Published Date

January 1, 1962

From The Education of Historians in the United States (1962)

For about 3 out of 10 college-level teachers of history the master’s is the highest degree. In the late 1950s, amidst growing anxieties about the teacher shortage, several proposals were advanced for the creation of special master’s degree programs for college teachers. These proposals won quick support from critics of traditional Ph.D. training. The present and the future of master’s training in history is thus of great concern to all those who appoint college teachers of history, and its future has a direct bearing upon the consideration of proposals to reform Ph.D. training.

The prevalence of master’s training must be considered in any contemplation of the present condition and prospects of the degree. Awarded by all the institutions that are engaged in Ph.D. training in history, the master’s is for most Ph.D.s a part of doctoral training. One-fourth (26%) of the Ph.D.-training history departments require students who aspire to the doctorate to take the master’s degree; only 7% discourage them from taking the master’s or are indifferent about it. A survey of 143 recent history Ph.D.s has shown that 98% earned the master’s degree; 86% of them earned it in history.1 In addition to the eighty-odd Ph.D.-training history departments, more than 100 others offer the degree in history. A total of 196 institutions in the nation awarded the master’s degree in history in 1959, many more than in any of the social sciences. (Sociology, with 115 in 1958, was the nearest “rival.”) In our sample of four-year colleges, one-fifth of the “typical” institutions offer the master’s degree in history. Half the better ones do so. The number of master’s programs is likely to grow, for 11% of the “typical” colleges and 8% of the better ones report that they are considering inaugurating them.

The number of persons earning the master’s in history has increased each year since 1956; 1,643 master’s degrees in history were awarded in 1959 (see Table 2-5 in Chapter 2). Production has developed in recent years in comparison with the 1956 level as follows: 1957, 113%; 1958, 125%; and 1959, 147%.2 The Ph.D.-training universities awarded two-thirds (67%) of all the master’s degrees in history in the nation in 1958, averaging 12 master’s graduates each. Three institutions awarded more than 40 and the largest producer-Columbia University-awarded 87 degrees, 1 out of every 16 in the nation. On the other hand, more than one-fourth of all institutions awarding master’s degrees in history in 1958 awarded no more than two degrees each.3

How is master’s training now conducted? What alternatives to it have been proposed?4 To find out about these matters, questionnaires on master’s training were collected from 164 institutions. Together, these institutions awarded four-fifths of all the master’s degrees in history in the nation in 1958. They include 77 departments of history and 87 departments in colleges that award the master’s degree in history.


Admission, Screening, and Basic Requirements

“At present, requirements for the A.M. vary sharply over the country and as the requirements vary, so does the respect paid the degree.”5 These words from the 1957 report of four graduate deans succinctly summarize the present training of historians at the master’s level.

Variations begin with admission of students. Some institutions take almost all applicants who have had undergraduate academic records of at least average quality (C or better). At the same time, students in obscure colleges with almost “straight-A” records find it difficult to gain admission to major centers of graduate study. In a number of the Ph.D.-training history departments visited during this study, lower standards are set for master’s candidates than for post-M.A. students. This happens especially in the state universities, which feel obligated to serve secondary education. Partly because many of the history Ph.D.s of 1958 assume this double standard, a majority of them report that admission of master’s candidates was “sufficiently rigorous” in the departments where they took Ph.D. training.

Two-fifths (41%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s (and 57% of the graduates of the seven programs highest in prestige) state that “some too many” or “far too many” master’s candidates were in residence at their universities “for adequate faculty attention to them.” Screening of students generally lacks rigor during the first year of graduate study. Even in such a difficult field as Russian studies, three-fifths of the entering students in five universities, 1946-1956, were awarded master’s degrees, and in three of these universities four-fifths or more of the entrants were awarded degrees.6

If too few students are now sent away during the first year of graduate study, perhaps the fault lies with faculty grading rather than with departmental policy. For 88% of the Ph.D.-training departments and 85% of the colleges that offer the master’s in history already require a minimum grade level of B for successful completion of the master’s degree. Standards seem to be slightly less rigorous in the East than elsewhere; only 69% of the Eastern colleges granting master’s degrees in history report that they require a minimum grade level of B.

