An “Industrial Ph.D.”: Oxymoron, or the Salvation of Higher Education?

by Howard Gardner

The University of Reggio Emilia and Modena in Northern Italy has announced an ‘industrial Ph.D.” in “Reggio Childhood Studies” and has admitted an initial cohort of ten students. Over the course of three years, the doctoral candidates will take courses, decide on a thesis topic, carry out the necessary library and/or empirical research, and write a thesis, which, if accepted, will confer on them a Ph.D.

To many individuals familiar with traditional doctoral education, this program sounds weird if not oxymoronic. Most doctoral programs take more than three years; most are not centered around a particular approach to childhood; and the phrase “industrial doctorate” is jarring, if not frankly, again, oxymoronic. The program has just been launched, and it is deliberately experimental—after three years, it may or may not be renewed. It is far too early to render a judgment on it. But the concept of a new kind of doctoral degree is well worth pondering.

First, some historical and personal background. Since the early 1980s, I have been travelling regularly to Reggio Emilia (RE), a moderately sized city in Emilia Romagna, an affluent part of northern Italy. RE is extremely well known around the world among educators of early childhood. Its approach to pedagogy, inspired by Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994) and carried forward by an incredible band of teachers (including in their ranks “pedagogistas” and “atelieristas”), has been an inspiration to most scholars and practitioners in the field, earning Reggio a reputation as fabled as that attributed to Montessori or Waldorf Schools. Moreover, I know that, for many years, the educators in RE have wanted to institute a formal course of study at the nearby university. The launching of a doctoral program signals the success of the “Reggio approach”—analogous, say, to an educational program in an American University inspired by the ideas and practices associated with John Dewey.

We can say, then, that there is an intellectual pedigree of merit attached to the new doctoral program—particularly if the phrase “RE” does not entail indoctrination into a specific catechism but rather a general and adaptable set of ideas and practices that draw inspiration from the important educational innovations developed, over the last six decades, by Malaguzzi and his proteges.

But what of the label “industrial Ph.D.”? To this American ear, the term “industrial” has a clearly commercial signal more suited to a 19th or early 20th century employment office in the Steel or Coal Belt than to a cloistered institution of higher learning. Hence, my unkind application of the term “oxymoron.” Also, “industrial” implies that a model can readily be transplanted—like a factory for producing Fiats or Frigidaires—while decades of experience indicate that one cannot readily transplant an educational approach to an alien communal soil.

But I have come to understand that “industrial” can have a more neutral connotation—akin to sector of the economy rather than to large-scale machinery—and one could as well say “the health industry,” “the educational industry,” or “the communication industry”—all of which certainly confer doctorates in their respective faculties.

It’s appropriate to take a step back and to consider, if briefly, the origins and growth of doctoral programs. In 19th century Germany, various scientific and humanistic disciplines began to train future scholars; and, if those student scholars produced credible research or writing, they were awarded one or another kind of higher degree—including the prestigious “habilitation.”

As this approach traveled to other countries, the doctoral degree became a precious commodity—one that was supervised and controlled carefully by scholars in the respective disciplines. I can vouch for this characterization first hand. As a college student and doctoral student, I chose a deliberately interdisciplinary field known as Social Relations. Courses were available in “Soc Rel,” but my doctoral sheepskin bears the name “Social Psychology” because “Soc Rel” was not considered a bona fide discipline. Then, as a professor at a school of education, I watched for three decades as doctoral students—often quite brilliant—were denied a Ph.D. (a “genuine” doctoral degree) and were given the second rank diploma, an Ed.D (doctoral degree in education). Only after decades of struggle was the Harvard Graduate School of Education allowed in 2013 to award a Ph.D.—while the power is still retained by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the traditional bestower of “real” doctorates.

But we are living in the 21st century and not in the 19th century. There is less and less tolerance for “pure scholarship” in the U.S. and, as I learned recently in RE, in Italy as well. To be sure, if one chooses to study a STEM topic—science, engineering, mathematics—then it’s OK to pursue a doctorate. After all, you are likely to get a well-paying job, thereby justifying the investment by you, your family, and/or the taxpayer. But you want to study a discipline in the humanities (e.g., history, philosophy, linguistics, the arts) or a softer social science (e.g., sociology, anthropology), you are likely to encounter resistance, a declining set of choices, and all too often sneers from family, friends, and fellow taxpayers.

Meanwhile, even as traditional humanistic disciplines are on the defensive and on the decline, those courses of study that lead to a job, and especially to a well-paying job, are more likely to gain support. There are doctorates in law, business, public health, communication, social work, nursing, and even education. And as I learned in Italy, doctorates in “industry” are now being underwritten in part by the industries themselves—with my own ears, I heard that one will be able to receive a doctorate in “bel canto” singing, presumably an entry ticket to a singing role at La Scala, the fabled opera house in Milan.

To someone who, while interdisciplinary himself, has a love of the classical disciplines, this thinning of the traditional doctorate and the fattening of a job-related doctorate is lamentable. I do not welcome a slew of doctorates resembling the yellow pages of an old-fashioned telephone book (advertising, aeronautics, agriculture, astronomy, aviation… zoology). 

