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The Perils of the PhD

October 28, 2021 12 min read
By Dr. Matthew C. Briel Assistant Professor of Theology, Assumption University
Quill and Ink

Part One: What liberal education is

The mind is made for truth, and truth is the degree to which the mind accurately understands reality (Aquinas). One approach to the truth is through what the Greeks call dianoia and the Latins ratio. This discursive thinking is the hard work of study, grasping concepts, and argumentation. The consistent exercising of the mind in ratio develops the mind's virtue. It is best done by rigorous, focused work on a particular aspect of reality.

The mind, however, is made for truth as a whole (capax universi). A student must come to know all of reality. The modern undergraduate core curriculum, if done rightly, can be an instrument in this goal. The core curriculum must serve what Newman called the philosophical habit, or the ability to discern how the various branches of knowledge interact with, complete, and correct each other.

Let me give an example. Modern neuroscience, in awe of its understanding of how the brain works and science’s predictive capability, often falls into the temptation of physical determinism. We can identify the correlation between particular kinds of thoughts and physical processes in the brain, ergo all thought is physically preordained. The idea that I can freely have certain thoughts is an illusion. Here it is the task of philosophy to correct the excesses of neuroscience by distinguishing consciousness from material events.

This kind of philosophical knowledge, in which all the disciplines, not just philosophy, correct each other, is essential to understanding reality more fully. It is not a question of multi-disciplinarity. The various disciplines must converge on a true, if always insufficient, account of reality. This is rarely done in universities today. It is also important to note that philosophical knowledge is different from the frequently lauded critical thinking, or at least as it is understood today. Critical thinking can be good if it is a part of a larger constructive goal. Done correctly, it might begin by breaking down a text into its components (Aquinas’s distinguishing in order to understand), analyzing its truth claims, revealing falsehood, and coming to the truth.

But critical thinking as it is conceived of today merely attempts to unmask false claims to the truth without positively seeking the truth. The critical thinker assumes he already has the truth in the form of contemporary assumptions or prejudices. It is destructive rather than constructive. The only constructive work of critical thinking is persuading those who disagree. This is done without examining the principles of thought. Philosophical knowledge, too, tries to uncover false claims to the truth, but it has a more important positive goal: attaining the truth itself.

So much for ratio. The classical and Christian tradition also speaks of a higher form of knowledge: theoria or intellectus, or what we might call contemplation. Ratio's active work to attain the truth finds its completion in what Aquinas calls the superhuman action of contemplation, or the passive reception of the truth. How does this work? Studying psychology, literature, history, theology, and philosophy will help me better understand my wife by way of ratio, but if I am never lost in contemplation of her beauty and goodness, do I really understand her? This work of discursive reasoning in some way improves my contemplation. Knowing that a tree branches in a Fibonacci sequence is not only interesting in itself but can magnify the awe I experience while standing under a Sequoia.

In sum, a liberal education aims at the virtue of the mind by way of understanding reality and how various approaches to reality (disciplines) interact. The educated mind is in large part dependent upon the other virtues for its development, and thus human formation is an essential aspect of undergraduate education. An effect of this better understanding of the truth and the disciplined mind is that the educated person will be better suited for any profession, for knowing where his particular field of action stands in relation to others. He is also better able to understand his own field, whatever that might be, by his own experience in the rigor of sustained engagement in a particular approach to reality.

Part Two: How most contemporary doctorates in the humanities tend to pervert the mind and character

With the Enlightenment, the nature of education changed. Salvation no longer came from God but from an earthly paradise that was to be attained by knowledge. We need to be mastering new fields so that we can save ourselves. Hence the ironically so-called Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and its telos or final end in original research (new knowledge) replaced the traditional Master of the Arts (MA) with its goal of comprehending an existing body of knowledge.

The nature of the PhD has changed since its Enlightenment-inspired origins in nineteenth-century Germany. For the most part, and especially at elite institutions, the PhD is no longer sought as the source of salvation but is rather a cynically pursued activity for effete pseudo-intellectuals. Real geniuses who discover new knowledge are rare and have no need for a PhD. Einstein, for instance, never wrote a dissertation.

