Why I Disagree With Honourary Degrees And Why People Like Malala Doesn’t Need Them

It’s always heart-warming when I open the news – Facebook, that is – and the first link that pops up in my newsfeed is not a multitude of deaths, war or devastation, but rather news of adorable, uber smart girls like Malala getting straight A’s on her GCSE’s (See image below, courtesy of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai.)

Courtesy of Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala's wonderful. great father.

Courtesy of Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s wonderful. great father.

While I’ve never written the GCSE’s (and, I would have had I lived in the Middle East a year or two longer, before immigrating to Canada with my family), I’ve seen and written mock exams (perhaps 18 years ago?) and believe you me when I say this: those exams were not easy; especially, the science-related ones like Physics and Chemistry. And I’m sure over the years, the exams have only become more onerous and challenging. However, Malala — the smart cookie that she is — managed to ace them all with flying colours, getting six A+’s and four A’s; if that isn’t seriously impressive, then I don’t know what is! And I am certain both her parents couldn’t be prouder. Heck, we’re all so proud of her; she never ceases to amaze us time and time again with all her great humanitarian work, as well as with her brilliant academic achievements. At her incredibly young age, this bright young woman has done and achieved more than any of us could have ever managed to achieve in our entire lifetime and that, my dear friends, is beyond impressive.

So, considering how intelligent and academically bright Malala is, why is there ever a need to grant her an “honourary degree” — a degree, which is supposedly bestowed upon someone for all the “good” work they’ve done, disregarding anything and everything that has to do with the actual academic aspect of it — when clearly she is more than capable of achieving a high level graduate degree on her own? While I kind of understand (okay, not really), the purpose of an honourary degree, I just don’t see real value or purpose to it, except maybe if the university wants to be very much affiliated with someone, usually a celebrity or a politician. On the other hand, I totally get awards and prizes, and I fully support them, because it is understood that awards/prizes/trophies/etc. are usually conferred upon someone who has done great good for their communities, or perhaps even the whole world. And that makes a lot of sense; well, at least to me. So, Malala clearly does not fall short when it comes to her intellectual capabilities; this child’s brilliance has been depicted to us through her speeches, interviews, and now her incredibly impressive report card (yeah, those are her actual grades; please spare me the obtuse conspiracy theories; I seriously have no patience for that anymore). She would be more than capable to skip a Bachelor’s degree altogether and start a Master’s degree, because she clearly possesses the level of maturity and intellect to be able to excel in it.

However, I just cannot, for the life of me, wrap my head around this concept of an “honourary degree,” which is so easily bestowed upon people, with no iota of academic affiliation or contribution to the conferring university/college. It’s unfair. Yes, there, I said it. It’s very unfair, and perhaps even impertinent, especially when it is blatantly granted upon people who are perfectly capable of achieving those degrees, be it a Masters or a PhD, on their own intellectual merit. It is even more acerbic, especially to those who have worked so hard to attain a doctorate degree, spending years of their time, only to see it be granted to someone so quickly and easily, exempting them from all of the strenuous academic requirements. Sure, they may have done a lot of “great” non-academic-related work, and that’s awesome; however, my argument isn’t that they shouldn’t be acknowledged and praised for all the great things they’ve done, because they should be recognized. And praised. And acknowledged all over the world. However, it shouldn’t have to be with a doctorate degree, or any degree for that matter. Let the real academics have that one, even if honourary degrees as awards dates as far back as the 14th century, or better known as the Middle Ages. (It appears that the earliest, or perhaps even the very first, honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. – Source.)

I realize how challenging academe is, so another thing that I find problematic and unethical is when people begin referring to individuals with honourary degrees as “doctors.” No, they are not “doctors”; please stop calling them that. It is claimed that honourary degrees are viewed as awards, yet, you see people calling these people “doctors” and “professors,” and that’s just not right. Sadly, many do actually view honourary degrees as being equivalent to a professional academic degree, and they even go around dubbing themselves with the “Dr.” title — a title that they don’t deserve, because they have no idea about the challenges and struggles that those pursuing an actual doctorate degree go through. It’s painful, people. Very, very painful. But oddly satisfying as well, especially if you enjoy reading hundreds and thousands of pages of text on a topic that you’re deeply passionate about, teaching, writing, and of course conducting tremendous amounts of (meaningful) research.

I know some of my readers must be wondering what my problem is, when the title of an honourary degree is not supposed to have any affiliations with the actual professional degree itself, yet, the problem isn’t the intention behind these so-called “degrees,” but rather the way in which it is so carelessly presented and unnecessarily bestowed upon individuals, who, in my opinion, don’t really deserve it (and while I am not going to name names, some of my readers must be aware of the celebrities and politicians [Pakistani], who have been granted honourary degrees, totally undeserved, considering their horrific track record). And those who do deserve it, well, they are more than capable of achieving the degree on their own merit.

Give them an award instead, or maybe even a prize, but let them earn the degree at least; chances are they will truly enjoy the experience of actually earning a doctorate, rather than have it presented to them on a gold plate. I know, to some, a degree is merely a piece of paper, but those who say that have no idea — absolutely no idea at all — about the amount of time, blood, tears, sweat, etc. that goes into conducting beautiful original research, and then presenting it for the whole world to read in both dissertation and book form. And the many, many years that go into conducting that research, which may even contribute towards some greater good. (Dr. John Nash’s PhD dissertation, anyone?)

And, yes, all this is done for a mere piece of paper — a piece of paper that has lost its true purpose and meaning along the way. Let’s start giving this piece of paper the respect it deserves. Is that too much to ask?

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