Though forms differ, requirements of credit hours are, in substance, the most uniform of all stipulations for the master’s degree. Most departments either require 30 semester hours including 6 hours credit for thesis or 24 hours plus a thesis for which no hour-credit is given. Residence requirements vary but a full academic year or its equivalent in summer terms is stipulated by about four-fifths of the institutions that offer the master’s degree in history. There is much more variation in the more significant requirements for the master’s degree.

The Master’s Thesis

About three-fourths of all the colleges and universities in our sample still require a thesis for the master’s degree in history (see Table 5-1). It is optional in many other departments. Some of the Ph.D.-training faculties that do not require the thesis of all master’s candidates nevertheless demand it of those who aspire to the Ph.D. They insist that students need the thesis experience and that the faculty needs the thesis as proof of ability to do Ph.D.-level work. Other departments explicitly discourage the writing of master’s theses by would-be Ph.D. candidates. They argue either (1) that the prerequisite experience for doctoral work and the demonstration of ability can both be accomplished in a year of seminar work by master’s candidates, or (2) that they can be accomplished during studies at the Ph.D. level. Among the historians interviewed in this study, those who either wish or are willing to eliminate the master’s thesis for Ph.D. candidates are somewhat more numerous than the defenders of the thesis requirement.

Table 5-1. Thesis Requirements in Colleges and Universities Offering the Master's Degree in History

% of 87 reporting colleges% of 77 reporting universities
Thesis is required77627794767583885080
Thesis on a foreign area must be based on sources in Ianguage of the area72905962756973655782


How much would be lost if the master’s thesis were to be abandoned? How serious a scholarly effort do master’s theses represent where they are now written? Ideally the thesis should be a “historical work that is exemplary in style and method, based solidly on original sources and interpretatively significant in current scholarship.” This is the kind of thesis that Loyola University (Chicago) described in 1959 in announcing the inauguration of the William P. Lyons Master’s Essay Award. The Lyons Award offers tangible evidence of the serious belief in some quarters that much would be lost if the master’s thesis were to be abandoned.

Both the prestige of the thesis and its training value may be approximately gauged by the amount of faculty time and criticism that is given to the project. One index of faculty effort is suggested by the way in which thesis subjects are chosen. Usually agreement between the student and a major professor is sufficient; only 8% of the Ph.D.-training departments require the deliberation of a faculty committee. The ratio of faculty members to master’s graduates is also suggestive. In 1958 the Ph.D.-training universities awarded an average of 7 master’s degrees in history for every 10 history faculty members. The colleges on an average awarded between 4 and 5 master’s degrees for every 10 members of the history faculty. Thus the college faculties may be able to give more time to the supervision of master’s theses than university faculties do.

Still another way to estimate the faculty effort that a master’s thesis represents is to ask how many professors must read and pass on a thesis. In more than half (54%) of the Ph.D.-training departments the answer is three or more faculty members. Two readers suffice in one-third of the departments. In 1 out of 8 (12%) a single reader is sufficient. Where a committee is consulted, the timing is significant. In at least 36% of the Ph.D.-training departments the opinions of second, third, or fourth readers are solicited before the student completes a full draft of the thesis. But in at least 45% of the departments the committee members read and pass on the thesis after a complete draft has been written by the master’s candidate.

The length of master’s theses is not a good test of scholarly quality but it is crudely suggestive of the size of the task. Each department that was surveyed was asked to list the length and titles of three “typical theses accepted since 1956.” The lengths of the 267 theses reported range from a low of 56 to a high of 358 pages; 231% are shorter than 100 pages and another 23% are longer than 160 pages. Three-fourths of the theses are less than 160 pages long. It is often difficult to imagine why one topic is treated briefly and another at length. Why should “Horace Maynard: A Tennessee Statesman” get only 56 pages while “Richard Bennett Hubbard, ‘The Demosthenes of Texas'” is worth twice as many? But judging by the length of typical theses it seems quite clear that they represent a large investment of time, energy, and money.

Thesis research for would-be Ph.D. candidates in the history of foreign areas can have a special value if it accustoms them to using foreign language sources. A large majority of the reporting departments in the colleges as well as in the universities agree that students should be allowed to write theses on foreign areas only when they are able (and willing) to use the languages of the subject areas, and exceptions are discouraged even in those departments that allow them.

