The Ph.D. in Music: An Affirmation of Traditional Values

October 1, 1971

This paper was part of a panel presentation for The College Music Society at the University of Toronto on November 7, 1970 entitled
Music and Higher Education in the 1970's. Chairman of the panel was William J. Mitchell. The other panelists were Charles Hamm, Mantle Hood, Claude V. Palisca, Robert J. Werner, and Neal Zaslaw. Abstracts of the papers they presentedas well as Mitchell's introductory remarkswere also included in Symposium Volume 11.

What the university of the 70's is to be like is as yet unclear; prophesies abound, but whether any of them will be borne out by what the popular press at the end of this decade will tell us has happened to higher education I do not know. It is my hope that the university will retain, in the face of conflicting social currents and increasing financial pressure, something of its fundamental, its true character: that of a community of scholars. For participation in this community the program of study leading to a Ph.D. degree in musicology remains, I submit, a useful and valuable one.

Before speaking of the training and the early career of the young musicologist, I should make it clear that my purpose here is not to talk about teaching as such. Naturally our profession needs the best we have to give it as teachers; and naturally a part of graduate study should have as its aim the acquiring of skills of communication and methods of work directly connected with teaching. Possession of a "higher" degree does not of itself make one a good teacher; this we know, or ought to since we have heard it often enough. Shall we then believe that working for a Ph.D. will of itself turn a student into a bad or indifferent teacher? This is surely nonsense. Holders of the Ph.D. should not flaunt their degree; but they need not hide it in a rarely-opened drawer along with their Phi Beta Kappa key and other honorific badges. After it is granted that one need not be a highly specialized scholar to be a useful and effective teacher, it need not be conceded that therefore specialization is a bad thing. Within the academic community the scholar must recognize his duty to teach as well as he possibly can; he must also be allowed the right to pursue his own intellectual interests, his work as a scholar viewed as an integral part of university life (not Life; merely a lower-case fragment thereof).

Our discipline, like all others within the academic world, needs a continuing flow of intelligent young men and women, who are well-read, well-trained, eager to contribute to our knowledge of all aspects of the world's musical culture. Within the field of musicology as such this flow should be steady; but it need not be large. Common sense will tell us that it never will be large; the same common sense might hint to us that it is already somewhat too big. We may be turning out more Ph.D.'s in musicology than are wanted to fill jobs entirely or even mainly in that field; we surely produce a good many Ph.D.'s who are only mildly, if at all, interested in pursuing a career of active scholarly research. I am not of course speaking of people whose interests and abilities are divided or varied, but of those whose attitude toward musical scholarship is, and is likely to remain, a passive one. Why do these students go through the tedious business of getting a Ph.D.? To get jobs, obviously—though less obviously at the moment of writing than it has been in the past. Why do we encourage them and nurse them along? To get them jobs and so continue the cycle, I suppose; cynical on our part, but idealistic compared to other possible motives such as keeping up the body count in our graduate departments.

A natural result is that we all from time to time deal with graduate students who are bored—perhaps with us, but fundamentally with themselves. Their situation is much like that of those undergraduates for whom the traditional B.A. is a four-year yawn. The two-year junior college, or a flexible time span replacing the fixed four-year course, has been proposed as an alternative for such undergraduates; and there is still the M.A. for graduate students. Unfortunately the junior college has not yet acquired prestige, and the M.A. has lost much if not most of its former importance.

Clearly there is need for at least one alternative program within the field of musicology, a program designed for men and women who want to teach without engaging in active scholarship. A good deal of thought is being given, and very properly so, to such programs now. But as for holders of the Ph.D. in musicology, it is my belief that we should be thinking about turning out not more but better ones—and hence, almost certainly, fewer. This would be feasible only if administrators in colleges and universities could somehow be brought to take the view that the Ph.D. is not a teacher's union card but instead the token of real achievement and high promise in scholarly pursuits.

To my mind there is no compelling need for great changes in the subject matter now included in Ph.D. programs in musicology. Candidates, as soon as they have given proof of their ability, should certainly be encouraged to work in fields of their choice, crossing the artificial boundaries between disciplines whenever this seems desirable, and including within their interests topics that to a previous generation might have seemed outré or even beyond the pale of academic propriety. And the continuous rethinking of the curriculum that should take place in every good department will doubtless result in changes of emphasis, even of material offered, in the next few years. But the content, aims, and methods of a scholarly discipline do not have to be totally overhauled every time it is proclaimed that "times have changed"; times are always changing, and academics, traditionally and perhaps wisely a bit behindhand, do change with them. The Apocalypse is not after all our only text.

Students who demonstrate strong interest and exceptional ability in the early years of graduate work should receive every sort of encouragement. They should start working on independent projects and developing a special field of interest as early as possible; if they are intelligent they will surely realize that their special interests can never be their exclusive concern as teachers. This special field should be cultivated in the writing of papers, should be emphasized in examinations, and should thus lead to an informed and sophisticated choice of dissertation topic at a point earlier in the student's graduate program than is now often the case.

Outside readers and perhaps examiners should be found for Ph.D. candidates—if not for all of them, then at least for a small "honors" group. I think it would be a good idea for a committee of AMS members to make an annual review of completed dissertations—again not all of them, but those submitted for review by individual departments. It would be splendid if special recognition, perhaps accompanied by a modest prize, could be awarded to the writers of, say, the three best dissertations of the year. Even more valuable would be a plan for publishing, under the aegis of the AMS, monographs drawn from dissertations judged outstanding. Some universities are doing this for their own students; but the practice is far from general.

A program for awarding research fellowships to young scholars just in possession of their degrees strikes me as a good idea. Promising young scholars could be hired to teach half-time, and at the same time to continue their research, perhaps sharing its results in an informal way with interested students around them. There is no good in the publish-or-perish system as applied indiscriminately, but young scholars who enjoy and are good at doing research should be encouraged early in their careers to combine research work with teaching, and thus to begin a natural sequence of writing and teaching in the first couple of years of their post-doctoral career.

All this concerns the hypothetical careers not of the many but of a comparative few. Obviously I am not proposing solutions for the many pressing problems faced by educators now. It would be irresponsible to try to minimize the importance of such problems. But surely there is still room for special recognition and encouragement of excellence in young scholars, with special allowance and support for the unhurried and unharried development of their gifts.

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