Looking at Master's Degrees
Philip M. Katz, March 2003
From the AHA Activities column of the March 2003 Perspectives
On February 1, 2003, the AHA launched its study of graduate education at the master's level, under the direction of a new Committee on Master's Degrees in History. The following historians have been appointed to the committee by the AHA Council:
Thomas Bender (New York Univ.)
Fritz Fischer (Univ. of Northern Colorado)
Patricia Mooney-Melvin (Loyola Univ. Chicago)
Colin Palmer (Princeton Univ.)
David Trask (Guilford Technical Community College)
Lee Palmer Wandel (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison)
Carlton Wilson (North Carolina Central Univ.)
Barbara Winslow (Brooklyn Coll., CUNY, School of Education)
These committee members represent the full range of institutions that train historians at the master's level. They bring to the project many years of professional engagement with the different varieties of master's degrees that students pursue: master's degrees that lead to the doctorate, master's degrees that prepare teachers for secondary-school classrooms, master's degrees for public historians and other practitioners, master's degrees that enrich a liberal arts education, and so on. Wandel and Trask will serve as cochairs.
The committee's work has just begun, so we do not have any original findings or recommendations to present as yet. But here are two pieces of older evidence that underscore the significance of the master's degree and the need for a closer look at this often-neglected degree. The first comes from John L. Snell, who served as research director of the AHA Committee on Graduate Education 40 years ago and then became dean of the graduate school at Tulane. In 1965, he wrote a brief essay on the state of the master's that remains perhaps the most trenchant analysis of the subject—and especially relevant for historians, given the particular attention he paid to his own discipline.* Reviewing a century of previous debates about the role of the master's degree in higher education, Snell pointed out:
Uncertainty or contention about the requirements of master's programs and differences of opinion about the function of the master's degree have been echoed since graduate study was successfully begun in the nineteenth century. The master's was up for discussion on several occasions within the Association of American Universities . [and the following] criticisms were among those aired: 1902: Should the master's be treated as a terminal degree or simply as a step toward the Ph.D.? 1910: (1) It is offered by many institutions that cannot be trusted to maintain high standards; (2) a thesis is not always required; (3) the degree is stronger in departments that do not concentrate on the Ph.D.; (4) it is mainly a degree for secondary teachers. . 1921: Comments on 'existing confusion' in master's programs. . 1935: More comments on 'evident confusion' about the master's degree..
Snell continued in this vein through his own time, when contemporaries were loudly debating the role of the master's degree as a teaching credential at both the secondary and college levels. All of these debates continue today, at a much quieter pitch, yet with more attention now being paid to issues of diversity, funding, and the utility of traditional academic master's degrees in nonacademic work settings. Historians need to play a larger role in this discussion.
Snell concluded, "The master's degree is not on the way out. The statistical evidence of burgeoning expansion makes this obvious." Part of the statistical evidence is presented in the table, which lists most of the earned degrees in history in the United States since 1950. (These numbers do not include some history of science degrees, some degrees in education that nonetheless have a strong history component, and many degrees granted by area studies programs or other interdisciplinary programs that might still be considered history degrees.) The rise, fall, and then gradual rise again of the master's degrees in history is striking. Even more striking is the fact that master's degrees always outnumber doctorates by a wide margin.
Unfortunately, the mute statistics say very little about the "divergencies in programs leading to the Master of Arts in the single discipline of history" that Snell noted in the 1960s and that persist today. Nor do they address the intellectual content of master's degree programs, or the multiple—and sometimes conflicting—goals of the students who seek the degrees and the history departments that offer them. The Committee on Master's Degrees in History will be exploring these questions in the months ahead. AHA members are encouraged to let us know what they think about master's education in the discipline, to share their experiences with exemplary programs, and to air their concerns about this vital degree.
—Philip M. Katz is research director for the Committee on Master's Degrees in History. He can be reached at Phil Katz.