Other Variations

The varieties of thesis and other requirements reflect a fundamental and prevalent uncertainty and disagreement about the purpose of training at the master’s level. In twentieth-century America the old European concept of the master’s degree as evidence of broad cultural experience has been challenged and modified-some would say corrupted-by attempts to introduce students to the more confining rigors of professional research training. Because of internal differences of opinion, most graduate faculties build both concepts into their rules, often allowing considerable room for flexible interpretation of the regulations. On a smaller scale this happens within a single department: one faculty member aims primarily at the one goal while a colleague seeks the other.

The position of foreign language examinations among requirements for the master’s degree is ambiguous. The requirement is sometimes justified on the grounds that it fosters intellectual breadth. Other departments require reading knowledge of a foreign language as a research tool though they may not think its worth as a cultural attribute justifies the price students pay to achieve it. Among both colleges and universities, considered on a regional basis, master’s candidates are least often required to pass a foreign language examination in the Midwest. In the nation as a whole almost half the colleges (47%) and universities (48%) require master’s candidates to pass an examination in one foreign language.

Potentially the requirement that master’s candidates in history take courses in other disciplines is, like the foreign language requirement, adaptable to the needs of either research training or cultural breadth. In practice, however, cultural breadth is the usual justification for this requirement, and it is often linked with the pragmatic argument that students as future teachers must be prepared to give instruction in fields related to history. Yet there is little agreement about requiring work in other disciplines or about the specific nature or purposes of such work. Compromise is inevitable, and it is most often found in the formula that study in other fields shall be “encouraged”; that is, it shall be neither “required” nor “discouraged.” In our combined sample of colleges and universities, minorities of almost equal numbers “require” courses in other disciplines (25%) or “discourage” students from taking them (21%). Departments in each of these groups have, though in different directions, taken large steps toward resolving internal differences and defining their purposes; many of the remaining 54% that “encourage” study in other disciplines have not. The students in many of these departments are left to make their own rule.

A majority of students at the master’s level, left to their own devices, seem to choose courses of least resistance rather than avidly to seek either of the goals-research prowess or cultural breadth-that might logically justify study in another discipline. They tend to study neither the strange and often difficult methodology of other disciplines that could enrich their research method nor the new content courses that could most broaden their conceptualization of history and their capacity for teaching it. Literature, political science, and economics (especially economic history), the same disciplines most often studied as minors by undergraduate history majors, are the ones most often elected as minors at the master’s level. The very circumstance that should cause master’s candidates to take work in a relatively neglected discipline such as psychology usually causes or rationalizes their failure to do so: undergraduate prerequisites for graduate courses have not been taken.

One way out of this dilemma is to permit master’s candidates to fulfill requirements in another discipline by taking undergraduate survey courses for graduate credit. Perhaps even if this is done-and almost certainly if it is not done-history students who study other disciplines will continue to elect courses most like their own. And unless the faculties clarify their thinking on these matters history students who take courses in other disciplines will take widely varying amounts of work. At present 51% of the university departments that report any requirement of work in other disci­plines require only one or two courses; one-fourth require three courses and another fourth require four or more courses.

The variety of practices that has been noted at every stage of master’s training appears also in the final testing procedure. Some departments-apparently as many as 15 to 20%-require neither a written nor an oral terminal examination. A few (perhaps 4%) require one or the other of each student (presumably letting him choose between trial by fire and trial by water). A larger number of the departments-almost 20% of those requiring a terminal examination-specify that the examination is to be written; somewhat more (approximately 30%) require both a written and an oral examination; and still more about half-administer an oral examination only.

The oral examination is required (singly or with a written examination) in about four-fifths of all departments that administer any terminal examination. The oral examination is most often required in the Midwest, least often in the East. In almost two-thirds of the universities but in only 43% of the colleges requiring an oral examination the candidate usually is questioned an hour and a half or longer. Commonly a committee of three examines the candidate. In 46% of the colleges (but in only 16% of the universities) four or more examiners participate, and it is in the South that examining committees are most often this large. The oral examination in almost half the colleges and universities that require it covers course work or fields taken in master’s training as well as a defense of the thesis. One out of five demands defense of the thesis and restricts the content examination to the field of the thesis. One-third of the institutions cover courses or fields but demand no defense of the thesis. (Many-probably most-of these institutions do not require students to write theses.)

