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Master of Arts

Academic degree higher than that of Bachelor

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Arts, MASTER OF, an academic degree higher than that of Bachelor. The conferring of the degree of Master of Arts, as a title invested with certain specific academic privileges, is closely connected in origin with the early history of the University of Paris, which was the mother-university in arts as Bologna was in law. Originally, the degree meant simply the right to teach, the Licentia docendi, and this right could be granted, in Paris, only by the Chancellor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, or the Chancellor of St. Genevieve. According to the Third Council of Lateran, held in 1179, this Licentia docendi had to be granted gratuitously, and to all duly qualified applicants. It was the Chancellor’s right to determine the question of the applicant’s fitness. But in time, as the number of candidates for the degree increased, and the university developed, the ceremony of presentation before the Chancellor became more and more of a formality, and the responsibility for the fitness of the candidate devolved upon his teacher, and his teacher’s associates. Although, however, the Chancellor’s licence unquestionably conferred the right to teach, it did not make the recipient a full Master. For this it was required, in addition, that the faculty in which the Licentia docendi was given, should formally recognize the recipient as a Master, and admit him to a place among themselves. This ceremony, by which the Licentiate became a full Master, was known as Inceptio. As the term implies, the ceremony involved a beginning of actual teaching, the Licentiate delivering a lecture before the faculty. The term “Commencement”, as applied to graduation exercises, is but the English equivalent of the medieval Inceptio, and was first used at Cambridge. The ceremony of formally investing the young teacher with the title and insignia of a Master consisted in the bestowal of the biretta, or Master’s cap, the open book, and the kiss of fellowship, after which he took his seat in the magisterial chair. Half a year or so elapsed between the granting of the Licence and the Inception. No examination was required before Inception, the candidate’s fitness having been tested before the conferring of the Licence. Those who received the Licentia docendi from the Chancellor were admitted to Inception as a matter of course. The candidate for the Licence in Arts had to pass two examinations, a preliminary one, conducted by the Chancellor, and another conducted by the faculty itself. In going to receive the Licence, the candidates were arranged in the order of their academic standing, a custom which developed into the modern system of graduation honors. The ceremony was conducted with great pomp. Part of the proceedings consisted in the “Collations”, or the giving of lectures by some of the candidates. The Chartularium of the University of Paris gives the formula used by the Chancellor in conferring the Licence as follows: “Et ego auctoritate apostolorum Petri et Pauli in hac parte mihi commissa do vobis licentiam legendi, regendi, disputandi et determinandi ceterosque actus scholasticos seu magistrales exercendi in facilitate artium Parisiis et ubique terrarum, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” (Chartularium, II, App. 679.)

In medieval times, the title of Master was practically synonymous with that of Doctor, the former being more in favor at Paris and the universities modeled after it, and the latter at Bologna and its derivative universities. At Oxford and Cambridge a distinction came to be drawn between the Faculties of Law, Medicine, and Theology and the Faculty of Arts in this respect, the title of Doctor being used for the former, and that of Master for the latter. In GermanyDoctor” is exclusively used, but the German university diploma still frequently evidences the original equivalence of the two titles, the recipient being styled Magister Artium et Doctor Philosophice. In France the original practical equivalence of the Licentiate and the Mastership, or the Doctorate, developed into a distinction amounting to separate degrees. Under the present university system in France, the Bachelor may attain to the Licence in Arts one year after receiving the Baccalaureate, although generally two years at least are found necessary. After the Licentiate, a considerable period elapses before the Doctorate can be obtained. No set time is required for the Doctorate, but the high standard of qualification prevents candidates from applying for it for several, and sometimes for many, years after the Licentiate is received, At Oxford, the degree of Master of Arts has retained much the same academic significance it had during the Middle Ages. The degree admits the recipient ipso facto to the Faculty of Arts and to the ancient privilege of “Regency”, or the right to teach, though only in the colleges, the university professors being specially appointed. In American universities, which followed here the example of Oxford and Cambridge, the Mastership was, until 1860, the only degree given in Arts after the Baccalaureate and it was usually conferred several years after the Baccalaureate, residence at the institution meanwhile not being requisite. In that year, however, the growing influence of German academic ideals was evidenced in the introduction, by Yale, of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Since then one university after another has introduced this degree, until at present, the offering of a course of study and research leading to the Doctorate in Philosophy, has come to be looked upon as a test of the fitness of an institution to be classed as a graduate school or university. Generally speaking, a minimum of three years’ time is required for the degree after the Baccalaureate, and a thesis embodying original research on some important subject is, as in Germany, regarded as the most important test of qualification. The development of the Doctorate course in American universities has had important effects upon the degree of A.M. It now holds a middle place between the Baccalaureate and the Doctorate, and in order to obtain it in the universities, a minimum residence of one year is required. The bringing together in this way of the historic degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy, although effected somewhat at the expense of the Mastership, is an interesting phenomenon pointing to the two great university types after which the American university has been moulded, the relative positions of the two degrees indicating, at the same time, the predominance at present of the German over the English type.


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