Monday, April 25, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Graduation

Randall Stephens

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,
Andrew Jackson
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.


hcr said...

Randall: You can go home and relax for the rest of the day. Anyone who comes up with "Andrew Jackson, vulgarian in chief," has earned the right to consider the day's work done! A lovely post.

I do wonder, though, if honorary degrees-- at least today-- are less about honoring certain activities than they are an effort on the part of the inviting committee to use the media attention given to honored celebrities to raise the profile of the school. Advertising more than conveying an honor, if you will.

Randall said...

Thanks Heather.

You're probably right about the profile thing. Publicity, publicity, publicity. I was thinking that there is a similarity here between how big college sports teams work and how honorary degrees do.

LD said...

Here's what I found laughable: Arizona State University deciding that Obama wasn't qualified for an honorary degree from that sterling institution. Someone has to defend the standard of excellence, right?

Lisa Clark Diller said...

It seems like in our discomfort with some of this there is a shade of the emotions we have about 'degree inflation' in general. Allied health degrees that are becoming "doctorates" for instance. Is there any way that we're worried that (nonacademic) people will think that the recipients "earned" or "deserved" these degrees in the same way that people who worked for them in more traditional ways deserve them? We want our degrees to 'mean' something, whether symbolically or otherwise. I hope we're not just taking ourselves too seriously, but if I didn't think a degree was something of a serious thing, I'd be in a different line of work.

By the way, my institution doesn't hand out doctorates--it is a traditional undergraduate institution wtih a couple masters degrees tacked on. But we seem to have started to hand out honorary doctorates at graduation. I'm not sure I want to explore what THAT means too much.

Randall said...

Lisa: I suppose that most of the time an honorary doctorate is like a blue ribbon handed out for participation. A pinewood derby in which everyone wins!

PW said...

Great post, Randall. Can't wait to see Macho Man Randy Savage's commencement address!

Some of those who have received multiple honorary degrees openly acknowledge how silly the practice is. Churchill got a big laugh when he told University of Miami students in February 1946 that “no one ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.” He did not graduate from college (unless you count the military academy of Sandhurst). Did OK for himself, though!