- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In the United States, it is assumed that talented university students in the humanities who aspire to top academic careers should study at one of America’s prestigious doctoral programs. Because the United States has the best programs in the world by conventional academic measures, this is hard to contest.

However, the American academy increasingly labors under self-inflicted problems - the most troubling of which is the pursuit of knowledge as a means to various ends.

The foremost end is producing future academics. The American doctoral program is structured as job training, functioning as the gatekeeper of the academic “guild.” Though characterized by narrowness and hyperspecialization, it is highly successful.

However, if one seeks something more profound from a doctoral program than merely vocational training, prestige and good job opportunities - such as knowledge for self-improvement or simply for its own sake - then it leaves a lot to be desired.

Moreover, there is growing intolerance on American campuses toward the freewheeling debate that once was the hallmark of the university. Today, elite American schools are intensely political, and doctoral students often must toe the line in their departments - or risk their degrees. In addition, the assault on the humanities by various “-isms” has made most universities veritable minefields to tread, especially for those with right-of-center opinions.

One wonders whether the interests of young scholars and conservative intellectuals would be better served by pursuing terminal degrees elsewhere - perhaps in Europe.

There are many obvious reasons to opt for graduate study in Europe: foreign-language learning, opportunities for travel and the chance to study in ancient institutions - all for little tuition. But the real attractions are much more profound.

Many European universities offer environments in which a doctorate represents not just the completion of an education but the formation and betterment of the self - the German tradition of Bildung. Across the Continent, people still talk about the “vocation” to intellectual work; from Lisbon to Lichtenstein and Utrecht to Uppsala, there still are programs in which the stature of a student is not determined merely by the utility of his intellectual life.

In the United States, however, despite having well-funded universities and some of the world’s best academic publishers, there is a sense of embarrassment over studies that lack practical applications. Doctoral programs increasingly are geared toward simply getting jobs for their graduates. (In fact, job placement is one of the means for ranking programs.) The very idea of reflective, “humane” learning as a way of life is seen as quaint.

So, while Europe may be in demographic and economic decline, the intellectual movement originally set in motion by its medieval monasteries and the Schoolmen lives on. In addition, many European universities are more tolerant of “politically incorrect” views than their American counterparts.

Recently, at the University of Amsterdam - a bastion of media studies and postmodern theory - a feminist professor was delighted that a conservative American had enrolled as a graduate student. He faced no political litmus test before he was taken seriously.

She encouraged him to critique the very theories on which she had built her career, evaluating his work on its merits. She even suggested that he stay for a doctorate. In the past few years, American students with contrarian views have reported similar experiences at universities in Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

American campuses, in contrast, are littered with the unfinished dissertations of students who did not fit the ideological mold. Many simply abandoned their programs in frustration; others had their dissertations blocked by unsympathetic - and usually left-leaning - faculty.

Generally, in competitive programs, one must be careful not to risk social or academic censure. But no one wishing to pursue the “life of the mind” at the doctoral level should be put through this.

In addition, European doctoral programs are not limited to training the next generation of academics. Instead of just becoming part of the academic guild, European doctoral degree holders often end up serving in other roles, as public officials and private-sector leaders.

The prime minister of the Netherlands, Jan Pieter Balkenende, for example, has a doctorate in law; Per Stig Moller, the foreign minister of Denmark, earned his doctorate in comparative literature; Germany’s economics minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has a doctorate in constitutional law; Bart Jan Spruyt, a columnist for the biggest Dutch weekly, Elsevier, has one in theology.

Across Western Europe, you can find doctoral degree holders in the most unexpected places - and usually working outside the academy. They bolster a broad culture of humane learning in all sectors of society.

Such a culture - one that supports intellectual work without necessarily worrying about its usefulness - provides doctoral candidates with that extra bit of support without which the entire process can feel desperately lonely.

But in the United States, only a fool pursues a doctorate without wanting to become a full-time academic.

Graduate studies - especially in the humanities - should be about more than just career prospects and prestige. They should remind people of the virtue of intellectual work and the importance of the “examined life.” This can only thrive in nonideological academic environments that reward the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake.

Talented American students have a choice where to take their terminal degrees. It could serve them - and the United States - well if more of them left the provincial walls of the American academy and completed their education abroad. Perhaps they could then return to America and help put “humane” back in the humanities.

Alvino-Mario Fantini and Jonathan D. Price are doctoral students at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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