight of our politics.

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