When the master’s candidate has paid his typist (if there was one) and has been congratulated by his oral examination committee (when one has functioned) he may count the months he has invested in the degree. The sums of time, like the other characteristics of master’s training, differ greatly from institution to institution. One thing is certain: the “typical” master’s candidate needs much more than the advertised period of one academic year to complete the degree. Reports were received from our sample of colleges on the length of graduate study required for 182 persons earning master’s degrees in history in 1958. In these cases there can be no uncertainty whether the time was spent in master’s or doctoral training because none of the reporting institutions offered the Ph.D. The average (mean) period reported was 18 months-two academic years or one and a half calendar years. For one-third (34%) of the national sample of 1958 master’s degree winners the degree was based upon more than 18 months of graduate study; only 15% completed the degree in 9 months of study.7

This survey of master’s training shows that it is futile to talk of what the master’s degree in history is like. There is no such identifiable thing. There are, instead, dozens of different varieties of master’s degrees in history with varying combinations of some or all of the ingredients sketched above. In many institutions the master’s is a strong degree. In others it is weak.

One must carefully distinguish between colleges and universities in discussing master’s training, but on the surface the college master’s appears to be as strong as the university master’s (see Table 5-2). The regional strengths and weaknesses of master’s training in history are also worth noting. It is current fashion in discussions of the master’s degree to point to some regions as the guardians of its purity and to the East as its defiler. Whatever may be true of other disciplines, in history it is insufficient to say that the master’s degree has been weakened only in the East, or “east of the Hudson.” Among the universities, those in the South give on the whole a strong master’s degree and those in the Midwest give weaker ones. Among the colleges, those in the Midwest give a strong degree, closely followed by the West. The institutions of the East, which on the whole do give a relatively weak master’s degree, nevertheless maintain notably high standards of foreign-language competence.

Table 5-2. Relative Strengths of Master's Training in 77 Universities and 87 Colleges, 1958–1959

% of Institutions reporting
B average required8885
Thesis required7577
Theses more than 100 pp. in length6577
Theses on foreign areas required to be based on sources in foreign languages6972
Foreign language examination required4847
Courses in other disciplines required2723
Oral examination required6976
Oral examination of l½ hours or more6343
More than 3 faculty members for final oral examination1646
Thesis and more than thesis field covered on oral examination4841


It must be emphasized that this account has been concerned with the master’s degree in history-usually reported by departments as a “master of arts” degree, but occasionally reported as a “master of science” degree. This account does not cover the master’s degree in social science, a degree that often allows concentration in history and that was awarded by 81 institutions in 1958.8 It does not cover the master’s degree in Education, which sometimes involves concentration in history (more commonly, in social science) ; nor has it covered the “master of arts in teaching” degree (M.A.T.), which a few universities have inaugurated for secondary school teachers and which allows concentration in history. There has been sufficient variety of practice observable in limiting discussion to master’s training in history. There is variety also in the uses to which this training is put.

The Uses of the Master’s Degree

Theoretically, standardization of training might be the first step toward standardization of use, and most advocates of reform approach the problem in this way. But in practice the chances are probably even greater that standardization of use will lead to greater uniformity of training. Is the master’s degree in history to be offered primarily for secondary teachers of social studies? A clear decision for this alternative would in some institutions call for standardization downward. It would necessitate relatively lax admission standards, the training of very large numbers of students, less rigorous and less individualistic student work, emphasis upon breadth more than upon research training, and in most cases the completion of the master’s program in one calendar year at most. Is the master’s degree to be offered not for secondary teachers but for college teachers? A clear decision for this alternative would quite generally necessitate standardization upward. The task in this case would be not so much to “rehabilitate” the master’s degree as to create a new variety of M.A.

