Why the Languages are Important for a PhD

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been devoting myself to learning theological French in order to satisfy my second research language requirement prior to my comprehensive examinations.

There is often a push and pull in a PhD program about any number of the requirements. As I’ve seen in my evaluations of different programs before actually entering one, the requirements are often the same across the board. Particularly for those of us pursuing PhDs in a humanities subject (such as theology, history, etc) one of the requirements are two research languages. On my degree completion plan, I have the option of any of two of three research languages: German, French, and Latin.

Not too long ago there was a bit of a dust up about whether or not PhDs in New Testament needed to know Greek for their final examinations. It resulted in a good conversation around the blogosphere. Why a PhD in New Testament should be able to graduate without reading knowledge of Greek is a mystery to me. A PhD, more than any other degree in the university curriculum, should demonstrate mastery of a field of research. So, along those lines, I have no problem stating:

Research languages (i.e. foreign) are important and should continue to be required for those pursuing PhDs in humanities subjects.

Part of proper scholarship is the engagement with a broad array of thinkers and scholars. To best do this, being able to get outside of the box that one’s primary language creates allows access to some who will stretch a student/scholar’s abilities and thought processes. Even today, when we have more access to translated scholarship, there still remains a substantial body of literature outside the English language that should be engaged. Online translating tools, such as Google Translate, remain unreliable and often give incorrect translations of texts as they lack the ability to distinguish nuance.

In my own studies, in historical ecclesiology, I’ve encountered a number of works that meet this classification. For my dissertation, one of the key works that I am using is by a German scholar of the late 1800s, Rudolph Sohm. In writing¬†Kirchenrecht, Sohm argues that the earliest churches had no ecclesiastical constitution but were ruled by a charisma (understood differently than the charismatics of today) which provided leadership for those who were seen as gifted by God. This is an essential point for my work on the role of local church autonomy in the early churches. However, Sohm’s work has never been translated into English. (A challenge I might take up…after my dissertation.)

Other examples abound.

Having competency in two research languages allows one to engage in this kind of broader research and fill out the views that would be other otherwise unavailable to the student.

Along these lines it is important to note this: a PhD isn’t a gimme degree.

Too many students believe that just because they pay tuition and submit assignment they deserve a degree. Our entire higher education system has become a secondary entitlement program where students demand degrees and passable grades for shoddy work.

Because a PhD is a rigorous degree it should also have requirements that are equally rigorous.

To be honest, over the past month I’ve been staying up until about 2 AM most mornings working on my French so I might pass a competency exam. This isn’t fun, but it is absolutely worth it. There are certainly other things I could be doing, but because I’m enrolled in a PhD program I have purposely set aside these things to pursue a higher calling. Languages are difficult and add an important step of rigor to a PhD.

PhDs are important degrees for those who desire the highest levels of intellectual engagement and academic accomplishment. If you cannot learn two research languages that might be a good indication that you aren’t cut out for a PhD. This likely will sound like a kind of elitist, and it certainly is. We should have no illusions that a PhD is as simple to achieve as an undergraduate degree. The language requirements of a PhD are an effective vetting mechanism to ensure that the highest qualified students (note, this is intellectual qualification not monetary) are obtaining these degrees.

Finally, the language requirements of a PhD provide an important tool for a lifetime of scholarship that awaits. Though I am not entirely convinced that Latin, German, and French should be the only research languages, this harkens of colonialism, a student should have the ability to add in an appropriate language. By having two research languages in their research tool chest, academics are prepared to provide quality research and engagement with works that have yet to be written.

Perhaps, in summation, the language requirements for a PhD are important for these three reasons:

  • The ability to engage in a broad discipline of research and scholarship
  • A reasonable vetting step for the most rigorous of academic degrees
  • Developing tools for a lifetime of scholarship

 

So what do you think? How have you engaged with research languages? Are there other reasons for requiring languages for a PhD?