You'd think that by now the federal government would have learned where not to interfere with the rights of private man. But here comes a pamphlet from the Department of Labor that encroaches on an area of private enterprise so small, so happy, so self-contained and removed from the common run that only a GS15 could find it a fertile field for government intervention. The field is doctoral dissertations. The pamphlet is "A Popularized Version of 21 Doctoral Dissertations." What some scoundrel has done is to take a sampling of recent PhD theses, and then in the name of democracy, condense each of them to a length of three to five pages -- a relative postage stamp -- and give them zippy new titles in place of the old.
So, for examples, a dissertation originally entitled "Empirical Study of the Female Insured Unemployed" has become "St. Louis Woman." And, for a reason that must lie in the text, a thesis that was born under the name of "The Four Day Workweek: Blue Collar Adjustment to a Nonconventional Arrangement of Work and Leisure Time" has been whittled down to "Swedes at Work and Play."
Naturally, this sort of exercise makes for loads of sporty fun. And don't I myself remember with a chortle the rollicking good time my fellow PhD candidates and I enjoyed at the Harvard Commencement of 1968, when we leafed through the titles of that year's dissertations, making the same mental popularizations as the Department of Labor's. A thesis entitled "The Head Capsule and Cervix of Adult Neuroptera (Insecta) A Comparative Morphological Study" became, in our minds, "Return of the Gly." And from "Buckling Under Axial Compression of Long Cylindrical Shells with Random Axisymmetric Imperfections" we made "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me."
Oh, the frivolity! But they were merely larks. And even at the apex of our academic high jinks we never would have dreamed that someday some government official would officially take an ordinarily beautiful dissertation title, and shrink it down to "Swedes at Work and Play.& If the Department of Labor persists in its plan, it is going to drive the PhD business out of business. For one thing, it is impossible to do anything but harm to PhD study by the act of reduction. As condensation is to corrosive metals, so is it to the PhD student whose major effort is to prolong time as it is nowhere so prolonged, stretching every hour into a week, every week into a millennium. I heard of a Korean graduate student in English who spoke no English, and spent most of his time chewing Fritos in a belfry, successfully eluding his examining committee for 11 years. When finally they hauled him before them, he answered not a single question until implored to name just one 18th century writer, whereupon he said "Pope Swift." was passed on the spot and spent the next 20 years writing an unintelligible dissertation.
As for dissertaions themselves, great length is absolutely mandatory, and that goes double for titles. If a graduate student were every discovered to have said in 10 words what he could have said in 100, he'd be balckballed, bounced, disgraced. And if he were ever to present a dissertation entitled, say, "The Later Poems of Wallace Stevens," when he could just as well have put "The Strangled Parrot: The Later Poems of Wallace Stevens," why he'd be spat upon, and for excellent reason.
What the Department of Labor must remember is that while the basic operating principle of government is obfuscation through minimization (OMB, HEW), the basic principle of academe is obfuscation through obfuscation. And every PhD candidate believes in that principle, lives by it and passes it down to his heirs. Take the term "dissertation" itself -- a four syllable job, where two (essay) would do.
Yet scholars are people, too. And like doctors and lawyers who use Latin for similar ends, they also deserve their own cloudy world of reference. What do they have but obscurantism, after all? Not employment, that's for sure. Nor high place, nor public honor. Prolixity is their protection.
No one would cross so much as a street to hear something entitled "The Four Day Workweek: Blue Collar Adjustment to a Noncoventional Arrangement of Work and Leisure Time." But "Swedes at Work and Play"? They'll be beating down the portcullises.