Reclaiming the Mission of Graduate Education
By CATHARINE R. STIMPSON
Dear Graduate Student:
In the dog days of last summer, I saw a cartoon that showed two lithe, white undergraduates lying on a beach, the man facing the sun, the woman facing the sand. He says, "When I graduate next year, I want to do something that's good for the country, plus good for myself." She answers, "You could enlist in the Marines before they start the draft again." They fall silent and sunbathe until he speaks again, "Or graduate school."
You have already made your postbaccalaureate move. You are either going to start graduate school next fall or you are already there -- in a program in marine biology or sociology or engineering or education or history or any of the plethora of programs available to you. Since graduate students have a high degree of self-consciousness, you are no doubt aware of why you have made your choice, even if you shrug publicly and say, "I didn't know what else to do."
My own motives for going to graduate school did not combine the post-September 11, mid-Iraq-war patriotism and self-interest of the young man on the beach. My decision flowed from my answers to three questions that I had to ask myself in my mid-20s. The first was economic: How could I support myself? The second was psychological: What could I do well? The third was existential: What work would bring me dignity and freedom? My answer was to go to graduate school in English in order to join a college or university.
Unhappily, I hated graduate school at Columbia University in the 1960s. Once in, I wanted to get my degree and get out as expeditiously as possible and join my profession. Looking back, I am shocked at how much more I remember a mood than specific incidents. It was not simply the racism and the sexism, although those fumed unwittingly through the place. It was not simply the endless anxieties and gossip of my fellow students, although that swarmed through the lounges. It was not simply the notoriety that some professors had for being bullies, their reputation reinforced at oral examinations and dissertation defenses. I was never a teaching assistant, so I missed out on much of the anxiety and gossip and bullying that position can entail. I earned my living as a typist and then as a part-time lecturer at Barnard College, where I ultimately gained tenure.
Perhaps most devastatingly, what I missed in graduate school was a crackling air of intellectual excitement and discovery. I longed for both passion and irony, and found instead a strange combination of veiled puzzles -- why this person and not that was invited to meet a visiting dignitary, who was really running the department, what the Modern Language Association was and why it mattered. Combining strangely with the puzzles were rituals and routines -- the often weary lectures, the rules for submitting dissertations, the deferential circles we formed when invited to a professor's home. To be fair, I also found in my dissertation adviser, the literary scholar William York Tindall, a deep kindness, real knowledge, and an amused tolerance for my exuberance, immaturities, and snobberies. And I was, I fear, prey to bouts of snobbery, more eager to define my identity as an "urban intellectual" than as a graduate student.
The emotionally strong
but fragmented memories of what I hated
at graduate school drive me today as
a graduate dean. Let me say this as simply
as possible: As long as I work in graduate
education, I want to help shape a school
that is unlike my graduate school --
except for the kindness, knowledge, and
tolerance of my mentor. I realize that
you enter graduate education for a variety
of economic, psychological, and existential
reasons, but one deep motive must animate
you -- you love exploration,
If you are a historian, you are compelled to study the narratives and processes of the past; if a scientist, you are compelled to study the structures and processes of nature; if an engineer, you are compelled to study how we build on nature and create technologies; if an economist, youare compelled to study the ways in which we get and spend; if a literary scholar, you are compelled to read Wordsworth's sonnet "The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Unless learning compels you, you will fret your time away in graduate school, especially in doctoral programs that last a long time.
If you do love learning,
you will know that the graduate school
is the most important stadium on any
research-university campus. It harks
back to the founding of the university
in the late 11th and early 12th centuries,
in an Italian town called Bologna and
in a French town called Paris. However,
your modern graduate school has two 19th-century
parents: the German research university,
which prized advanced knowledge, and
the American land-grant university, which
prized serviceable knowledge.
The graduate education
you have inherited oscillates between
those traditions. Since the late 1980s
and 1990s, graduate education has been
in the throes of a healthy, self-conscious
reform movement that has been asking if
graduate education is appropriately serving
either knowledge or society. To a striking
degree, and with the exception of some
individuals at specific campuses, like
Jody Nyquist at the University of Washington,
reform has been indebted to foundations
(the Carnegie Foundation for the
Graduate education began
to bother people for a variety of reasons.
That it was important, expensive, and
not well understood was one. As William
G. Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation,
and Neil L. Rudenstine, then president
of Harvard University, noted in their
influential 1992 study In Pursuit of
the PhD, graduate education "enjoys
enormous prestige and yet is relatively
unexamined and not carefully monitored." When
people looked, they saw doctoral degrees
that took far too long to complete; inadequate
provisions for advisers and mentors for
students, either at the doctoral or master's
level; a lack of interest in teaching
graduate students how to teach, either
using older methods or new technologies
that have changed our work and the delivery
of degrees; too great a seclusion in
In brief, graduate education was "unresponsive," a key word to many reformers, to the needs and realities of both graduate students and the worlds, academic or otherwise, they might eventually join.