Since the colleges want their teachers to be broadly educated, trained as research scholars, and acquainted with the problems of teaching, it will not do to offer them the master’s degree of forty or sixty years ago. A master’s degree deliberately designed to meet the needs of college teachers must be a junior Ph.D. if it is to be attempted at all. Since fewer candidates would want it than would want a master’s for secondary teachers, fairly high admission standards for such a degree could be established, training could be reasonably individualistic and rigorous, and considerable emphasis could be placed on research training if not on creative scholarship. All this plus the achievement of breadth and possibly some supervised introduction to college teaching would make it difficult to compress the training period into less than two academic years, and part-time students might require three academic years.

Faculties will be more inclined to build programs for a supermaster’s if they are reasonably certain that the colleges will appoint and promote persons who might earn it. Can they be “reasonably certain” now? Chapter 4 of this study has shown that a good many teachers of history in colleges and very many in junior colleges lack the Ph.D. degree; but this does not mean that they have only the master’s degree. Most of them have engaged in postmaster’s study and many have completed all requirements for the doctorate except the dissertation. Their presence on college faculties cannot be accepted as evidence of general demand in the colleges for persons with only a master’s degree.

In an attempt to determine the present uses of the master’s degree, departments of history in the fall of 1958 were asked to report on the professional activities of persons to whom they had awarded the master’s degree in history that year. This yielded reports on 544 persons, 39% of all 1,397 master’s degrees in history awarded in the nation in 1958. Almost two-thirds of the new master’s graduates were pursuing doctoral studies. Those who earned university master’s degrees much more frequently pursued doctoral studies than did those who earned college master’s degrees (74% and 43%). The next most common professional function of master’s training in history is to further the qualifications of secondary school teachers: 12% of the university master’s graduates and 25% of the college master’s graduates found positions in secondary education. Almost half (45%) of those in the total sample who did not undertake doctoral studies found teaching positions in secondary education and about 3% more entered elementary education. Only 2% of the history master’s graduates of 1958 are reported to have found college teaching positions, and only 4% more were appointed to junior college faculties. Whatever the future may hold, few persons with only the master’s degree in history are now appointed to college teaching positions.

Proposed Reforms: For Secondary School Teachers

History departments have an obligation to the schools that they cannot ignore, especially since Soviet as well as American educators are working toward a fifth year of study for secondary school teachers and calling for more emphasis on “solid subject matter content.”9 If the traditional master’s degree is to be refurbished for college teachers something must be put in its place for secondary teachers. The substitute must be acceptable to both the secondary schools and the history faculties in colleges and universities. In devising the substitute it will be both pedagogically and strategically wise to recognize the good sense in admonitions by W. H. Cartwright and R. M. Lumiansky that “the whole university rather than any special department or division”-the administration and the academic departments as well as the professors of Education-“must enter actively and cooperatively into the program.”10

Several colleges and universities-among them Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan University, Brown, Colgate, Mount Holyoke, the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Tulane-have inaugurated the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) for secondary teachers. This degree has at least the advantage of clearly defined function. One institution that awards only the M.A.T. as a graduate degree speaks for others in reporting that graduates are placed in “all types of secondary and elementary teaching positions or administrative posts in these levels.” Few, if any, M.A.T.s go on to doctoral studies. Graduates are not appointed to college or junior college positions. But if the professional use of the M.A.T. is clearly defined, its requirements already vary somewhat from institution to institution. The M.A.T. commonly requires more hours of course work than the older master’s degree, divides them between the subject-matter field and Education, requires no foreign language examination, and sometimes requires no terminal examination. It can be completed in nine to twelve months.

With the M.A.T. available, is there any compelling reason why Ph.D.-training departments should continue to offer the traditional master’s degree in history for secondary teachers? How serious a loss would the secondary schools suffer if the master’s degree in history were no longer offered for their teachers? There is no way to know exactly the number or percentage of the new master’s-level secondary school teachers of a given year that earn the master’s degree in history. We can estimate that at most about 1 out of 6 new master’s-level teachers of history in the secondary schools in 1958 could have earned the master’s degree in history.11 Since only about half of these earned their degrees in universities, the universities could have provided no more-at the very most-than 1 out of 12 persons who make up the pool of new, master’s-level history teachers in secondary schools in a given year. It seems probable that secondary education would suffer no irreparable quantitative damage if the Ph.D.-training history departments should cease offering the master’s in history for secondary teachers.

