Does God Have a Ph.D.?

A college degree is not everyone's destiny, but there are other ways to become well-educated.


What mad piper's tune annually lures a staggering swarm of students to college campuses across the land? And what, in the name of all that is holy, are educators going to do with them?

The source of the piper's tune that brings youth running from everywhere is academia herself. She has persuaded the land that God holds a Ph.D. According to Aristotle, God is a "thinking about thinking"an inflated philosopherwhich drew Bertrand Russell's comment that if cows theologized their god would be shaped as an enormous cow. And if we listen to academicians, God holds a Ph.D. and salvation lies in emulating him as much as personal limitations allowdoctorate, master's, or at least the B.A. By this parochial theology our nation has been wooed and hugely won. Every parent of every child expects for him a college degreefrom a "better" college, heaven willing.

But the piper is mad and the tune a perpetrator of mischief. It propels large numbers of our young people into four years of a narrow life, an artificial life, which for many of them is a waste of time, and worsea contradiction of their personal destinies. Yet the solution is not to renounce but to redirect education.

That American education is in a sorry state is admitted by every educator in the country, and often in print. But the problems that are cited are resolutely superficial, as are the recommendationswitness Daniel Bell's The Reforming of General Education, which pokes primly at the crisis, hastily covers the holes it has made, and ends by recommending revision of the "Contemporary Civilization A" course at Columbia. By this sort of tinkering, we are in the position of men tending a rose garden in the midst of an earthquake.


The fundamental crisis that goes largely unacknowledged is this: true learning and large numbers are incompatible. Since the Second World War, numbers of college students have multiplied drastically. Daniel Bell describes classes of 300 to 600 at some of our most distinguished universities. By comparison, my class of 130 at the University of Delaware appears small, and it diminishes further alongside figures we see daily in our newspapersof the number of currently jobless, for instance. But, if we recognize that my figure of 130 stands for a collection of complex human individuals, the pedagogical impossibility begins to appear.

The corrosion of learning that results from oversize classes is evident to every teacher. When my class enrollment reaches 150, I shall no longer be able to grade student work myself but will be forced to turn this over to a "grader." The grader will be a graduate student, unsure at grading, unadept with my subject matter, and hard-pressed by his own academic work. He cannot possibly do an adequate job. Moreover, the students in my course want to be graded by me; they regard the use of the assistant as a move toward indifference, and their sense of the meaningfulness of their grade declines accordingly. Here is where the question of relevance enters. How can my teaching be relevant to them when in this situation I shall scarcely know them?

But the use of graders is merely one of many moves toward self-preservation into which we are pushed by numbers. Under Harvard's "great man" approach, the distinguished teacher merely lectures once a week to 200 or 300 students and is otherwise unavailable. "The course is thus a pyramidal hierarchy in which the student, at the base, has no direct contact with the 'great man' other than through the mediation of the section man," comments Daniel Bell. (It is tempting to call this the priestly approach to learning, the section man mediating between the supplicants and the divinity.)


Learning and large numbers simply cannot get along together. To make the point more forceful, I call upon Socratic method. This move is certain to provoke cries of irrelevance from my colleagues, and clearly they are rightSocratic method is irrelevant to teaching en masse. But the problem is the inverse of what they suppose. It is not that Socratic method is irrelevant to today's teaching conditions but that today's teaching conditions are irrelevant to education.

In one of the soundest educational observations ever made, Socrates said in The Sophist that the teacher must begin by ridding the student of the "spirit of conceit." What this means is that, on any proposed theme of learning, the great impediment consists of what the student thinks he already knows. Such is the case with a course I teach in beginning philosophy of religion. Such key concepts as "God," "piety," "faith," "salvation," and "transcendence" have wholly diverse meanings within Buddhism, Taoism, Greek humanism, Judaism. Unless careful attention is given to the student who is a nominal Christian, for example, he will impose his own meanings for these terms and Christianize the field, never coming to understand alternative meanings.

Socrates divested his students of the spirit of conceit by dialectic. On a given themejustice, for instancehe began by patiently drawing from the student everything the student had to offer about the matter and subjecting these offerings to careful scrutiny. For the most part, these offerings will not stand up for the reason that the student has never thought about them before; he has presupposed them. Only by eliminating these presuppositions is room made for the discovery of alternative meanings. And alternative meanings afford choice and freedom, which I take to be the purpose of liberal education.

The principle here is clear: to teach them, you must first know them (to which I want to add: and they must know you). Lacking this, only the pretense of education can occur.

A similar insight comes to us from India. Within Hindu doctrine, personal growth is seen to be a succession of distinct stages. We may call them "childhood," "preadolescence," "adolescence," "preadulthood," and so on. Each stage is different from the others: each has its own distinctive meanings for key concepts such as freedom, justice, love; each stage has its special obligations and values. Furthermore, the height of Hindu wisdom is reflected in the understanding that no stage can be skipped, but each must be "passed through intensely" if growth is to proceed.

And the guru? He must learn, by questioning and scrupulous attention, at what stage the prospective student now finds himself. For to misjudge this is fatal to education. To teach from a stage beyond the student's achievement is to render oneself unintelligible; to teach from a stage beneath his achievement is to arrest his development. The guru first discovers where the student is, then descends to that level to take him by the hand and lead him onward.

But in classes numbering hundreds of students, we can know nothing of individuals but their "level"freshman, sophomore, etc. And this is of no use, for developmental and chronological ages do not coincide (think of the 40-year-old adolescents you have seen lately).

