By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Doctors of What?

Juris Doctor candidates gather before commence...Image via Wikipedia
In today's highly specialized academic world, many have long lamented the failure of academics to see the forests for the trees. As a recent example, note this very interesting article in the N.Y. Times in which the work of two economists-- who did see the forest-- shows how too many others in that profession have ignored history and empirical evidence in their excessive focus on specialized, highly abstract theoretical models divorced from current data (see link). This blind spot helps explain why economists are not known for their prescient forecasting of events, as this latest economic crisis has demonstrated.

All of which makes me question why we award doctorates in philosophy (Ph.D. or D. Phil.) at all to people who have no advanced learning or training in philosophy per se, which is the academic study that is traditionally focused on getting us to see the "forest" or the "big picture" in the first place. In the Middle Ages, the term "philosophy" had a broad usage and applied to forms of knowledge outside the traditional fields of theology, law, and medicine (see link). Yet, no one, today, at least in the English-speaking world, follows that now quaint-sounding usage. In addition, today, in contrast to the Middle Ages, academic study is so specialized, fragmented, and, yes, chaotic at times, that you can easily find people with advanced academic credentials who have never read a word of or studied, say, Plato, the chief font of philosophy itself.

My modest proposal is that we stop awarding doctorates in "philosophy" in areas outside the study of what is taught in the Department of Philosophy. You should get your Doctorate in Economics or in Chemisty or in Near Eastern Studies, not in "philosophy." Such a move would better reflect the reality that many specialists are just that: only specialists, unless proven otherwise. We should beware of and carefully weigh the statements of specialists who may not, by training or inclination, see the forest for the trees.

In fact, my own professional doctorate in law (the J.D. or Juris Doctor degree) is a good model: it specifically and precisely states the area of expertise, without necessarily implying any wider expertise. Moreover, this proposal makes sense in an educational system in which few study philosophy as a general or common area of required study, regardless of one's professional or career goals. The required study of philosophy for all is, in my American experience, most common in Catholic unversities and seminaries, not in the typical public or private American college or university (but at least the University of Chicago seems to be making a valiant effort, although it does not seem that philosophy per se is required; there must be other, similar institutional efforts of which I am not aware). We should stop pretending that today's highly specialized credentials are genuinely philosophical in character. Maybe, then, more will see the need to study real philosophy and experience the love of wisdom, as a prerequisite to future specialization. We would all be better served. So would their eventual fields of specialization, as the fiasco of economics has made clear.
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