Your landscape today features the stones of tradition and the winds of change, or to be less metaphorical, stability and renewal. One of your most delicate acts is to balance them. Stone and wind need each other. Stones anchor us; winds move us. (Of course, from time to time, we in graduate education also sound like windbags.)
The great stones of tradition for the graduate school -- its cornerstones, more accurately -- are its mission. Help me reclaim the word mission from both evangelical zealotry and bureaucratic twaddle, in which mission statements beget strategic plans that beget implementation, etc., etc. A mission is a deep purpose in life, our reason for doing what we do most ethically. That of the graduate school is threefold.
First, it provides the place where the most promising and lively minds of several generations come together to work on the central problems of the time and of the disciplines. Like a rocket racing through the restraining bonds of gravity, a graduate school breaks through conventional wisdom. Second, the graduate school educates you, the next generation of scholars, researchers, intellectuals, artists, and educators. The laboratories, libraries, databases, and classrooms of the future depend on that education. The third cornerstone is to embody an ideal of a community of advanced inquiry. Don't be a dope about the way such a community functions. Don't shrink from figuring it out. Begin to learn what the difference is among the academic ranks, what various administrators do, what the divisions are in a research university, and how power is wielded formally and informally. If you don't learn about organizations, you will fall prey to rumor and superstition about your current home, and you will be ill prepared to enter the postmodern world after graduation. And if your community falls too short of the ideal, summon your courage and protest, but protest with understanding.
Like the word "family," the word "community" is now so hackneyed that you might want to flee from its invocation. However, a graduate school is a community, and like all communities, it needs a common language. Aptly and appropriately, graduate education takes you deeper and deeper into a discipline or, in some cases, into a self-conscious amalgam of related disciplines that is, an interdisciplinary program.
Specialization is necessary. Only through it can we ask better questions about a field and answer them. A danger of specialization is obvious, however: the grooming of scholars and researchers who do only "Discipline Speak." To anyone who will listen, I advocate what I have named "General Education for Graduate Education," common courses across a graduate school that will help to forge a common language. Think, for example, what might happen if you shared a course in the ethics of inquiry, early in your studies, with all graduate students. You would learn about the moral codes of research and scholarship and, by going through case studies of their violation, become sharper guardians. You would also learn about one another and about fresh perspectives.
Communities also need a common set of values. Only through struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries were those of graduate education established for you: freedom and rigor of inquiry, faculty governance, collegiality, fairness, openness to the talents of both genders and all races, a spirit of secularism, internationalism. Indeed, the new technologies of learning, which are a snap for you, make the last, internationalism, a vivid, everyday fact. You participate in wired, global partnerships in a network of research universities.
Guard those now traditional
values, be suspicious of a corporate
rhetoric that refers to higher education
industry" -- as if administrators
were corporate executives, faculty
members a work force, knowledge a product
called content, and students consumers.
Be realistic about the financial nature
of higher education. There is no free
lunch anywhere except in our fantasies.
Money to support higher education must
come from endowments, governments,
tuition, grants and contracts, philanthropy.
The winds of change are as necessary as the cornerstones of tradition. Since World War II, graduate schools have engineered windmills of thought that have generated ideas, discoveries, technologies, and applied knowledge. Social changes have also blown through graduate schools. The Information Age has brought us far more students, including you. Since 1998, the Council of Graduate Schools estimates, master's enrollments are growing at 3 percent per year nationally. What a B.A. was after World War II, a newly necessary degree, the M.A. is now becoming. Of today's freshmen in the United States, some 75 percent say they want an advanced degree.
Compared with the intellectual and social movements of the past decades, the reforms within graduate education may seem puny. They lack the sweep of computer science, the boldness of the civil-rights movements. But they have brought you real benefits. You are far more apt to find diversity among the people in your seminars, to be taught how to teach, to learn how to enter "the profession" and also how to use a degree outside the academy, to hear your graduate school worry about how long it will take you to get a degree, and to enter programs that weave the disciplines together.
Above all, we are increasingly thinking of you as a person. Less and less are you an apprentice to be taught, used, and too often abused. Grievance procedures, if you are harassed, are more often in place. You are a junior colleague with rights as well as responsibilities.
