How Honorary Should a Doctorate Be?

Honorary vs. the real thing.

June 1, 2014

There are many occasions when the political world in general is entering through the gates of the universities – or rather their libraries – not nothing compares with the situations when the political or more generally, public figures, are awarded a certain recognition in the academia.

Such encounters are always taking place with special preparations on both sides. I remember many of those events, when I noticed proud politicians pronouncing with the most serious emphasis their laudatio for the university world, with serious academics clapping their hands respectfully while outlining the various contributions of the rewarded politician or personality to the world of academia.

My schematic and also simplistic description of the ambiance and overall process of being awarded a honorary doctorate, especially if you are not a distinguished member of the intellectual society, should not obliterate the fact that there are many respectful politicians who started their public life first and foremost as academics. Thus, nowadays, even though they assign the job of writing their speeches to qualified professionals hired for such tasks, once upon a time they went through the process of academic checks and balances. They haven't only spent time in the library reading, but also acquired the critical thinking skills that cannot be separated from the vocation of the public intellectual. However, there are also situations when the recipient doesn’t necessarily have a serious academic or scholarly background. Among the reasons for such a move can be the need of specific funding or political or symbolic support in general for various academic policies is needed.

The tradition of honorary doctorate started in the 15th century at Oxford University. In the next century, many members of the Royal family in England, among others, were awarded honorary titles, and the practice extended nowadays all over the world, both in terms of geographic and social representation.

Writers, politicians, presidents and entrepreneurs proudly added in the last years the title of ‘doctor’ to a various list of qualifications, awards or successes. The freshest member of the honorary elites is the American singer Sean Combs, alias Puff Daddy, who was awarded at the beginning of May the title of honorary doctor by Howard University, where he attended without graduating for a short while business classes. The list of personalities from the show business or sports that can call themselves ‘honorary’ doctors includes, among others: Muhammad Ali, Billy Joel, Clint Eastwood and Kylie Minogue.

There is a good side of this increased interest for academic awards: intellectual life and activities in general, as well as qualifications are more popular than ever. Long time ago, once someone decided to leave the school, the decision was sealing his or her destiny outside the academic world. On the other hand, one cannot avoid the more sour than sweet taste left when thinking about the challenges and difficulties of a real doctorate, that might involve not only personal sacrifice but also a significant financial investment in books and the participation fees to academic conferences, for instance. I am almost sure that for the big majority of Ph.D.s, many of the honorary doctors don’t mean too much, not because they are disrespectful, but because they don’t have time and the habit to browse the daily news.

Without going too far with appreciations and evaluations, this is how things are when it comes to academic awards and rewards. And this has more to do with academic policies than productivity.



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