Second Thoughts on Graduate Education

Jacob Neusner*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 2, 1997 © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

Works of scholarship, like works of art, cannot be mass-produced, and neither can the scholars or the artists of the next generation. For the scholar is not someone who merely knows more than other people. The scholar is someone who lays claim to know something in fresh and interesting ways. Scholars are distinguished from merely learned people, just as poets are not merely those who appreciate and memorize poetry or even those who make poetry but those who know the good from the ordinary in poetry and make good poems.

It follows that the education of scholars is not only different, but discontinuous, from the education of informed people. Not all bright and interested undergraduates are suited to the discipline of graduate education, and not all people who dabble in water color aspire to be artists. Not all who want to call themselves professors should enter the calling. Mere profession of enthusiasm and interest in a subject or discipline does not suffice.

What is called for is something else, and how to define and pass on this quite distinct and distinctive attribute of mind is the continuing task of those engaged in the making of scholars: the nation's graduate educators.

Four traits of mind characterize the scholar, young or old, and none of them can be taught but only exemplified. The first is holy simplicity, the desire to rethink important propositions and to ask how they work and why we have been compelled to accede to them. The second is the capacity to take important intellectual initiatives, to ask questions in addition to accepting answers, to want to know not only more about what is known but also something others have never asked. The third is the complete engagement with the work, the entire devotion to the task, to the exclusion of all else, at the moment of the doing of the work, which we may reduce to one word—concentration. The fourth is love for the work, therefore the finding, in what one is doing, of the full and whole meaning of life.

Any one of these traits of mind without the others yields not the scholar but the intellectual: a politician of ideas, a dealer in manufactured and available notions, an amateur with bright ideas, and a dabbler in many things. To put it differently, without these traits of mind, intelligence yields a reviewer of books, a mere teacher, a good guesser, and a Sunday painter. All of these have their place in the economy of the mind. But none of them aspires to greatness, and none will ever know failure.

There is simply no way in which someone can be shown techniques of taking intellectual initiatives, how to ask questions, how to draw hypotheses from the known to the unknown, from the done to the unattempted. It follows that in graduate education we aspire only to exemplify—or, more honestly, to adumbrate—the things we try to be. We educate our doctoral students by example as much as by word. For what they see in us naturally becomes the model of what they want to be. We may read or hear their work with a simplicity which leads us to ask questions. What does this mean? We show no shame to ask, but put on a scandal to pretend to grasp obscurity. If we respond to their ideas by asking questions they have not thought to ask, we exemplify the taking of intellectual initiatives. If they work patiently and constantly at our labor, if they perceive in our mode of life and use of time dedication to the task at hand, then we do not have to tell them the meaning of hard labor. And if they find in us not merely dedication to the work but the example of fulfillment in the labor, then there is no need to talk with them about finding happiness in the obscure and mostly never-acknowledged and unrecognized life of the mind which is all we have to give them as a future.

Graduate education takes place in two dimensions, the first in the acquisition of the knowledge needed to do the work, the second in the apprenticeship to those who teach the work by doing it. Undergraduates are well served by great professors, people who teach what is known in a responsible and conscientious way. Graduate students, needing this same form of excellent instructions, require another as well. For them, the model of the scholar at work is required. The right relationship is one of apprentice to craftsman, not merely student or disciple to teacher and master. These diverse relationships begin and end together, but they work differently. The disciple learns from the teacher. The apprentice does what the craftsman does. Disciples succeed when they know what the master knows. Apprentices know success when what they make surpasses what the craftsman has ever made. The teacher reproduces learning through the minds of students. The craftsman wants above all for the apprentice to become the master, to transcend the limits of the craft as practiced by the craftsman. It follows that graduate education is best left in the hands of craftsmen, the makers of things of learning. The comfortable setting for graduate education is not so much the classroom as the study, not the place in which results are announced but the laboratory and library where they are attained.

While many kinds of learned people are fit to teach, only scholars are suited to create more scholars. For only the person who works in the laboratory, library, or study, and shows others how to work by practicing the craft in public, in the presence of apprentices, can do what needs to be done: to teach by example, so others may learn by doing. With a measure of hesitation, I may report how I have chosen to do this, because in the humanities it is, to my knowledge, a distinctive thing.