How much of a loss would Ph.D.-training departments suffer if they were no longer to offer the master’s degree in history for secondary school teachers? For some institutions the loss would be a very considerable one, especially in summer school enrollments; but already two-thirds of the Ph.D.-training and college history departments (65% in the former and 69% in the latter) report that secondary teachers in their institutions tend to seek the master’s degree in Education or the M.A.T. rather than the master’s degree in history. The colleges and the universities agree that they make their choice chiefly because Education offers a quicker or easier degree, though in some institutions students also choose Education to meet state certification requirements for teachers. This tendency of secondary teachers to shy away from the master’s in history enables many of the history departments to maintain higher standards for the master’s degree in history than would be possible if they tried to educate large numbers of prospective secondary school teachers.

Some history departments strongly oppose abandoning the master’s degree in history for secondary teachers on the grounds that secondary teachers need to gain research training by writing theses. But very many secondary teachers who earn the master’s degree manage to do so without writing theses. (Many of the larger history departments offer a choice of degree programs; master’s candidates may choose one with or one without the thesis requirement.) The strongest argument against the M.A.T. for history teachers is that it would provide them with fewer content courses than the present master’s degree in history. To this complaint advocates of the M.A.T. reply that the new degree offers a way through which some secondary teachers now taking the M.Ed.-and completely lost to historians-might be at least half-saved by the graduate history faculties.

Would students be attracted in large numbers to M.A.T. programs for secondary school teachers? Factors that lie outside the program would determine this, and the basic factor would probably be the prevailing salaries for secondary school teachers.12 Money can do more than experimentation with master’s curricula to staff the secondary school history courses with competent teachers during the 1960s.

Proposed Reforms: For College Teachers

Perhaps a few Ph.D.-training history departments will wish to reform master’s training by incidentally awarding the M.A. degree to Ph.D. candidates upon the completion of all requirements for the Ph.D. except the dissertation. This is already being done by Princeton University. No candidate who wants only the master’s degree is admitted to graduate study in history at Princeton. Yet by conferring the master’s degree only upon students who have completed two to three years of graduate study and who are expected to be able to complete the Ph.D., Princeton has in actuality created a super-master’s degree of the kind that has figured in a good many theoretical statements in recent years.

Widespread adoption of the Princeton plan would provide qualified college teachers of history, but if Princeton standards were maintained it would not provide college teachers in greatly larger numbers than can be awarded Ph.D.s. Various plans have been suggested for a master’s degree that would prepare larger numbers of college teachers. The Committee on Policies in Graduate Education of the Association of Graduate Schools (AGS) in 1957 proposed a “rehabilitated” year-and-a-half master’s program for college teachers that would not necessarily be terminal. “The first year should be exactly like that of the candidate for the Ph.D., since the difference between the degrees should pivot on amount and not on quality. In the third term (the first of the second year), each candidate should take a course directly concerned with the teaching of this subject. This course should be taught only by members of the student’s department. … In this same term the student would write an essay of 75 to 125 pages, preferably stemming from his seminar of the second term, which need not be the original contribution demanded of the Ph.D. Finally, the student’s subject should be named on the Master’s diploma.”13

Similar proposals quickly followed. On November 20, 1957, the Trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching cited the AGS report of the four graduate deans and, without providing details, called for “a rigorous effort … to revitalize the Master of Arts degree and make it a terminal degree for teaching.”14 A. P. Brogan, dean emeritus of the University of Texas graduate school, in the spring of 1958 proposed a master’s degree for college teachers that would be completed in twelve months of study in “strictly graduate courses” with emphasis on “seminars and conference work.” The Brogan master’s would include some introduction to “the methods and the problems of teaching” and a thesis usually less than 100 pages in length, viewed as a training experience but “suitable for publication at least in form.”15