Teaching today is beset by many problems. But the problem of numbers far outweighs every other and calls for immediate and strenuous efforts toward its alleviation, for it precludes meaningful learning.


And why, after all, should so many students be flocking to our colleges and universities? If we cease to obediently celebrate academic study and take stock of it instead, it reveals itself to be an extremely narrow and hermetic endeavor. Studenthood perambulates within the tight confines of classroom, library, and dormitory. The regimen includes endless sitting, great stretches of solitude, and uncanny quiet. Outside lies a vast world of very different possibilities. While there are some of us to whom this regimen is fairly well suited, there are other temperaments to which it is wholly unnatural and unsuited, dull, distasteful, or metabolically impossible.

Quite so! And common sense should be enough to tell us that not everyone should be forced to endure academia any more than everyone should be a farmer or a mountaineer. There are personal destinies by scores for which academia is a diabolical mistake, a loss of integrity, a perversion. What is most urgently needed now is cultural recognition of this fact and cultural endorsement of alternatives to four years of college.

Here, a protesting chorus will cry with one voice, "But in this day and age a college degree is the ticket to every good job!" Even if this were still as true as it once was, it ought not to be. And this leads me to my proposal. It is empirically testable at little cost and, if proven workable, promises relief to our colleges and to great numbers of our youth for whom college is the equivalent of four years of penal servitude.

I propose that commerce, industry, and the professions together undertake to supplant college with their own apprenticeship programs. I am convinced that a college degree is an impediment for 80 percent of the jobs for which the degree is presently requiredamong them, sales and business administration; engineering; and many branches of the law, forestry, and geology; and many others. Moreover, I suggest that industry, commerce, and the professions currently give evidence of their knowledge of this fact.


Several years ago, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in Saint Louis attacked Washington University, also of that city, for turning out engineering graduates who were of little use to the firm until they were extensively retrained. One executive said that McDonnell taught fledgling engineers more in six months than the university accomplished in four years.

There is sound educational reason for this. Students learn much faster and better when the need for the knowledge in question is viscerally, personally felt by the students themselves. But most learning in college is directed toward hypothetical needs. The student of civil engineering studies "Indeterminate Structures," not because he wants to cross a river on a safe bridge, but because his department chairman says he will need this knowledge in the future. Likewise, in the college chemistry laboratory, he is handed an "unknown" liquid which he is asked to identify by qualitative analysis. But the problem was not his until he entered the lab. He has been given it by someone else.

It follows that McDonnell can train its aircraft engineers much more efficiently than a university can, and we have the firm's word for it that it is required to do so. Very well, let McDonnell cease pressuring the university (this was unsuccessful anyway) and try a controlled experiment. Let McDonnell take a small band of high school graduates who want to become aeronautical engineers and apprentice them to its own departments. I suggest that there at the airport, amid the whine and bustle of its latest aircraft, in four years time it will produce twice the grade of engineer it now inherits from our universities.

I had an engineering degree from Washington University and five years practice as a civil engineer before I returned to school for my M.A. In the five years, I moved from designing highways to the design of small bridges, to small buildings, to multistory buildings. At no time in this course of development did I require more knowledge than was available to me by a combination of high school mathematics and the judgment of senior designers. Had I remained in the profession, I would probably have arrived at the need for differential equations and indeterminate structures (though many civil engineers do not). And, by the principle of economy just cited, then would have been the time to study these subjects.

A considerable experience of forestry leads me to the same conclusion. The field is certainly very complex today, requiring textbook knowledge of biology, hydrology, ecology, and other subjects. But such refined knowledge is not needed in the beginning of the young forester's career. And what is needed at first can be learned much more rapidly and satisfyingly in the woods than by a four-year academic stint that amounts to suspended animation, to real torture for many of the temperamental sort who might become excellent rangers.


Renouncing academia for apprenticeship leaves the problem of general culturethe backbone of the liberal arts curriculumin neglect. But this is largely a paper loss. Students of engineering and forestry presently get next to nothing of general culture in our universities, and what they do get is apt to be taken resentfully as a delay in progress toward the realization of their careers. (Ask any English professor what he thinks of teaching the course known colloquially as "English for Engineers.")

Again, my response is, Let them get on with what they themselves have the felt need to do. Let general culture wait. (Did Plato not advise postponement of the study of philosophy until the age of 40?) Later, when engineering competence has been achieved, the need for general culture will be viscerally felt, and, when this occurs, our engineers will prove themselves admirable students of it.

Moreover, it will not have been previously poisoned for them by premature force-feeding. On this score, consider medical students, who by the nature of their training stand as extreme examples of cultural deprivation. Those who recognize this and hunger to rectify it become, in their own good time, positively rapacious learners and furnish our communities with a stock of cultural leaders.

How many times do we hear venerable trial lawyers exclaim that the solid practitioners of their work are "born, not made"? Very well, give the neophytes among these born barristers the minimum of formal training and set them to doing the simplest kinds of work which constitute preparation of cases for trial; then let them move ahead from there.

It is a myth that academia is everyone's destiny. Learning is a destiny that in most instances will be furthered by release from the hermeticism of academia. Confer a Ph.D. on God if we must, but let us not imagine that there is only one road to salvation.

David Norton is the author of Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. This article is adapted from his article in School Review (vol. 80, pp. 67-75) by permission of the author and the University of Chicago Press.