When Joseph Epstein ridiculed Dr. Jill Biden for insisting on using her title, he caused a firestorm in academia and the media. He not only irritated holders of the Ph. D. and Ed. D., but honorary degrees. He declared, “Between the honorary degrees given to billionaires, the falsely intelligent, entertainers and the politically correct, just about all honor has been drained from honorary doctorates.”
This column is about the scandal in higher education that is not supposed to be discussed since it involves Ivy League schools and other secular and religious universities.
Epstein taught at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, for almost 30 years until 2002 as an untenured professor of English. He currently holds emeritus status in the English Department. In his diatribe against Jill Biden, he blasted the University for giving honorary degrees to Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. Epstein referred to the “low quality” of the honorands suggesting political correctness has diminished the value of honorary degrees. The examples given seem to support that contention.
Epstein put the light on a subject not usually discussed in recent years. Astute people have known for decades that wealthy people seek respectability or status by making large gifts to hospitals, universities, and charities. Following the gifts, the giver receives awards, degrees, and other intangible favors in a few weeks or months. Such goodies received by the wealthy donor are intangibles “that money cannot buy,” but the fact is, money does buy them.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary noted the word doctor comes from the Latin word for teacher, which the dictionary revealed first described theologians.
The doctorate originated in medieval Europe as a license to teach at Italy’s University of Bologna (founded in 1088, making it the world’s oldest University) and the University of Paris (founded about 1150). The roots of the doctorate go back to when doctor referred to the apostles and other church leaders who taught the Scripture, so preachers were the first to be given a doctorate after recognized as teachers by the Roman Catholic Church. By the end of the13th century, doctor was no longer limited to theologians but accomplished academics and medical professionals. The variety of degrees began to multiply like spring flowers until 1900, when there were over 200 types of degrees.
The honorary degree was first awarded in 1478 at England’s Oxford University, of all places. Top honchos of the University thought it might be wise and worthwhile to show honor to Lionel Woodville, head of the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter. He just happened to be the brother-in-law to King Edward IV. He was awarded the modern-day equivalent of a Ph.D., making it the first honorary degree in history. The honorary degree paid off because Woodville accepted the position of Chancellor of the University shortly after his award.
Since those days, secular and religious universities discovered the wisdom and wealth in scratching, even stroking the egos of preachers, poets, politicians, pundits, princes, and potentates—and of course, the prosperous with impressive-sounding degrees.
Honorary degrees at Ivy League universities were given to show honor to deserving historians, scientists, and inventors, but today most are awarded to victorious politicians, vile entertainers, and the vastly wealthy. Harvard has awarded over 2300 since 1692. Not only has the quality of recipients declined, but the quantity has also spiked. Harvard, for some reason, has outrageously increased their honorary degrees starting in 2004. Maybe they feel a need to add to their world-leading endowment fund of $50 billion. Yes, that was billion.
Yale has given 2,805 honorary degrees, University of Pennsylvania 1,722, and Brown University has given 2,030 to date. It has always been this way. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island is ranked seventh in “Best Colleges in America” and one of the most expensive with tuition of about $53,000 per year. Brown was originally known as Rhode Island College, a Baptist school. It had seven graduates at its first graduating class in 1769. However, they gave 22 honorary degrees, mainly to Baptist preachers. Gotta watch those Baptists. They are first in about everything.
The honorary degree went downhill fast as have earned degrees.
An industrialist or entertainer gives ten million dollars to a hospital, and in a few months, the hospital has a news conference announcing the erecting of a first-rate heart or cancer unit to their facility named for the generous benefactor. It wasn’t an underhanded, nefarious affair; it was only business as usual—the eternal quid pro quo. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. There was an understanding between the hospital and the giver.
Epstein received an honorary doctorate from Adelphia University on Long Island, New York, and is often identified as “Dr.,” but he never uses the title. That would be true of many, maybe most of those who hold honorary degrees. While the degrees are given, usually with an expectation of something in return, few of the honorees insist on using the titles. Maya Angelou was an exception. She had no college degree but did have honorary degrees—and wanted everyone to know and recognize the fact she was Dr. Angelou.
The leftist media always recognized that; after all, she was a black female.