The year 1959 brought other proposals. In February the dean of a West Coast graduate school, supported by the historian then president of the university, suggested the creation of a new degree, the “diplomate in college teaching.” This proposed program would identify potential college teachers and begin their preparation in the junior year of undergraduate study. It would continue for three full academic years and two or three summers. Taking required courses would be minimized and the program would “maximize reliance on self-study, research, conferences, discussions, and creative scholarly achievements.”16 Later in 1959 the principle of beginning the training of college teachers in the junior year of undergraduate study was incorporated in a new proposal by Oliver C. Carmichael, consultant to the Fund for the Advancement of Education and former president of the University of Alabama. The program would involve: (1) selection and advice of students during the first two undergraduate years; (2) teaching of one course (one term) by undergraduates; (3) much more reading and writing of research papers during the junior and senior years than is now common; and (4) a master’s thesis. The master’s thus earned would not necessarily be a terminal degree; on the contrary, the author of this plan suggests that one of its advantages would be “in recruiting Ph.D. candidates,” and another would be its acceleration of doctoral training.17

Unless the policies of both the colleges and the accrediting associations are changed there will be few jobs for college history teachers with master’s degrees representing twelve to eighteen months of graduate study. Officials of all six regional accrediting associations, responding to specific questions, show no sympathy for a one-year master’s degree. A two- or three-year master’s degree such as that awarded at Princeton will be honored much more readily.18 But the accrediting officials make it clear that the Ph.D. is the preferred degree for college teachers. One states that “in general staff members who have two years of graduate study are regarded as better qualified than those who hold only the master’s degree,” but adds that “a two-years’ master’s degree for college teachers is not to be weighted as satisfactory for a large number of college teachers.” One accrediting agency official even wrote that: “A Doctor’s degree is accepted as such whether it be a Ph.D. or an Ed.D., a research or a teaching doctorate.” While this may be an extreme view, it is clear that it is the doctorate that counts most when a faculty is evaluated by the regional accrediting agency; and there is some reason to believe that the college executives are as prone to demand the doctorate of their faculty members as are the officials of the accrediting agencies.19

These circumstances suggest that reservations about any immediate attempt to “rehabilitate” the master’s degree in history are in order. Other, graver, questions will occur to many history faculties. It is difficult to see how the kind of historians the colleges want as instructors can be trained in twelve to eighteen months of graduate study. Even allowing for greater articulation of undergraduate and graduate study, a one-year master’s degree in history would represent a less demanding program than present master’s training affords in many universities and colleges.


The master’s in history in a majority of institutions involves: (1) relatively undiscriminating admission of candidates; (2) a very low casualty rate during the first year of graduate study; (3) requirement of B-average grades; (4) 30 semester hours of study; (5) an academic year or its equivalent in formal residence requirement, but eighteen months in actual practice; (6) a thesis of 100 to 160 pages in length; (7) use of foreign languages in master’s theses that treat foreign areas; (8) some study in disciplines closely related to history; and (9) a one-and-a-half- to two-hour oral examination by a committee of three faculty members covering fields and courses plus the thesis (if a thesis is required). Three percentage points make it impossible to say that this model of master’s training in history involves an examination in a foreign language, for only about 47.5% of the respondents report this as a requirement.

Disagreement about the character and professional function of master’s training is deeply rooted in the development of education in America. Only the metaphor was new when a graduate dean recently described the master’s degree as “a bit like a streetwalker -all things to all men (and at different prices).”20 Berelson has shown that as early as 1902 the Association of American Universities debated whether the master’s was a terminal degree or a signpost en route to the Ph.D. In 1910 the AAU heard a report that the thesis requirement was far from universal; that the degree was partly cultural, partly research-oriented, and mainly of professional use to secondary teachers. Dissatisfaction through the years has produced several proposals that the degree be strengthened. But Berelson is probably right in his conclusion: the master’s “carries its weight in the academic procession, but it cannot carry a great deal more.”21

Whatever it has been in the past or may be in the future, the master’s degree in history is now primarily a signpost en route to the doctorate. Whether viewed in this light or as a degree for secondary teachers, it appears that the period of study it requires in most institutions-the average period is eighteen months-is too long. If it is not to be used as a degree for college teachers, a way should be found to make it possible to complete the degree in twelve months without seriously lowering standards. This can be done if quality rather than quantity of work is the test of student excellence. Much more rigorous selection of students, careful and early screening of those who are admitted, and financial support for full-time study offer hopes for success.

