Open Page

Truly the mark of eminence?

Some universities seek to confer on the rich and the influential not degrees but titles

As early as in 1478, the University of Oxford bestowed on Lionel Woodville, the brother-in-law of Edward IV, the degree of Doctor of Canon Law. He already held the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law and the university came forward to honour him with the highest degree without the usual academic exercises. It was an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, clearly an attempt to obtain the favour of men with great influence. The Statutes of 1634 legalised the award of degrees to prelates, magnates, and nobles honoris causa, as a mark of honour. In ancient England, degrees were conferred on rich nobles unsolicited, in return for some favour.

Today, the situation remains the same, except in one thing. Titles have replaced degrees. Some publicity seeking universities are raring to confer on the rich and the influential not degrees but titles. For today no nation would tolerate degrees being awarded honoris causa, which in Latin stands for ‘for the sake of honour’.

In the richest and most famous academic institutions in the U.K., many senior academic staff members, authors of several scholarly books, are only ‘Professors’, not ‘Professor Doctors’. Their books are intellectual and scholarly, yet may not represent results of deep-delved investigative scientific research. For research is a quest for new knowledge. A PhD represents a high-level achievement that stimulates further development of new strokes of knowledge. PhD belongs in the exclusive academic research super-specialist domain. It alone has the self-esteem, dignity, and prerogative to honour a person with the title ‘Doctor’.

In medicine, however, even a first degree holder (MBBS) is addressed as ‘Doctor’ in both writing and in speech. But there is a difference. When you want to draw the attention of a medical doctor, you simply say, “Doctor”. The intrinsic value of the title, when used alone, is medicine, and the person addressed is a medical doctor. On the other hand, you approach an academic person with a PhD, which appropriately honours him with the title ‘Doctor’, you would naturally say, or should address him as “Dr. Johnson”, with his name.

Such a high academic title is often vitiated by offering it to someone who would never even once have strayed into a school, even as a shelter from rain. Besides belittling it, such an act ridicules this title — truly an award for high academic accomplishments of creative knowledge in the arts and the sciences, technology and medicine — by using it to flatter and butter up big money and clout.

There are some people in the upper echelons of society economically or politically, on whom some universities volunteer to confer the ‘doctor’ title. It is claimed that the title honoris causa, is given as a mark of honour. They don’t seem to honour its high academic significance that without the ‘degree’, there is no ‘title’.

The Central government has many vertically graded titles to honour social, scientific, and cultural accomplishments of individuals that promote the dignity and grandeur of the nation. If still some titles of vainglory are necessary, they may be forged without abusing and abrogating the highest achievement of honour, the ‘Doctor’ title, which is legitimately anchored on accomplishments in the various areas of education and development. The government should ban the acquisition of such honoris causa titles from other countries as well.

rajajonathan@gmail.com

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 4:33:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Truly-the-mark-of-eminence/article14571425.ece

Next Story