02 October 2012

A Modest Proposal

After noting that Bryce Courtenay has accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra in "recognition of his outstanding success as an author and contributions to the community" I offer a modest proposal, with apologies to Jonathan Swift.

(Dean Swift of course gets an honorary doctorate in economics for his outstanding contribution to the Irish food problem. Regrettably he is otherwise detained and will not be collecting the doctorate in person.)

If we're awarding honorary doctorates for 'outstanding success as an author' - success presumably measured in sales figures and audience recognition - why not revamp the Olympics and abandon any pretence of achievement. Gold medals for all! A gold medal - or two - to everyone on The Footy Show. A silver to every sponsor. Bronze to every couch potato in the land.

If honorary doctorates are a popularity contest we can presumably expect to see an award to moppet Bindi Irwin "for contributions to zoology". One to Lara Bingle … for being Lara Bingle! One to Shane Warne. One to Molly Meldrum. Two to Colleen McCullough, Mr Courtenay's peer, for "outstanding success as an author" and as an historian. A batch to JK Rowling. One to Gina Rinehart for "outstanding success" in dispute resolution. One each to Kyle Sandilands and Alan Jones for contributions to discourse and national harmony. One to John Laws for poetry. A posthumous doctorate to Pro Hart. One to Tony Mokbel for services to the Australian television industry; another for innovation in overseas travel. One of course to Gary Ablett for physics. The Wiggles already have honorary doctorates from the Australian Catholic University (2006, "for contributing to early childhood education") but UC could award a doctorate - let's not be squeamish about legal personhood - to Humphrey B Bear, Big Bird, Oscar The Grouch and Homer Simpson, all of whom have the magic audience recognition. Tom Lehrer, of course, as an exponent of legal realism.

Universities should, in my opinion, restrict their higher degrees to signal academic excellence rather than, in the words of Jacques Barzun, engaging in a degree inflation that marks "its possibly justified admiration of a business or political career". That inflation - or the opportunism of particular institutions - is evident in honorary doctorates awarded to Robert Mugabe, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Mike Tyson (1989, Doctorate in Humane Letters in 1989 from Central Ohio State University), George Foreman (Houston Graduate School of Theology), members of glitter band Slade (University of Wolverhampton),  Dannii Minogue, Kylie Minogue, Shane Warne, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) (Exeter University, Doctor of Laws degree), James Garner (University of Oklahoma, Doctorate of Humane Letters), JK Rowling (2006, Aberdeen University, Doctorate of laws) and guitarist Brian May (Exeter University, Doctorate of Sciences for his interest in astronomy and physics). Kermit the Frog received a doctorate of amphibious letters from Southampton College at Long Island University in 1996

Courtenay announced that 'this generation' is the brightest and most intelligent the world has ever seen. The basis for that statement is unclear. There's something disturbing about a 'generation' - or a culture - that apparently needs such affirmation and doesn't critique the feelgood.