Honorary doctorates can be as off-putting as the bogus variety

A SENIOR editor once said to me: “Do you know, I have no qualifications?” I have all the degrees I could get in my field, but only a person who does not have them thinks they are so important.

On learning that I had a doctorate the editor apologised for changing a reference to me in a letter because he thought the letter-writer was “taking the piss” when he referred to me as ‘Dr’ Dwyer.

In reality anybody can call himself or herself ‘Dr’. What people are not entitled to do is to put the degree letters after their name unless the degree has been conferred. If people conferred with an honorary doctorate use the letters after their name, they are supposed to indicate that it is an honorary degree, which they often do in Latin.

Tánaiste Mary Harney compared Barry McSweeney’s use of the doctorate that he purchased from the so-called Pacific Western University with people using an honorary doctorate. “I actually have one myself,” she said. “I would not dream of using it; it would not be appropriate. Sometimes people do, unfortunately.”

Some people with honorary degrees insist on being called ‘Dr’.

Many may consider this a display of arrogance, but what those people are really exhibiting is an inferiority complex. They are suffering from a sense of lacking formal qualifications.

People who grew up in the 1950s may well remember the way the older generation stressed the importance of education. My grandparents’ generation certainly did.

My grandmother worked as a dressmaker before immigrating to the United States in 1911 in the hope of becoming a nurse. She initially took a job as a maid in the home of a doctor in New York.

As a former dressmaker, she was brilliant at mending the clothes of the children and looking after them, so the doctor took an interest in getting her into nursing school. She qualified as a state registered nurse, but I don’t think she ever really got over that sense of lacking the opportunity to get a full formal education.

“Study and get the necessary degree and you can do anything,” she seemed to say. Many readers will probably be familiar with that attitude. Institutions do not normally hand out honorary degrees for nothing. Gay Byrne was honoured with a doctorate because he distinguished himself in his field. Any number of people with earned doctorates have not come near to making the kind of contribution in their fields that Gay did on television.

Back in the 1950s the Catholic Church had the final say in this country on virtually everything because almost nobody dared to stand up to the hierarchy.

“I, as a Catholic, obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so,” the Taoiseach John A Costello told the Dáil in April 1951.

He was talking as head of Government in the national parliament. Seán MacBride, Minister for External Affairs, made a similar statement the same day.

“All of us in the Government who are Catholics are, as such, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our Church and our hierarchy,” he told the Dáil.

MacBride was the leader of Clann na Poblachta, which called itself a republican party.

Two years earlier the Government had proclaimed the Republic, but they then promptly confirmed unionists’ fears that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule.

There were the series of controversies over the Mother and Child Bill, the proposal to establish an agricultural institute under the auspices of Trinity College, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott and the Rose Tattoo affairs. In each of those the Catholic hierarchy essentially dictated what should be done and the politicians cravenly complied.

At the same time the hierarchy turned a blind eye to the paedophile behaviour of perverted priests. The pendulum has probably swung too far now. From ignoring that perverted behaviour, the media and the chattering classes seem to be blaming the clergy as a whole, when the culprits were really just a tiny, twisted minority.

In the midst of the depression here in the 1950s, there was a magnificent idealism that was expressed by the thousands of our young people who sought to serve humanity by becoming priests, nuns and brothers. They were betrayed, not by paedophiles in their midst, but by the contemptible arrogance of their lousy leadership. Bishops, archbishops and even cardinals shirked their responsibility by covering up and behaving without regard for the welfare of children whom they exposed to the perversions of the paedophiles they facilitated.

IT was not that they did not understand paedophilia; they were trying to protect their own exalted positions in society. This hierarchy of hypocrites not only exposed children, they betrayed the idealism of a whole generation. But we should not be so foolish now as to believe that society would be better off if the old sense of service is replaced by a cult of selfishness. Over the years Gay Byrne has probably influenced more changes in Ireland than any politician. Through the medium of The Late Late Show he regularly went into living rooms all over the country discussing topics that would not otherwise have been raised in many of those homes.

In the process he got people thinking. In that sense he more than earned his honorary doctorate, but he had enough confidence in his own contribution not to use a puffed up title.

Others may have been awarded the honorary degrees after contributing huge sums of money to universities. They effectively purchased their degree, albeit at an enormous price.

Those among them who insist on being addressed as ‘Dr’ are not much different from Barry McSweeney or any other Government adviser who purchased a fast-track doctorate from Pacific Western.

If they deceived people with a bargain doctorate, why are questions not being asked about the competence of those who were easily fooled?

Did it not occur to them to ask why they had never even heard of Pacific Western University before? In places where most staff have doctorates, people are not likely to be impressed by such qualifications. What counts most is experience and performance.

Barry McSweeney had a vast amount of experience working in scientific positions in Ireland and in Europe, where he became director general of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre with a staff of more than 2,000 in a range of scientific and technological areas.

His broad experience undoubtedly qualified him to advise the Government on scientific matters, more than any mere doctorate. People who worked with him have been lavish in praise of his ability to work and get on with people.

Of course, his use of the phoney doctorate should not be condoned, but neither should the media and society be puffing up the egos of high-profile honorary doctors by according them titles that they essentially purchased.

The use of such titles is not a testament of success, but evidence of insecurity.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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