Digitally captured firing neurons

Honorary… hmm

12 June 2014 by martin

One of my favourites on CBC radio has pretty well always been The Vinyl Cafe. I learned today his old stomping ground gave Stuart an Honorary Doctorate.

43 years after barely graduating, Stuart receives an honorary doctorate form his alma mater, Concordia University. (quote taken from The Vinyl Cafe Facebook feed)

Don’t get me wrong, I love Stuart and I think it’s a nice, and entirely appropriate thing for him to be honoured for all that he does in preserving Canadian identity in our country. We could use another few of him in various forms in our cultural landscape. If we spent a little more time lauding the people who truly make a difference for the good in the country, it’d be a better place for sure. My issue is in how we choose to do this lauding.

For the record, Loreena McKennitt was the honourary recipient of a degree at my commencement.

Well… okay.

I remember at the time I was tickled to have her there because she remains a favourite of mine to listen to on cold winter days, but I guess it was more that I was in the company of Canadian celebrity than I wanted to share my accomplishment. Something about celebrity=recognition as the highest level of academic achievement is… somehow wrong. It sticks in my gut. It sorta minimizes the idea of a commencement ceremony.

Way, way back, when I decided that I wanted to go back to school having dropped out at the start of my final year of high school, I went back to see my old guidance counselor about getting re-registered. At that time, I’d been out of the system for about three or four years, and I was told that I qualified for four “maturity credits”. Basically, they were going to give me a free term. I didn’t have to take those four credits to graduate, and no harm done. At the time, I was like, “Wouhou!”, but it was a feeling that got replaced by a creeping unworthiness. I felt like I’d duped the system somehow. Or at least like I duped my system. And this wasn’t any Doctorate. This was just a few totally insignificant credits. I got them presumably because I had earned them through the “school of hard knocks”. Thing is, while it can be argued that what I’d done in those years resulted in learning that was equal or greater than the amount of learning I’d have done in the same time at school, the math doesn’t work out even. Life accomplishment doesn’t equate evenly with school accomplishment. They’re two different things. I didn’t pull all nighters and study madly and sacrifice social engagements and whatever they do these days to earn four high school credits. I just didn’t.

Similarly, Stuart, Loreena and all the others like them (hell, Billy Joel, Steve Jobs, Fred Rogers, Neil Gaiman come immediately to mind) didn’t do the work needed to get a PhD (or whatever degree they ‘earned’). And believe me, I am well aware of how much work that can be having helped and watched my wife go through the process. It’s no small thing. It comes at no small expense (and you can name your expense–time, money, stress, sacrifice). I don’t think any recipient of an honourary doctorate deserves it. Maybe that’s why they condition it with ‘honourary’. The University knows that it’s a bunch of hogwash. Hell, it seems some recipients know it too… Stuart must know it given that he acknowledges he “barely graduated” in the first place. I know he meant that remark as a lighthearted quip… that’s how he rolls. But would he honestly have ever gotten a PhD the traditional way? Sure, maybe–he was, after all a professor for journalism at one point… somehow. Fact remains, he didn’t do the PhD. These degrees go on record. They’re there, and these folks stand with the other honoured graduates. In fact, they stand above. They’re there to inspire those who are also commencing. And yet they didn’t do the work.

Again, it could be argued, much as it was in my case, that all the work they’ve done, all the great deeds and accolades and contributions they’ve made in whatever way to the world they inhabit are worthy of a degree. Maybe they are. I still don’t know. It just doesn’t feel equal to me.

There’s people out there who work ridiculously hard every day doing their thing. No one ever gives them an academic degree for it. There’s no accolades for them, save what might exist in their own small corner of life. I’m sure they work every bit as hard as any of these celebrities at their craft–honing it, being the best they can be. They don’t have degrees; we as a society think that’s prefectly appropriate and right. After all, they didn’t go through the system that bestows such an honour. Theirs is the honour of self-creation in the best possible way, acknowledged by the people nearest them. That’s as it should be. Their honour is no less essential in a big picture kind of way, it’s just not academic… so no degree.

Sigh. Maybe it’s my cynicism. Maybe it’s that my little Honours BA is the probably the best thing I’ll ever do with myself, and the last thing anyone will ever offer me an accolade for, so I don’t want it washed down in any way. Maybe these honourary degrees and doctorates are just an extension of their own journeys and they really did earn them. Someone thinks so.

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