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Other views: Blame society, academia for proliferation of Ph.D.s

The Forum could have been a bit less pejorative and arguably more accurate by entitling John Calvert's column "Ph.D.s multiply like rabbits"(The Forum May 18), even though he used the term "rats." The article was more than a delight for me. It br...

The Forum could have been a bit less pejorative and arguably more accurate by entitling John Calvert's column "Ph.D.s multiply like rabbits"(The Forum May 18), even though he used the term "rats." The article was more than a delight for me. It brought back memories of the same fight when I was teaching at San Diego State in the late 1950s. We had the same battle in New York in the 1960s (I was there also).

I agree with Calvert's suggestion that we implement Robert Hutchins' proposal and award every citizen an impressive Ph.D. diploma. But let's don't just go halfway. Hutchens was talking about "degree" madness not just Ph.D. madness. We should also award an elementary school diploma, a high school diploma, a bachelor of science diploma, and a master of science diploma as well. Now everyone would have the degree he/she is "entitled" to, and no one need feel left out.

Why should all this be considered nuts? After all, these degrees have long since lost their value as indicators of academic performance. Some of my classmates actually failed elementary school, and some who made it into high school didn't graduate there. Up until 1950 a sixth grade education covered the formal academic requirements needed for life: One could read, write, and do commercial arithmetic. All else could be learned as needed, and not necessarily as a formal course in a school. That is still true today, but it is no longer possible to get a 1945 sixth grade public school education in this country.

How did all this happen? It is the unintended consequence of two parallel but unconnected developments, one academic and the other social.

Following the Second World War, academia decided that college and university professors must have a Ph.D. to be eligible for tenure, and in fact must continue to publish research papers to be eligible for promotion. The master's degree had long been the top credential needed in higher education, and textbooks were the recognized publication. Everyone agreed that a top teacher is not likely to also be a top researcher, and vice versa. The Ph.D. was a research degree, but if every college teacher now had to have one (even for phy. ed.) the mindless growth of Ph.D. programs was off and running.

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But society must share in the blame. While academia was demanding more credentials we decided that it was unfair, and hence unacceptable, for any of our children to fail at any academic level. Call it social promotion, or whatever, the inevitable result is a Ph.D. in bowling. And North Dakota State University might as well offer it at this point (it would be "unfair" not to let them).

Solely for bias and not for merit, I would note that I have a Ph.D. in engineering science (it used to be called applied physics). I got it solely because I wanted to be a college teacher. I have always considered "professor" to be a higher title than "doctor."

Sheppard lives in Battle Lake, Minn. Email sheppard@eot.com

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