What does a PhD do? It can be a rather noble thing. It trains budding professors in the pursuit of new knowledge. The novice researcher pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It takes a degree of innate talent and an enormous amount of diligence, perseverance, single-mindedness, and fortitude

The capstone of this training is the dissertation, a kind of scholarship that is written to advance one’s career and is aimed at a tiny audience of specialists, who themselves are divided into various cliques. The problem is that the dissertation can be written for one of those cliques in a way that demands little rigorous thought (ratio) and its predictable results satisfy the desires of that clique. The most lauded dissertations in the humanities tend to have the same formula: I uncritically accept a contemporary theory, I apply it to a text (or system of discourse), I prove the theory.

While praised as ground-breaking, the most praised dissertations are in fact usually very safe. In my field of study, for instance, modern critical theory is applied to premodern history to see what it can uncover (or unmask). What is striking, however, is that the same results are found in different places at different times and the theory itself is never found wanting. There are no surprises. This ought to concern us.

Most doctoral students and their professors in the humanities are not capable of questioning modern theories. Perhaps two thirds of doctoral students receive their undergraduate education at Ivy League or similarly prestigious schools. But the vast majority of faculty at these universities are either unwilling or unable to guide a student in a liberal education. A truly liberal education, outlined in the first part of this essay, is not only a destructive but also a constructive search for truth that engages great geniuses of the present and especially of the past. However, instead of searching for truth alongside these geniuses, most universities train undergraduates to unmask truth claims as covers for power. The founding fathers' claims about human liberty, for instance, can be dismissed without investigation because they are really racist discursive constructions that entrench systems of power. A liberally educated person would both acknowledge their racism and take seriously their arguments for government. This is where Critical Race Theory flounders. It stops at the fact that the founding fathers were racist and fails to engage their arguments that may indeed be true. On the other hand, the believing Christian undergraduate who refuses to engage Nietzsche because he is an atheist also fails in his pursuit of an education. Critical Race Theory, however, has a central place in the modern university. The undergraduate who refuses to engage Nietzsche does not. But in both cases, the refusal to take seriously the thoughts of serious thinkers prevents an education before it can even begin.

But perhaps both conservative and liberal students do not have the formation even to engage these questions. Without a foundation in the greatest historical insights into human nature and its synthesis by philosophical knowledge, the student (or professor!) is incapable of critically engaging contemporary thought. The majority of so-called and self-satisfied educated persons are in fact prisoners of contemporary propaganda. There is nothing liberal (“free”) about their intellects.

When the products of these elite universities come to graduate school most are of course incapable of questioning the theories they encounter. Bees fly to the flower that most suits their fancy. Dissertations in the humanities employ the “critical” theories that will lead to the desired result (e.g., St. Symeon the New Theologian was queer in the sense we take for granted today and Moby-Dick is really about the phallus: these are real academic publications!). Here we see a serious failure to understand the text or approach the truth towards which these texts point.

This is obviously not an education. Those doctoral programs that do foster critical and constructive ratio are, for the most part, incapable of fostering or requiring the broad reading outside one’s field necessary for philosophical knowledge. The future professor’s ignorance of what lies outside his narrow area of research often leads him to inflate the importance of his own field. What need is there for ethics when we have economics? Why do we need literature when we have anthropology? In addition to the perversion of the truth, doctoral programs with their emphasis on new knowledge and ignorance of the whole of truth can lead to pride.

Pride is, of course, the worst sin. Pride is particularly dangerous for undergraduate teachers. All professors teach a general audience and form them, to some extent, according to their own virtues or vices. Intellectual arrogance is another roadblock to education. And so universities need to be especially careful in their hiring practices. All faculty should be liberally educated and support the Catholic mission. However, instead of hiring for mission, many colleges and universities aim to hire graduates of elite universities who, with few exceptions, have narrow minds, constricted imaginations, and little ability to draw students into the depths of reality.