Benjamin Franklin received honorary doctorates from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Oxford. Consequently, he referred to himself as “Doctor Franklin,” although he only went to elementary school for two or three years.
Billy Graham’s highest degree was a BA in anthropology, but he permitted himself to be called Dr. because of many honorary degrees. However, he did not use the title in his books or advertising.
In the 1940s and 50s, Dr. Wilbur Smith was one of the most respected scholars in America and England. He usually ran in Presbyterian circles and was considered a major leader in Fundamentalism. His book Therefore Stand is a classic in Christian Apologetics. He had one of the largest private libraries in the world. He was one of my professors of eschatology at Moody Bible Institute (now college). He also at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was a founder of Fuller Theological Seminary with whom he broke because they were and are soft on the inerrancy issue. Billy Graham asked Smith to be the first editor of Christianity Today, but he refused. However, few knew he did not have a college degree. Dallas Theological Seminary awarded him the honorary D. D.
A truth that few know and fewer refuse to reveal is that any degree from any university, even one with abundant ivy on its walls, is no proof of scholarship. And lack of a degree is not an indication of lack of scholarship, as demonstrated by Dr. Wilbur Smith.
Even Sesame Street Muppet Kermit the Frog was awarded an honorary degree by Southampton College at Long Island University! I don’t know if Kermit used the title in his appearances on the television series, but the gift sure paid off for the University and “raised the college’s profile and drew hundreds of new admissions.” That has always been the purpose of honorary degrees, and there is nothing wrong with that, but everyone needs to be aware of that purpose.
Well, if a flaky, false frog can qualify for an honorary degree, so can a dog. Mona, a Labradoodle service dog, attended her mistress student to all of her classes at the University of West Georgia and received an honorary degree from the University. The dog, not the student.
Moose, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, is a very accomplished therapy dog and now the holder of an honorary degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The college is operated by Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland at College Park.
Like all areas of education, the esteem of honorary doctorates has declined even faster and further. Honorary degrees were once given to scholars, scientists, and prominent national leaders. Later, university presidents saw a vast income source with wealthy industrialists, railroad tycoons, entertainers, and athletes. Now, anything goes.
It was common more than a hundred years ago to award honorary D. D.s (Doctor of Divinity) to clergymen who had preached and taught the Scripture for decades and had remained an example of competence, faithfulness, and principled living. However, like everything else, that practice has been corrupted over the years. Such degrees were few and selectively awarded, but today they are handed out like candy.
Preachers are the most abundant holders of honorary degrees, and most of them use the honorific title. The scandal is that many of those holders were very young men who had accomplished very little in their lifetime. No slam against young men since I was there once, but to honor someone who has not accomplished much is to diminish the honor of the degree of those who have. It is made worse by some who are self-important and require everyone to know how important and humble they are.
I have been thinking of a sixty-year-old preacher for many months who is doing an incredible job with his global ministry; consequently, I recommended him to receive a doctorate from Heritage College in Indiana. The president of the college, Dr. Russ Dennis, informed me that the college never awards an honorary doctorate to anyone under 50 years old and gives only a couple each year. That is fantastic.
Hooray for Heritage!
I heard of an incident many years ago about a beautiful actress on a train who fainted in the dining car. The porter yelled to the crowd of diners, “We need a doctor, please.” Within seconds a veterinarian, a college professor of philosophy, and two Doctors of Divinity were offering to help the ailing actress.
Ah, yes, ain’t education great.
(Dr. Don Boys is a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives who ran a large Christian school in Indianapolis and wrote columns for USA Today for 8 years. Boys authored 18 books, the most recent being Muslim Invasion: The Fuse is Burning! The eBook is available here with the printed edition (and other titles) at www.cstnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at Don Boys, Ph.D.; and visit his blog. Send a request to DBoysphd@aol.com for a free subscription to his articles, and click here to support his work with a donation.)
Fact, Fraud or Faith?
by Don Boys, Ph.D.
Only an uninformed fanatic says that evolution or creation can be proved scientifically. Christians believe in creationism because we believe in the veracity of the Bible but we also have scientific evidence to support our position. In every debate I’ve had with evolutionary scientists, the arrogant, asinine accusation is made, “Well, evolution is scientific while creationism is religion.” Evolution is about as scientific as a voodoo rooster plucking ceremony in Haiti. Almost.