Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for February, 2009

Origin of Doctoral Study

Recently, I submitted my application for doctoral study in history at a major university.  That got me thinking, where did the Ph.D. degree in liberal arts come from and what are its origins? 

A Ph.D., or doctorate, is simply defined as “the highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”


Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

So in essence, a doctorate can be seen as a license to teach.  So to get at the heart of why doctoral programs matter, one must delve into the origins of the scholastic movement.


According to George Makdisi, author of The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: with Special Reference to Scholasticism, the origins of the doctorate can be traced back to the study of Islamic law and the creation of law schools in the early 9th century.  The doctorate was a qualifying license to practice law.


However, it is widely regarded that the origins of the modern university has its roots in 12th century Paris, which received recognition from both secular and non-secular authorities. According to Geoffrey Godbey, author of The Evolution of Leisure:


Its [Paris] was for a ‘Universitas Societas Magistrorum et Scholarium,’ a universal society of masters and scholars.  The meaning of ‘universities,’ as also of ‘collegium,’ was really a corporation or guild.  Guild is perhaps the closest parallel, and universities grew and prospered much as did other guilds throughout this and later periods, and as did unions in the modern period.  The best definition of the university, even today, is that it is a community of masters and scholars. 


So in essence, a doctorate from a particular university “guild” gives this person license to teach undergraduate “apprentices.”


Godbey also suggested that universities and colleges are essentially organized in much the same way today as they were in Paris then.  In fact, universities continue to be an important link to the ideals of early Greek philosophers. As Godbey pointed out: “Recall . . . that in the [Greek] phrase liberal arts, the word liberal refers to liberation from ignorance and from the errors for which we may have a penchant but from which we may learn.


And that, as they say, is history . . . or the history of the study of history.