Among the requirements for the degree the thesis is most often the cause of delayed progress. Two terms of seminar work should certainly be required of first-year graduate students, and many history departments accept satisfactory work in seminars in lieu of the thesis. Departments that continue to require it can restrict the scope and length of theses. More adequate faculty guidance at the beginning of graduate study can also help avoid unduly long master’s programs.

It is impossible to imagine the general adoption of a uniform program for the master’s degree in history that would adequately prepare college teachers, though some departments might wish to award the master’s to Ph.D. candidates when they pass the general examination for the doctorate.

In any case it is to be hoped that revised master’s programs will not prolong doctoral studies. For the education of Ph.D.s is the most challenging task in graduate education and the one most in the interest of history instruction in the colleges during the 1960s.

Next section: Ph.D.-Training Institutions


  1. Data supplied by Dr. John K. Folger of the Southern Regional Education Board. []
  2. HEW, Earned Degrees … 1956-1957, 12; 1957-1958, 23, 37; and 1958-1959,30-31,35. []
  3. Production statistics are taken or averaged from HEW, Earned Degrees … 1957-1958, 182-187. []
  4. Berelson, Graduate Education, 185-190, shows that large numbers of academicians favor “rehabilitation” of the master’s degree. []
  5. Report by J. Barzun and others to the 58th Annual Conference of the Association of American Universities and the 9th Annual Conference of the Association of Graduate Schools, October 22-23, 1957, published in Journal of Proceedings and Addresses-1957. []
  6. Black and Thompson (eds.), American Teaching About Russia, 61. []
  7. Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Report for 1959, 7, shows that only 23% of the Fellows of 1958-1959 had been awarded the master’s degree at the end of one year of graduate study. []
  8. HEW, Earned Degrees … 1957-1958, 23, 37. []
  9. On American approaches see, e.g., the following thoughtful articles in the April, 1959, number of Educational Record (XL): William H. Cartwright, “The Graduate Education of Teachers-Proposals for the Future,” 149, 150; Calvin E. Gross, “A Rationale for Teacher Education,” 137, 141; R. M. Lumiansky, “Concerning Graduate Education for Teachers,” 145. On Soviet trends see U.S. Office of Education, Soviet Commitment to Education: Report of the First Official U.S. Education Mission to the U.S.S.R., with an Analysis of Recent Educational Reforms (Washington, 1959), 85. []
  10. Cartwright, “The Graduate Education of Teachers,” 154; Lumiansky, “Concerning Graduate Education for Teachers,” 145. []
  11. This assumes that the number of would-be secondary school teachers of history earning master’s degrees in 1958 was at least 1,480. Probably about 237 persons who were awarded the master’s degree in history in 1958 went into secondary teaching. []
  12. See Ernest Stabler, “The Master of Arts in Teaching Idea,” The Educational Record, XLI (July, 1960), 224-229. It may be noted in passing that in the U.S.S.R., where salaries for secondary teachers compare favorably with those for medical doctors, there is no shortage of candidates. On the contrary, only about 1 out of 5 applicants are admitted to teacher-training institutions, according to the U.S. Office of Education, Soviet Commitment to Education, 85. []
  13. See footnote 5, above. []
  14. Grayson L. Kirk and others, “The Education of College Teachers,” 13, 18. []
  15. A. P. Brogan, “Tarnishing is an Autocatalytic Reaction: Restoring the Master’s Degree,” The Graduate Journal, I (Spring, 1958), 34-40. []
  16. Harry Alpert, “The Diplomate in College Teaching,” mimeographed proposal “for discussion purposes only,” University of Oregon, Feb. 13, 1959. []
  17. Oliver C. Carmichael, “A Three-Year Master’s Degree Beginning with the Junior Year in College,” Journal of Higher Education, XXXI (March, 1960), 127-132. []
  18. In substance this is the two-year master’s recently proposed by Everett Walters, “A New Degree for College Teachers,” Journal of Higher Education, XXXI (May, 1960), 282-284. []
  19. Our inquiries brought helpful responses from officials of the New England Association, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the Western College Association, and the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools. []
  20. J. P. Elder as quoted by Berelson, Graduate Education, 185. []
  21. Ibid., 18, 30, 185-186, 190. []