Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Analytical Summary: Kohler, "The Ph.D. Machine: Building on the Collegiate Base"

Kohler’s piece “The Ph.D. Machine: Building on the Collegiate Base” (1990) takes a historical approach to explain the development of today’s research university. A broad task for twenty-three page article, his moves toward an answer for how the university’s development shaped scientific research in U.S. universities, focusing narrowly in on the type of research questions and approaches researchers had to adopt. Additional questions he is exploring in this piece include: “exactly how and why did graduate education and research develop out of collegiate courses, rather than alongside them or separately”; “What were the alternatives, and how did it happen that the assimilating strategy prevailed”; “How were cultural values sustained by institutional arrangements” (p. 640)? 

The historical perspective is an interesting approach to understanding the university today; however, Kohler has assumed a certain level of familiarity with the university’s history in his readership. (Either that or he is writing is too rushed. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the former). At times, it was hard to follow ideas of “electives” and “graduate” programs as written. With historical pieces, especially, I need a clear picture, and this means clarifying the definitions of terms. As graduate students, we are intimately familiar with the higher education system. The subject is so close to our own experiences that we each have our own definitions for many of the key terms in piece, from liberal arts to collegiate culture, collegiate character to electives. Though it was interesting to see how rooted these terms are in history, I was never sure if how I was reading the piece was how I was “supposed” to be reading the terms. 

Kohler’s argument, while a history, also carries a very particular analytical bend. His explanations of changes to higher education repeatedly colors the analysis in terms of economics. As a student, this lens is most notable to me in the discussion of the Federation of Graduate Clubs (p. 651-652). He describes their ascent as: “these grass-roots lobbies for encouraging and regulating graduate programs and, to a lesser extent, for improving the market for individuals with Ph.D.s” (p. 651). Over time, however, he describes them later as reversing their positions in economic terms. This included a changing position on “migrating” to German universities: “the growth of large graduate programs made foreign competition less welcome” (p. 682). Moreover, the regulation of Ph.D. programs came from “graduates of elite universities” who “felt threatened by potential, if not actual competition from graduates of a very broad-based system of higher education” (p. 652). Even political battles are framed in terms of being won by economic considerations (p. 653). 

As the article’s title suggests, “The Ph.D. Machine” is a fairly cynical reading of the higher education system’s past (one that is perhaps warranted), but this frequent return to economics seems like an oversimplification. It automatically juxtaposes the espoused ideals against economic realities. This binary is an easy analytical default--and a dismissive one. Though I do not have access to his data, as a student now, I could easily make dual arguments about the greater personal fulfillment of working in the university and economic concerns about this degree. I do not see the two as negating the either; Kohler, however, never explicitly disagrees but sets them up as though there is no other way to interpret these movements. Though an interesting piece that I am looking forward to discussing, I think it’s critical to remember that Kohler is writing a particular version of the university’s history perspectives and making a very particular (though compelling) argument through it.

Questions (Sorry! I went into response autopilot and forgot to add in my questions.) 
1. Does Kohler's explanation still hold relevant for today? What does his interpretation of the history of the university add to our understanding of it?
2. Could you imagine a different system? How would research be different today if research institutes had developed independently of the collegiate system?
3. Does it matter that economics/the market is the determining factor for the university? Is this analytical framework convincing?

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