My conviction is that just as we never cease to be students and disciples, even while we labor as scholars, so those who come to join us in our craft never serve only as students and disciples, while awaiting the day on which they too will become scholars. We always are learners as well as teachers. So too even beginners should take up the task of scholarship, while still acquiring the requisite knowledge and skills. We learn by doing. And while doing, we always learn. So there is no postponing the work of doing until we have learned all we need to know, what to do. When, therefore, students join a well-crafted graduate program, they find themselves plunged into an ongoing seminar, which meets twelve months a year, and which is devoted to an immense labor, in which all participate. It is a kind of laboratory, therefore, for the conduct of research into a common problem by individuals, working together, from different angles, and on different data.

In the natural sciences this kind of collective research project is commonplace. So far as I know, in the humanities it is not. Although there research is of a different order, we may select for ourselves a problem of the most fundamental character and importance. We labor at it over a great many years (in my own case, two decades now). The facts required for the solution of the problem are so numerous and difficult of access that there is sufficient work for all to do. The documents on which we work, while immense, also exhibit the requisite cogency, so that, when we have results, we are able to talk with one another about them. Since the seminar brings together students who have worked for four or five years with those just beginning, a continuing tradition takes shape. Much of the work of teaching is now in the hands of the older students, with the younger ones, in time, taking their place at the head. In time, I hope, the work may pass entirely into the hands of others, since I shall have taught all I have to teach and may, therefore, go about my business.

The practical policy, therefore, is to give a student a long-term project on the day on which studies commence, and to keep the student at the work for a period of four or five years. The practical result is a piece of work that is done in public, for the student will read the research reports, which ultimately constitute a dissertation, over a long period of time. The other students will both criticize and learn from the results. When, at the end, a dissertation results, it is one that has emerged from a long process of detailed public criticism and of refinement, one that has responded to the questions and problems raised by others. Line by line and pragraph by paragraph, the work unfolds, subjected to many eyes and many minds. It is, of necessity, a work of consuming detail. The task of holding the whole together and seeing its larger traits, of remembering why, in the end, we are telling ourselves these things, is not invariably accomplished.

I have to point to one disadvantage of this mode of graduate education through apprenticeship, and one advantage. The disadvantage is that the student must make a commitment to a long-term project before he or she is ready to exercise independent taste and judgment. And this means more than that the student enters into a frame of reference while still too malleable. It also raises the specter of the formation of a rather tight, impenetrable circle of people who talk only with each other and agree to disagree only about trivial matters; that is, a scholarly cult or an academic sect. In order to overcome the tendency toward sectarianism bred by our peculiar system, every summer I call together a "conversation," in which other scholars in our field as well as their graduate students are invited to join in shared, public analysis of common issues. That is how we seek in deed to teach the lesson that others have important things to say, and that ours is not the only, or the most important, approach to the common tasks of learning. Second, our students are encouraged to pursue studies elsewhere, in the course of their graduate education, and so to learn important things, essential to our own work, which we do not teach but need to know. Third, the students faithfully attend the meetings of learned societies in our field and related fields. There they confront for themselves other academic agenda and diverse methodologies.

This brings me, finally, to the advantage to which I have alluded. I think the most difficult thing for scholars to learn is to learn from other people, to preserve an open mind to the ideas and insight even to the questions and scholarly programs set forth by coworkers. It is in the nature of our work, requiring, as it does, single-mindedness and dedication, that we face the temptation to dismiss as unimportant the questions and inquiries of others. It is not because they threaten the results we seek or the methods to which we are committed, but because those questions are distracting. The real sectarianism is that expressed by the one alone, the individual scholar who forms a clique unto himself or herself. This attitude of self-sufficiency, this incapacity to learn from others except what one needs for the particular task at hand, closes the path to scholarly greatness.

I have defined the problem of narcissism because I perceive it to be a common failing of scholars, particularly of publishing scholars. We have, rather, to learn how to learn from other workers in the same field. Indeed, we always carry on our work alongside and with the help of colleagues, and we must learn to listen to, to concentrate our minds upon, the concerns and problems of others. If our students learn that what they want from others is not approval but insight, and even criticism, then we have opened the way to great achievement. When I worked for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, I saw one instance of scholarly greatness among an entire community of preeners and primpers. A senior scholar, working in mathematics of biology, from the Rockefeller University (not a permanent IAS staff member), approached a young mathematician and in my hearing laid out a problem on which he needed help. For both the inquiry clearly was routine, but in my career I had never seen an older scholar ask for anything of a younger one but a glass of water. It showed me, in a brief glimpse, what an authentic community of learning—mathematics in particular—could be.