Finally, even the best doctoral programs give little, if any, attention to the awe and wonder of contemplation. And indeed, this cannot be evaluated so why form students in it? But if undergraduate students aren’t drawn into this intellectus they will have little desire to do the work of ratio beyond the motivation of a good grade. Finally, they will miss the whole point of an education: the contemplation of the beauty, truth, and goodness of reality and of the One who is the source of that reality.


The majority of Americans now see the humanities as unconcerned with truth and the humanities are therefore becoming less popular. Instead, the good of universities is only seen in their exploration of and training in technical knowledge such as engineering and medicine. These are, of course, good things in themselves, but in the end they are servile arts (artes serviles), things studied for the sake of practical results. The liberal arts (artes liberales) have been largely abandoned as has been education as it has been understood for millennia.

Fortunately, there are isolated bastions of liberal education scattered across the United States. There are good doctoral programs that challenge their students to base their quest for new knowledge on the philosophical knowledge characteristic of a liberal education. Even graduates of elite institutions have the possibility to continue their liberal education as professors through a breadth and depth of reading and conversation with their friends in various departments. A liberal education can be found today, but it must be sought with the help of educated guides.

How can a Catholic university committed to the liberal arts ensure that its undergraduates actually receive an education? The PhD is here to stay. Our dependence on the judgments of accrediting agencies and US News and World Report will not allow us to hire full-time faculty without terminal degrees. The majority of faculty hired straight out of a doctoral program or a research fellowship are deficient in their education. I know I was. I continue to be a recovering PhD.

One effort has been weeklong summer workshops that draw in faculty by giving them generous stipends. A small minority of committed faculty might attend every other year. Much good is done here as faculty read in other disciplines and exchange ideas with other professors, although perhaps there is too much deference given to the specialists. For instance, how often will a philosopher challenge the English professor on the interpretation of a passage of Chaucer? Furthermore, how are faculty recovering from the maleducation of the doctoral program the other 103 weeks? Informal symposia, such as take place at my school, are extraordinarily helpful, but only a small minority of faculty are engaged.

For better or for worse, the only way to transform entire faculties is through substantial incentives, especially tied to tenure and promotion. Nearly all liberal arts colleges are demanding more publication from faculty than they used to. There is some good to this continuing engagement with their field. The problem is that, under the various pressures of being a professor today, most faculty simply plow the same field as their dissertation. I wrote a book on a fifteenth-century Byzantine theologian. It would be very easy, and tempting, for me to write another book on another aspect of his or one of his contemporary's thought. However, it is difficult to find the time and confidence to start afresh in a new area among the myriad duties (teaching, committees, office hours, informal conversations with students and colleagues) of the contemporary professor.

This has hindered the university’s ability to encourage the education of its faculty. In fact, the increasing demands for research has made the problem only worse. Why not reduce the research demands from, say, five to three peer-reviewed articles for promotion and require several publications or lectures in other fields, or at least outside of the subspecialty in which the faculty member was trained? These need not be in elite journals, and in fact probably shouldn’t be. They could take the form of book reviews or popular articles and lectures. The specialist in medieval philosophy is well equipped to write on Dante. Why not encourage this? All faculty should be reading modern literature. Why not encourage faculty members outside of the English department to give talks to undergraduates on Walker Percy, Sylvia Plath, or Iris Murdoch? Why can’t a French professor lead a parish reading group on The Confessions?

Most reforms fail. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up, especially in times of crisis. Trusting in Jesus Christ, Catholic educators after the fall of the Roman Empire moved from the urban houses of great individuals to the monasteries. The realization of the need for philosophy six hundred years later brought about the formation of universities. When scholasticism became sterile in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries printing presses and salons became the centers of learning. Then universities were reformed and flourished. We need not abandon them now. They have proven to be the best instruments for education for a thousand years. But only creative solutions of the educated who pray will give universities a chance to continue the liberal arts, the study that makes us free.

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