Yet happier scenarios are also possible. Perhaps more practically-oriented doctorates will help to preserve the universities. Perhaps, as happened in traditional Germany universities, there will be two levels of doctorate—the lower hanging doctorate and the more rigorous and prestigious “habilitation.” And perhaps programs like the Ph.D. in Reggio Childhood Education will succeed in combining the best of both worlds and, in the process, set a new and estimable model for education in our time.

© 2019 Howard Gardner

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7 Comments on “An “Industrial Ph.D.”: Oxymoron, or the Salvation of Higher Education?”

  1. Elaine Gallagher December 9, 2019 at 6:17 pm #

    REGGIO Doctorate WILL succeed…. Classical doctorates are going the way of the dinosaur. I got my PhD in 1999. in a very controversial (at the time) program….Did I actually learn anything? NO. Did the doctorate open doors? Yes. So in the mid 21st century what we will see is the Past-Master’s Degree studies will be more focused, broader, and yet in-depth fopr specific needs. Let’s be positive that Emilio Reggio will succeed!!!

  2. howard gardner December 10, 2019 at 2:34 pm #

    Hi and thanks for your comment. I am glad that the doctorate was helpful for you and I join you in hoping that the Reggio Emilia doctorate will succeed. But I am concerned that you believe that you did not learn anything in your program. Should we be giving accolades to individuals just because they enrolled in a program and received a sheepskin? Ultimately that’s an untenable situation– and individuals and institutions with standards will launch a new program– and perhaps call it a “Learning Doctorate”. Best wishes hg

    • ELAINE GALLAGHER December 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm #

      Hi HG,  Thanks for prompt reply.     No, we should not be giving “accolades” just because someone got a “sheepskin” (now on paper ..(ha ha!)       My point is that many PhD or DEd degrees are nothing more than ‘door-openers” to fame, publicity, higher pay, or prestige. Did they, however, actually cause the degree candidate to stretch their brain? Grow? Learn? Research?        I learned more from my experiences during a year’s Ford Foundation Leadership Development Fellowship, back in 1972, when I wa just 30 years old, than 25 years further on in my career when I got my PhD.  Why?      Because the Ford Foundation was not programmed. I had to develop my own project, my investigations, my visits, my observations. There were no requirements and no limits! I explored! I grew! I learned!        It was one of the 3 highest points of my human develoment as an educator.     The other two were (1) “learning fluent Spanish”, by immersing myself in Mexico, when I was 43 years old, because I had moved to Texas (from Maine). The parents of my students did not speak English. So my first summer there, I went to learn Spanish! …  (2)  “learning the computer”….when I was 52 years old–semi-forced by my middle school principal – who brought me to the cutting edge of technology by having faith I could succeed.      She pushed me into new subjects —– teaching integrated sciences, based solely on texts, no work books, no teacher guides, no internet.        Again — I learned, I grew, and I felt empowered. That’s what education should do…EMPOWER OTHERS. Most PhD programs do not appear to do that… least not in my experience…so I hope Industrial Reggio can be successful in empowering others.  Cordially,Elaine INTERNATIONAL CONSULTING SERVICES          ELAINE GALLAGHER, Ph.D.                   USA        (01) 956 568 0664           MEXICO (52) 844 208 0844            SPAIN     (34) 666 037 187   .     

      • Howard Gardner December 10, 2019 at 7:20 pm #

        Thanks for your clarification. I think that we agree about the problem–doctorates that don’t signify much–but disagree about the solution.

    • ELAINE GALLAGHER December 16, 2019 at 7:09 pm #

      Elaine Gallagher (@juniorbarney) commented: “Hello, Dr. Gardner, Are you interested in actively participating in an innovative, out-of-the-box teacher development program, grants a Bachelor’s Degree to English teachers in Mexico & Brazil? This is a fast-track, 25-theme program for English t” | |

  3. Elaine Gallagher (@juniorbarney) December 14, 2019 at 7:22 pm #

    Hello, Dr. Gardner,
    Are you interested in actively participating in an innovative, out-of-the-box teacher development program, grants a Bachelor’s Degree to English teachers in Mexico & Brazil? This is a fast-track, 25-theme program for English teachers, many of whom already have a degree, but NOT in teaching. This is a new requirement in Mexico for public school English teachers…so we are meeting that need.

    We already have commitments from Dr. Stephen Krashen and Dr. David Marsh to teach a few courses in their areas of expertise. Since MI is part of our pedagogical approach, it would ne ideal to have the guru himself presenting the topic of Multiple Intelligences to the 250 people to be registered in the degree program. Courses are to be offered in several sites in Mexico, and 3 sites in the USA.

    It is a 6 – 8 month program offerec on weekends, plus on-line research requirements. We will cover your daily fee and any travel that might be required for either on-site teaching, 3 hours each session, up to 6 monthly sessions, or, we can come to Cambridge for 1 or 2 three-hour question/ answer segments, which we’ll film. Details can be worked out.

    We’re presenting the full project to the University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, via colleague, David Marsh, in January 2020. So…for now, I’d like to know if you’d like to be part of this creative approach to teacher development.

    • Howard Gardner February 1, 2020 at 2:28 pm #

      thanks for the invitation. I have recently retired from teaching and am not taking on new enterprises. It’s great that you will include “MI” in your course– sorry that I can’t join in your efforts. hg

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