This observation leads to the final question: How do we measure the success of our work in graduate education? If we succeed, we open the doors of learning to the coming generations. Our young apprentices go forth to do the work of the craft, knowing something about teaching and much about the self-conscious and articulated requirements of learning. And if we fail, then we foist upon the coming generations still another clique of close-minded, self-important careerists, people who impose dogma and tell this-and-that to whom it may concern rather than craftsmen who, having turned the wheel ten thousand times, still wonder at the potentialities of the wheel, the clay, the pot, and the hands.

My own ideal, already partially fulfilled, is for my work to be made obsolete, of mere historic interest, by the much better achievements of my apprentices. That is the only way I know to transcend self and surpass my own limitations. The stakes in graduate education are high. The obstacles are formidable. Those from without divert our attention. It seems that there is a cycle which regularly requires that we defend this work and to persuade the university of its worth. Perhaps that is healthy, but it also is distracting. For more formidable obstacles confront us: those of the spirit and the flesh. The challenge is tough and intractable clay, infirm and unskilled hands, a wheel on a wobbly pivot, and the vase one that no one before has ever imagined, or yet made—that of which we dream, but do not yet know how to make.

A Postscript

These views reflect my ideals for graduate education, formed in the mid-1970s in a very difficult circumstance, when I tried to maintain high standards for doctoral studies in a faculty notorious for its self-indulgence and sloth, lack of ambition and intellectual vacuity: Religious Studies at Brown University. Just a short time later, in sheer disgust, I left the Department and founded the Program in Judaic Studies, an interdisciplinary study in humanistic and social scientific inquiry into a single set of data. Over time I concluded that the effort and commitment required in doctoral teaching do not yield commensurate results but only exact an extravagant penalty.

In twenty years at Brown I dealt with more than forty M.A. and Ph.D. students, of whom only twenty actually completed terminal degrees and published their dissertations. Of these, exactly four went on to scholarly distinction, both making their own what I had taught them and also building their own intellectual careers beyond. The rest got fine jobs; all who wanted academic careers are now in tenured professorships and many of them in named chairs. Some of them wrote second, and even third and fourth, books. But these invariably, boringly recapitulated my ideas and methods, and every single one before publication had been rendered quite obsolete by later work of mine, which these "disciples" did not master or understand. The ideals set forth here presupposed not only capacity (which all exhibited) but commitment. If not compelled by curiosity, scholarship collapses into careerism, and the doctorate turns into a mere union card. So honest, full disclosure requires the confession that in these lines I set forth little more than a utopian fantasy, not prescriptions for the real world.

On the other hand, I returned to this essay, originally published in slightly different form in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1977, because a copy was sent to me by a medical school professor in Kentucky with the request that I reprint it since, in his judgment, it represented the definitive account of its subject: he had never seen anything better—so he wrote. I reread it and accused myself of scholarly malpractice, since in these remarks I seriously mislead people. I claim something is possible that in fact is fantastic. So I complied, but not for his reason nor with assent to his extravagant judgment. Rather, it is to correct the contention of my middle age—I was forty-five when I wrote these words, ten years into graduate teaching, and I am sixty-five today and seven years out of it—that graduate education lays valid claim on the working scholar. Experience showed me otherwise. With a success rate of four out of forty, or ten per cent, why bother? No language says it better than Spanish: no vale la pena!

Those of us who pursue sustained and ongoing research do better to concentrate on our work. We had best just send out the books to whom it may concern, and let learning take its natural course. Somehow people will not only get doctorates but also survive them. Most graduate teaching today (in the field of Religious Studies, at least) is carried on by people who themselves have published their dissertations and no more. So one-book scholars teach one-book scholars, or, to put it more bluntly, never-wases pretending to be has-beens teach never-will-bes. No loss, no matter. The talented, incandescent ones will shed their light and illuminate their generation. Denied an apprenticeship, they will make craftsmen of themselves.

Nor do the politics of graduate education—the Chicagos and the Harvards placing their storm troopers everywhere that self-conferred prestige gains purchase—in the end govern. Books get read and never get suppressed. People learn and even change their minds. Ideas and attitudes shift in response to sound learning. Learning will follow its own path; it always does, whether or not we try to change that course. The principal scholars in any generation come about by accident; no place monopolizes wit, talent, or intelligence. Exciting books come from where they come from, are published by whom they are published. Good people take place by accident, anywhere; they learn whatever they can from those who came before; and then they strike out on their own, across the empty prairie, toward distant hills, without maps.

*Jacob Neusner is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida. [Back]

Copyright © 1998 National Humanities Institute.
Last updated 10 April 1998