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NSF Report on Earned Doctorates: Continued Commentary

October 17, 2006

Last Friday I promised that I’d offer more on the NSF report, US Doctorates in the 20th Century. I’ve read chapter one (Introduction) and two (Historical Background), and have some questions and responses. I specifically want to focus on chapter two: although it’s an okay summary of the history of research universities in the 1900s, there are a few unclear sections.

– Report: “Doctoral education is organized around an intensive, real-world research experience that prepares students to be scholars capable of discovering, integrating, and applying knowledge.”

Well, yes and no. Some disciplines of course encourage pure research, which really doesn’t always have practical applicability.

– Report: “The American system, in which universities conduct research and train doctoral students, has become a model for the world.”

This is true in science and medicine, but not necessarily in the humanities. Even though this report is published by NSF, it was sponsored by NEH and the Department of Education. I’ve noticed more than a few times that the report talks over those differences, not addressing the obvious and subtle distinctions. This might be the report’s major weakness.

– Report: “By the end of the 19th century, the American model of doctoral education had been established. . . . Despite these advancements, U.S. doctoral education was in disarray at the turn of the century.”

These sentences are just a paragraph apart. The problem is either an unclear definition of ‘established’ or ‘disarray.’ The Report talks about how the program was in disarray, culminating in the formation of the American Association of Universities (AAU) in 1900, but those reasons just prove that the American model was then not really established – until the AAU definitions became the model for other universities well after 1900.

– Report’s Citations: I was disappointed that Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University was not included. This is a fairly standard text on the subject. It was published in 1965 and revised in 1970, so it’s no more dated than the Richard Storr books used.

… That’s it for now. – TL

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