I believe in our reform movement, but no matter how successful it has been, I have deep anxieties about your graduate education and the American research university. After World War II, the university grew enormously until it became the multiversity and the mega-university we now know. Today well more than 250 universities confer research doctorates. In 1944, when I was in grade school, the operating budget of Columbia University was $11-million. Fifty years later, it was $1.1-billion. The expansion of the research university has been but one sign of the explosion of all of American higher education. Of the huge number of colleges and universities that were established after World War II, perhaps the most novel are the community colleges, in which some of you will work.
You belong to a behemoth. Since World War II, the ever-expanding research university in the United States has thought of itself as the greatest in the world -- and rightly so. Yet as I write this letter to you, I am reminded of another American behemoth, the auto industry, especially when Detroit was the car-manufacturing center of the world, the Detroit of gas-guzzling and befinned cars, the Detroit before Toyotas and Hondas and VW's, the Detroit that did not sufficiently forecast hurricane winds of change. Even as you are preparing to assume leadership of the research university, it may be starting to suffer a comparable loss of confidence, leadership, and authority.
One reason is the dependence of American graduate education on international students, especially in the sciences. In 2002, 82 percent of all humanities doctorates were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but only 60 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences and 43 percent in engineering. The five other countries that contributed the most graduates in our doctoral programs in science and engineering were China, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Turkey. Do not misunderstand me. I celebrate our cosmopolitanism and treasure the international students in my graduate school. But what will happen to research and graduate education if international students reject the United States, choosing to enroll in either a homeland university or a foreign university outside the United States? Canada, Australia, and Europe are competitive, and waiting.
Post-September 11 American visa policies are making it far more difficult to study here, but as destructive are American attitudes toward science education and science. Pathways to the sciences, beginning in middle school, are inadequate for leading American boys and girls -- of all races and ethnicities -- into science as a profession. We have opted for the easy path of importing human capital instead of richly blending local and international intelligences.
Simultaneously, moral fanatics are threatening the freedom of research. Federal research policies have now throttled stem-cell research in the United States, choking off our ability to explore some of the basic mechanisms of life and to ameliorate ravaging injuries and disease. As a result, most stem-cell research is being done elsewhere. Pit-bull guardians of a narrow set of values clamor to patrol the perimeters of the National Institutes of Health and bark and claw if they see financing for projects about sexuality or AIDS. Must one again haul in Galileo as a cautionary lesson?
That is happening as your universities -- except for the very richest ones -- are being ground down by financial difficulties. They rely too heavily upon an underpaid teaching corps of graduate students and part-timers. What will happen if the underpaid teachers rebel? In some institutions, graduate assistants have unionized. You may be asked to join a union and pay your dues or your agency fee. I have lived with graduate-assistant and faculty unions, and am convinced that better ways exist in which to organize academic work lives. I don't want to debate that issue here, however. What I do believe, and you may discover, is that when unions arise and thrive, institutions may have given them reason to do so.
You may have earned your baccalaureate degree only by amassing debt. Nationally, American undergraduates are leaving college owing burdensome levels to be repayed. You chose to enter graduate school despite that burden, aware that you would no doubt be going deeper into debt. Debt is a millstone around the graduate-student neck. Your university may find it harder and harder to lift that millstone, especially if the institution is inadequately endowed and supported.
Governments are asking more and more of public institutions and giving them less and less with which to do it. Public funds cover a smaller and smaller percentage of a public university's costs -- despite overwhelming proof that research and education are fundamental to the growth and well-being of a modern society. Today too many Americans have a shallow idea of what patriotism means. I have watched ballparks filled with people who weep as they sing "God Bless America" and wave American flags. However, patriotism is much more than weeping and singing and brandishing Old Glory. A genuine patriotism demands that we persist in building and paying for the public square, which includes our schools and universities.
The story of the goose that laid the golden egg, which can be found around the globe, is apt. According to the fable, a man had the luck to own a goose that turned out to be able to lay eggs of purest gold. But the man was greedy and stupid. He refused to feed and nurture his goose and to wait patiently to gather the eggs as they were laid. Instead, he cut the fowl open to get at the gold inside. But the goose had only ordinary goosey innards and died of its wounds.
Will the United States be smart enough to nurture the great institutions of higher education that it has built since the 19th century, and that are your legacy -- no matter what your home country? If so, the university will continue to produce the gold of ideas, innovations, inventions, and graduate students of wit, mettle, and intellectual reach. Learn to show the worth and value of your education -- passionately, patiently. If you do not, and if your teachers do not, a flourishing graduate education will shrivel, as Detroit did, and you will be left not with a landscape that balances the stones of tradition and the winds of change, but with stretches of barren sand.
Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the
Graduate School of Arts and Science
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