The Education of Graduate Students: A Social Capital Perspective

By Clifton, Rodney A. | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Education of Graduate Students: A Social Capital Perspective


Clifton, Rodney A., Journal of Thought


Introduction

University administrators and professors typically expect that their academic programs educate students to become mature scholars, which essentially means that students think that ideas are important, they attempt to understand, evaluate, and interpret ideas, they develop reflective writing skills, they speak well, and they ultimately shape their lives on the basis of ideas (Geertsen, 2003; Vedder, 2004; Wegener, 1978). In this respect, Mortimer Adler (1988, pp. 109-110) defines a mature scholar as "a person who has a good mind, well disciplined in its processes of inquiring and judging, knowing and understanding, and well furnished with knowledge, well cultivated by ideas." Of course, the intensity of disciplining the minds of students by having them engage in scholarship, research, writing, and debating distinguishes graduate from undergraduate programs. In terms of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956), graduate programs most often focus on the three higher levels--analysis, synthesis, and evaluation--while assuming that the students already understand their discipline at the three lower levels--knowledge, comprehension, and application.

In this article, I argue for a theory that considers the cognitive and social requirements for graduate students to become mature scholars, mainly in the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. I do not consider the requirements in the professional faculties, such as Education, Law, and Social Work. In essence, my perspective is normative--the way graduate education should be orchestrated--and is derived from the theoretical work on "social capital," representing the collective resources that are embedded in the authority relations among students and between students and professors (Coleman, 1988, 1993; Fukuyama, 1995; Putnam, 1995). In short, to facilitate the scholarly development of graduate students, professors and their students must develop social networks based on trust, so that norms, obligations, and expectations for scholarly work are enhanced, information channels are expanded, and the conceptions of both students and professors change from the "I" to the "we" (Nisbet, 1971, p. 112; Vedder, 2004, p. 118). When graduate students and their professors trust and respect each other and when they share norms, obligations, and expectations in relationships that are authoritative, graduate programs are more likely to function effectively and students are more likely to become relatively mature scholars who are integrated into functioning scholarly communities.

What Responsibilities Do Graduate Schools and Professors Have?

In order to facilitate the education of graduate students, graduate schools and professors have three obvious and interrelated responsibilities: selecting, evaluating, and educating graduate students. The selection and evaluation of students are largely the collective responsibility of graduate schools, while the education of students is largely the responsibility of individual professors. Initially, graduate schools must select students who are able and willing to become mature scholars. There is little use spending considerable resources, time, and money, attempting to educate students who are unable to acquire new knowledge or unwilling to change their thinking, attitudes, and behavior (Sowell, 1993, pp. 122-131; Wegener, 1978, p. 146). To a considerable extent, graduate programs already select students on these criteria. High quality programs use a combination of undergraduate grades, standardized examinations (GREs), letters of reference, and interviews to admit students; lower quality programs, of course, use fewer criteria and/or lower standards.

Surprising, recent evidence suggests that only about 50 percent of the students who begin a doctoral program actually graduate (Smallwood, 2004). As such, selecting students who can and will change is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for their scholarly transformation. …

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