Last summer Nick Seaton asked in the Guardian: "Should the news that Sex in the City actress Kim Cattrall and Pirates of the Caribbean actor Orlando Bloom have donned funny hats and gowns to collect honorary degrees this week give pause for thought?" Sports heroes, too, had the opportunity to swoosh across stage in billowy regalia. "And yesterday we learned that three golfers – Padraig Harrington, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson – received honorary degrees from, appropriately, the University of St Andrews."
Critics in the academy snap their pencils in disgust. And when politicians and political pundits receive honorary degrees, things can get even more interesting--as when Liberty University bestowed a doctorate on the sage of Fox News and college dropout, Glenn Beck (not really surprising).
Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009 and received an honorary doctorate in law. Salon's Alex Koppelman reported that the "announcement has turned into a PR nightmare, though, as conservative Catholics are up in arms over the choice and are organizing against it. One local bishop has said he'll boycott commencement in protest, as the president's decision on stem cells means the government is 'supporting direct destruction of innocent human life.' The Cardinal Newman Society claims to have 80,000 signatures on a petition asking the university to rescind the invitation."
History helps put things into perspective. At least former presidents did not raise a fiery complaint against Obama, as far as I know. But that was just what happened when Harvard decided to hand an honorary degree to Old Hickory in 1833. Eleven years earlier the college had given one to Jackson's arch-rival John Quincy Adams--the world traveler and bibliophile, who knew Latin and Greek and studied numerous modern languages. Now Adams could not believe that the same revered institution would tarnish its name and legacy by honoring Jackson, vulgarian in chief. Though Adams was a Harvard overseer, he refused to attend the ceremony for his long-time political foe. How could this beacon of learning "confer her highest literary honor," he fumed, "upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name"? (On the contrasts between these two towering figures, see David Reynolds's excellent Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.) Adams, brooding in Quincy, was not alone in his contempt. There were plenty of Jackson despisers in Massachusetts.
The whole affair made Charles Francis Adams, JQ's son, burn with rage. Charles confided to his diary: Jackson "served his Country no more usefully than a thousand others, but he has the prestige of military glory which dazzles all mortal minds. The art of killing is prized higher than the art of vivifying. My father who was his competitor for the Presidency and a man of incomparably superior character, yet carries with him perpetually a load of unpopularity." Argghhh!!
A political doggerel of the day ran:
John Quincy Adams
Who can write,
Who can fight
Who can write,
Who can fight
And the cycle continues. I'm waiting to hear who will be the lucky recipients of honorary degrees this year. (A famous mime? A skilled puppeteer? Macho Man Randy Savage?) We'll see what kinds of denunciations appear in the press and on the Sunday political chat shows.