In a dissertation proposal defense a few years ago, one of my colleagues declared to the nervous student, “Your paper sounds like a good Ed.D. but not a good Ph.D. You’re getting a philosophy degree [in the ancient sense of the word], so you need to make a contribution to theory.” First, I thought, “Do I agree that should be the purpose of a Ph.D. dissertation?” and second I wondered, “Has a Christian offered a theological analysis of the purpose of dissertation writing or even dissertation writing as a whole?”
So, I set out to find if anyone had written a theology of dissertation writing. This quest was much harder than I anticipated. Of course, there are hundreds of different writings defending a liberal arts education, and Christians have joined this chorus in their own unique way (my own view is here). However, Christians, unfortunately, have not always been leaders in American graduate education, so my expectations were low.
Typing this phrase into Google will return loads of web sites about how to write a theology dissertation, people or web sites offering to write your theology dissertation for you, and even some actual theology dissertations. Typing the phrase into Amazon will lead you to the same mish-mash of information with helpful titles such as Surviving Your Dissertation, The Dissertation Warrior, and more. A search of our library’s academic catalogue and Academic Search Complete produced nothing.
It is unclear if Christians have spent much time putting dissertation writing into a theological context for themselves or their students. As a Ph.D. student, I knew I needed to write a dissertation, but I did not engage in any theological reflection about the practice of dissertation writing itself. Not surprisingly, most books you will find about dissertations are “how to” books and not “why” books. Oddly, we do not reflect philosophically on writing a Ph.D.
Consequently, I realized I need to formulate my own theology statement about dissertation writing. I figured the first place to start would be to read about the history of dissertation writing (which surely someone has written). If I am to believe the Baylor University library, Amazon (and who doesn’t), as well as four professional history colleagues, there has been no history written about the history of the dissertation in English (Tal Howard from Valparaiso University found a resource in German). Looking in history of higher education books also proved futile (Thelin’s well-known history of higher education does not even have a listing for dissertation in the index, nor do any other of the most well-known histories of graduate education).
What we do know is that theses, or doctoral dissertations as they were later called, transformed over time. As Willem Frijhoff helpfully summarizes the history, “Originally, an erudite exercise on a topic or a text supplied by the master, the thesis gradually became the proof of the personal erudition, before being transformed in the nineteenth century into a veritable original summa of research.”1 In an e-mail, Tal Howard mentioned to me that many of these early theses were indeed erudite. One of the German scholars he has studied wrote a thesis of 13 pages in the late eighteenth century which he noted, “seems more of the norm.”
Both Frijhoff and Howard noted that the nineteenth century “research imperative,” originating with the Prussian universities, changed this norm and produced the book-length treatises that most dissertations are today.2 In this latter form, theses or dissertations often functioned in a manner opposite to what early Christian educators sought to accomplish. The early Cathedral School leaders wanted their students to demonstrate a wide-ranging wisdom that could take into account the whole of God’s creation. The university actually emerged out of the project to organize knowledge into its unique disciplines and the methods used for acquiring it in order to gain greater wisdom from God’s natural and special revelation. Part of the organization involved discovering particular theological/eternal and natural laws useful for organizing such knowledge. This general structure allowed for greater and greater theory building that takes the whole of God’s creation into account, including practical arts.3
The Prussian universities of the nineteenth century took a different focus. They wanted greater specialization in order to refine theory (and theory alone). When writing in the 1860s about these German universities, the American James Morgan Hart simply stated, “It contents itself with the theoretical, and leaves to other institutions the practical and the technical.”4 He identified the theoretical as “the principles of abstract truth.” Later Hart expanded:
To repeat, the university instruction of Germany does not attempt to train successful practical men, unless it be indirectly, by giving its students a profound insight into the principles of the science, and then turning them adrift to deduce the practice as well as they can from the carefully inculcated theory. (p. 577)
It was assumed that if students learned theory [“the principles of abstract truth”], they could then relate it easily to practical life. Anyone who has ever lived in a country governed by theory disconnected from practice knows the mess this approach creates.
