Last year marked the 90th anniversary of the PhD in Britain. I must admit I was initially surprised at the modernity of the PhD. Having worked my way through the system from undergraduate to Masters to Doctorate it never really felt as if this qualification was a new innovation to a very old system. I could almost imagine scholars in the sixteenth-century receiving their PhD certificate at a ceremony not all that dissimilar to the one that I took part in over two years ago. Of course such imaginings were simply that: as an historian I can see quite clearly how wrong that belief is. Nevertheless, I had never given it that much thought before and so my mind simply imagined that the PhD was unduly ancient.
Of course the doctorate itself is not such a new idea although it was a lot less common in past centuries. As a term it was first used in the early Christian church as a qualification to teach (Doctorate deriving from the Latin doceo – i.e. I teach). Many centuries later (around the early thirteenth to be more precise) the training for a doctorate became entangled with the rise of universities across much of Europe.
I feel much the same surprise about the modern concept of an historical seminar. This was a German innovation borrowed from philology by Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century. The spread of historical seminars as a key aspect of the profession was accompanied by a greater emphasis on archival research and of course scientific methodology. Indeed, much of what we consider to be essential to the History profession today only stems back to the nineteenth-century.
Coincidentally 2011 also marked the 90th anniversary of the Institute of Historical Research. The IHR presently works under the umbrella organisation of the School of Advanced Study, which is itself part of the University of London. The fact that the IHR is over 90 years old is less of a surprise of course. From the Common room (a space provided for relaxed scholarly discussion) to the layout of the library, it has a feel of early twentieth century ideals to it. At least it did until last year when we temporarily moved out for a 2 year refit. The new IHR, I’m sure, will be an agreeable mix of the old ideals and the new.
For those of you who do not know much about the history of the IHR here’s a brief summary: The IHR was founded in 1921 by A. F. Pollard as a meeting place for researchers from across the world. Initially based in pre-fabricated huts along Malet Street, the IHR was set up to promote the study of history and provide support and leadership to the historical community. From its early days it was home to both research seminars and research training (for postgraduates and academics) both of which remain core activities of the institute.
I think what interests me most about these ramblings above is how little thought I had previously put into the history of my own education. In my studies of scholars in sixteenth century England I was of course very aware of the differences in approach and methodology. This was a period when scholastic training was beginning to decline (although it was still taught in Oxford and Cambridge long after its rejection by various scholars of the period) and it was a time of renewal and re-interpretation of long held beliefs and knowledge systems through the methodology of humanism. But it was there that my knowledge and interest had stopped. I had thought very little about the actual education that these scholars had received or the processes and qualifications that formed the basis for their world.
Last year’s The History PhD: Past, Present, and Future conference provided an opportunity to pause for a moment and recall the heritage of one element of higher education. The availability of the conference talks now one year on in the form of podcasts certainly provides food for thought!
To view the podcasts please visit History SPOT: The History PhD: Past, Present and Future