Doctoral Education

By Steven M. Cahn

Many years ago, when my late friend James Rachels and I were assistant professors at New York University, we used to discuss all aspects of departmental life. Among our musings was the speculation that our colleagues vastly overestimated how much graduate students knew about philosophical literature. Therefore, as an experiment, we drew up a list of fifty famous books, most in the history of philosophy but a few in contemporary philosophy, and asked our students to name the authors. The results confirmed our fears.The highest score any student achieved was in the thirties, most couldn’t identify even half the books, and a few knew barely ten. Meanwhile, our colleagues proceeded as if the students were highly knowledgable.

I believe that those responsible for doctoral education continue to overestimate how much graduate students know about basic philosophical texts and issues. That assumption is comfortable, because it absolves the faculty from ensuring that students possess fundamental information about the field.

Let me pose a few questions for consideration:

  1. When your department awards a student a doctoral degree, do you believe that the student should be able to explain such fundamental matters as the differences between rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge, materialist and dualist theories of mind, deontological and consequentialist theories of ethics, and deductive and inductive arguments?
  2. When your department awards a student a doctoral degree, do you believe that the student should have familiarity with writings of such towering figures as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, and Kant?
  3. Assuming the answers to 1. and 2. are “yes,” does your department require core courses or comprehensive examinations to ensure that students possess such knowledge?
  4.  If not, are you concerned about recommending for faculty positions those who have mastered a specialty but nevertheless lack essential knowledge about the most crucial philosophical issues and the most influential philosophical thinkers?
  5. If your department does not have required core courses or comprehensive examinations, do you at least provide students with annotated reading lists to guide them in acquiring fundamental knowledge?

In the absence of such safeguards, students are apt to reveal their ignorance at unfortunate times, including classroom presentations, doctoral defenses, job interviews, and professional talks. For example, I once taught a doctoral course in which a well-regarded graduate student offered a brief talk defending the compatibility of freedom and determinism. He indicated that he had embraced this position only after reading a recent journal article defending the view. When I asked whether he was familiar with anyone in the history of philosophy who had supported compatibilism, he expressed surprise that the position was not newly discovered. When I referred him to Hume’s arguments, the student responded that he was unfamiliar with them. In fact, he admitted that had never read anything by Hume.

I was not entirely surprised because years before, our department, seeking to become more professionally competitive, had eliminated all core courses and replaced comprehensive examinations with research papers. This student was a victim of that curricular change.

Thus I urge departments to ask themselves: Do we have in place a system that would save students from falling prey to such a lack of essential information?


Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Teaching Philosophy: A Guide, to be published in 2018 by Routledge.


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