Pragmatic American academics have made a place for practice-oriented doctoral degrees such as EdDs, DMins, etc. (especially since they are often paying customers). Nonetheless, the expectation that Ph.D.’s will wrestle with and produce theory remains. In certain ways, this persistence is odd. After all, belief that we can discover a system of “principles of abstract truth” no longer exists among many postmodernists. Yet, even radical social constructivists still produce Ph.D.’s and talk about theory as if something like critical race theory has the status of “the principles of abstract truth.”
For a Christian university, should we approach Ph.D. dissertation expectations differently? I would suggest that we need to build Christian theory and the broader wisdom associated with it but in a different way. The German approach started with and insists upon theory development in more Platonic ways. Yet, Christianity does not start with systematic theology and abstract ideals and move to practice. Instead, it starts with stories of a personal God, Christian belief and practice (individual and communal), parables, teachings of wisdom, prophetic utterances based on specific situations, sayings, and letters to specific churches. Christian academics, particularly in the Western Christian tradition, have then moved to system and wisdom building in theology and ethics.
Thus, I do wonder if we need to rethink the word “theory” or at least favor the word early Christian scholars preferred, “wisdom.” In Restoring the Soul of the University, I noted how Hugh of St. Victor saw wisdom as being found in the ultimate Perfect Good—the person of the Trinity. Consequently, Hugh spoke in relational terms about philosophy (i.e., wisdom), since it involved pursuing and getting to know a Being and not simply a system of abstract truths:
Philosophy, then, is the love and pursuit of Wisdom, and in a certain way, a friendship with it; not, however, of that ‘wisdom’ which is concerned with certain tools and with knowledge and skill in some craft, but of that Wisdom which, wanting in nothing, is a living Mind and the sole primordial Idea or Pattern of things. This love of Wisdom, moreover, is an illumination of the apprehending mind by that pure Wisdom and, in a certain way, a drawing and a calling back to itself of man’s mind, so that the pursuit of Wisdom appears like friendship with that Divinity…5
In other words, just as friendship involves getting to know the thoughts of another person and drawing closer to each other in the process, Hugh believed the study of philosophy (i.e., Wisdom) required developing an intellectual friendship with God. Only by getting to know God could one then begin to understand the causes of things and the “Pattern of things.” Indeed, this belief that through friendship with God one could understand the cause and pattern of all things in a systematic way, God’s ordering of the world, became instrumental in the building of the first universities.6
In this respect, a wisdom based approach to dissertation writing recovers something of the older, broader Christian approach to education. I have been frustrated by what I see in many dissertations—the tendency to be so specialized that one only thinks within one disciplinary framework. Christians should create interdisciplinary versus periscope advanced thinkers. Are we producing anything different than periscope dissertations that are so focused they miss broader ways of knowing and broader relevance?
Unfortunately, we are paying the price now with advanced specialists who cannot think outside their discipline (much less theologically or morally). During Covid, we have continually seen how medical professionals do not know how to talk to the public or consider human nature or cost-benefit analysis when making proposals. Thus, it is economists who have performed some of the best cost-benefit analysis.
Of course, Christians should not shy away from the more contemporary idea that we should pursue original, specialized wisdom in light of the explosion of knowledge. However, this wisdom does not need to be a set of abstract principles or impersonal theory discovered within rigid disciplinary boundaries using only one disciplinary frame or method. Rather, we should seek the personal pattern of God’s mind and truth that stretches beyond disciplinary silos. Then, we can better contribute to human wisdom about creation, the identification of particular ways to identify the fall, and developing forms of redemption or reversal of the fall. In other words, our dissertations should better contribute to human flourishing.
- Willem Frijhoff, “Graduation and Careers,” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. II; Universities in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, ed. Hilde De Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), 376.
- See Steven Turner, “The Prussian Professoriate and the Research Imperative, 1790-1840,” in Epistemological and Social Problems of the Sciences in the Early Nineteenth Century, eds. H.N. Jahnke and M. Otte (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1981), 109-21.
- Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
- James Morgan, “” in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, eds. Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith, vol. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), 572.
- Ibid., 48.
- The previous two paragraphs are taken from the first Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2017), 20-21.