Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 858: THESES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 858.

Today, I need to talk with you about a serious concern. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1517 the Catholic priest Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Those theses summarized Luther's thinking about theology. Some items were assertive. Some were only speculative. But the important point is, he made all 95 items public.

Luther sent copies to his ecclesiastical superiors. Then the new medium of printing spread his theses far and wide. Out of that act the Protestant Reformation emerged, full-blown.

The word thesis has, ever since, held a special place in our vocabulary. Before Luther, the word thesis usually meant a stress in music or poetry. Now, in the late 1500s, it came to mean a public assertion. By the 1600s the word thesis meant a document in which a scholar made, and proved, an assertion publicly.

The culmination of an education became that moment when a student quit being a student and entered the community with his own ideas. The last act of an education is the public statement of a thesis or dissertation. Anyone is welcome to attend a thesis defense at a university. It is a public event.

Now the U.S. Department of Education has made a shocking ruling. They've said theses are student "education records" -- just like their grades. Theses are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Scholars can no longer go to the library to read a thesis without the student's permission.

And so the thesis is no longer a thesis. It's been declared a student exercise -- just like homework and quizzes. Maybe it's unfinished work to be kept on ice until it can, one day, be reworked into a respectable book or paper.

In the '50s we expected students to propose their own thesis questions and create their own answers. That's changed as university research has grown dependent on outside support and on graduate-student help. Student theses become, more and more, fragments of faculty agendas -- or, worse yet, of sponsor agendas.

But the old tradition of full public disclosure has kept up the pressure for intellectual independence. Now the Department of Education is writing a soggy vision of education into law. They're certifying it -- making it official. They're erasing the old tradition.

This is a very disturbing ruling. It's so grotesque we cannot miss the warning in it. For Heaven's sake, let's let our students finish their education with an act of intellectual responsibility. Which one of us doesn't need a point of departure from childhood -- a moment when, at last, we proudly nail our theses on some very public door?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For a history of the use of the word thesis, see the Oxford English Dictionary.

I obtained the following electronic news release on the ExLibris Bulletin Board:

ALA Washington Office Newsline (ALAWON) An electronic publication of the American Library Association Washington Office Volume 2, Number 35, August 26, 1993
DISTRESSING DISSERTATION DEVELOPMENT

A recent AP news release reports that the U.S. Department of Education has ruled that masters and doctoral theses are considered to be student "education records," similar to grade records, and are therefore subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Accordingly, students' theses may not be accessed by academic researchers without the permission of the student authors. An opinion issued by LeRoy S. Rooker, Director of the Family Policy Compliance Office, U.S. Department of Education, stated:

As you know, FERPA generally protects a student's privacy interests with regard to "education records." "Education records" are defined as those records that are 1) directly related to a student and 2) maintained by an educational agency or institution or a party acting for the agency or institution (34 CFR 99.3). Accordingly, any records which are directly related to a student and are maintained by the University are education records subject to the provisions of FERPA.

Thus, there are no distinctions between undergraduate and graduate theses. FERPA prevents subject educational agencies and institutions from disclosing education records without prior written consent, with specified exceptions 34 CFR 99.30 and 99.31. None of the exceptions would permit making student theses available to the public, such as in the University Library, without first obtaining written consent from the student. Further, the written consent must specify the records that may be disclosed; state the purpose of the disclosure; and identify the party or class of parties to whom the disclosure may be made (34 CFR 99.30). This Office recognizes that undergraduate honors theses and graduate theses differ in nature from typical student research papers and other education records in that theses often become research sources themselves and are on occasion published. As such, this Office would consider any written statement by a student permitting publication of a thesis sufficient consent under FERPA because such statement shows that the student intended the work to become publicly available.

Rooker told the ALA Washington Office that his office would not take any action on this issue unless they receive a complaint.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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