Save the Honors for Scholars

On the general outlines of the Obama-honored-by-Notre-Dame fraucus, there can be little question. It’s fairly obvious that this was a bad move on the part of the Notre Dame University leadership, especially when they already had a precedent to follow in that they had not had Clinton — another pro-abortion non-Catholic president who had been a law school hot-shot — as a commencement speaker. It’s fairly obvious this will be seen, not as an opportunity for dialogue, but as the Catholic intellectual establishment endorsing Obama. It’s fairly obvious that Notre Dame will not back down at this point, and to be honest this is very much in keeping with the general tenor of Notre Dame over the last 30 years or so, so that’s hardly a surprise either. It’s generally agreed that Notre Dame is the most elite Catholic college in the US, and also generally understood that the question of whether it is its Catholicism or its elite status that is its controlling characteristic is undecided.

However, there’s a wider question at play here which is, I think, worth considering as regards what academia is and ought to be. It’s become quite common for colleges and universities to bring in commencement speakers who have been successful in the wider world: politicans, CEOs, actors, people well known for their work at non-profits, etc.

This is, I think, in keeping with an attitude that many in academia have that academic study should be something which is clearly applicable to the wider world. Activism and “lessons we can learn from this” thus become frequent class topics. And as such, the topic of commencement ceremonies is often more, “What will you go out and do now that you have your degree,” than, “What is inherently worthwhile about the academics to which you have devoted the recent years of your life.”

As someone who — despite having “gone out into the world” rather than continuing on in academia — has a great deal of respect and affection for study qua study, I frankly think colleges would be a lot better off making less of a fuss about these sort of outside figures. I would think Notre Dame (and colleges in general) would be better served by giving honorary degrees and commencement address opportunities to those who have actually made notable academic or intellectual achievement. In this regard, Obama has written two books about himself, edited the Harvard Law Review but not actually written much of anything, and shown his ability to run a glitzy political campaign. None of these are very impressive intellectual or academic feats, and he’s already been graced with a large and expensive ceremony (called, a believe, an “inauguration”) in recognition of the feats which he has accomplished.

And though I find them ideologically more compatible, I don’t think Reagan, George H. W. Bush or George W. Bush really are the stuff of academic honors any more than Alan Greenspan is the stuff of poetry awards.

At certain kinds of professionally focused schools I could certainly see the case for granting awards to people with significant achievements in the field, a Supreme Court justice at a law school, etc. But having a politician of any stripe (or actor, or CEO, or generally someone with of non-academic distinction) as the speaker at a general commencement strikes me as in appropriate.

And anyway, our best historians and scientists and writers and such cannot expect to receive all of the honors around the world that someone in Obama’s line or work is guaranteed. To lock up honorary degrees and commencement addresses for those with genuine intellectual accomplishments both gives due prominence to intellectual achievements in what is supposed to be an institution devoted to learning and gives more prominence within society to those skills and achievements which are too often overlooked in our celebrity focused culture.

12 Responses to Save the Honors for Scholars

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    Well written.

    I agree that Reagan and the two Bush’s along with Obama should not receive an honorary degree. Especially when it has almost nothing to do with their own personal histories and experiences.

  2. Jose says:

    “It’s generally agreed that Notre Dame is the most elite Catholic college in the US”- I think some folks in Georgetown might disagree with you on that one. Oh wait though, they’re Jesuits so they don’t matter.

  3. John Henry says:

    I think another reason why outside speakers are invited to give commencement addresses is that the vast majority of students are not continuing in academia. The commencement speaker, who presumably has been successful in some pursuit, is supposed to give them advice in navigating the outside world. I suppose the honorary degrees have been added along the way as a sweetener, although they’ve always struck me as a faintly ridiculous.

    John Schwenkler made a somewhat similar point the other day, although he was more focused on exemplars of the faith for Catholic universities, rather than academics. I thought it was interesting fwiw:

    My own inclination is actually to say that the standard should be really high: only individuals who’ve contributed in pretty radical ways to the life of the Church should be given honors like this one. That this means that pretty much no national politician would clear the bar is, I think, one of such a proposal’s very best effects. There are countless people who teach, write books, feed the hungry, aid the sick, and otherwise do the real work of advocating for God’s justice who deserve an honorary doctorate more than Barack Obama does; that most such people are not presently famous is all the more reason to single them out.

  4. Kyle Cupp says:

    I think I agree, or at least I would choose scholars over politicians were I in the position of choosing commencement speakers. Of course, I would probably choose obscure postmodern philosophers, and they have a history of provoking opposition and outrage. In 1992, Cambridge gave Jacques Derrida an honorary degree. Protest from philosophers opposed to deconstruction ensued. They wrote a letter to the London Times urging faculty to vote against the honor.

  5. Kyle Cupp

    I agree with the fact that honorary degrees should be given to academics (though, one could say Obama had an academic career, of sorts, as did and do many politicians, so the distinction is not as easy as we would like). But more than that, save for extraordinary circumstances, I don’t think honorary degrees should be given. I don’t like the practice. But since it is the norm, and I am not the one in charge, I understand why they are given, and given to politicians.

  6. Elaine says:

    Giving honorary degrees to anyone who speaks at a commencement would be like conferring the title of “honorary President” on anyone who makes an official appearance at the White House, or “honorary Congressman” on someone who testifies before Congress or one of its committees. It is silly and superflous (which is probably one reason Stephen Colbert makes such a big deal of his honorary degree from Knox College).

    If the Obama commencement invitation hadn’t come with an honorary degree, it might have lessened the outrage among (orthodox) Catholics somewhat, but probably wouldn’t have eliminated it entirely.

    Did Mr. Clinton never speak at Notre Dame because they didn’t invite him, or because he never accepted the invitation? If ND does have a tradition of inviting new presidents I assume Clinton was invited but didn’t accept.

  7. Elaine says:

    Actually, John Henry, (as you are probably aware), Notre Dame already has an award called the Laetare Medal that fits the criteria you cite (intended for someone who has contributed significantly to the life of the Church).

  8. Kyle,

    It doesn’t strike me as surprising that a good university’s choices of whom to honor would make some people mad — though in this ND case I think it’s the university rather than those who are objecting that is in the wrong.


    Agreed. Passing out honorary degrees like party favors does pretty much rob them of any meaning. One would think that if a university thought its degrees worth of some estimation, they would only rarely give them out to those who had not earned them in the traditional fashion.

    (It’s true, as you point out, that most politicians have had an academic career in the sense of earning an undergraduate degree and either a law degree or an MBA, but I think we’d probably agree that’s not usually an “academic career” deserving of any degrees other than the ones actually earned already.)


    Perhaps ND can honor Stephen Colbert for his leadership next year…

  9. Tito Edwards says:


    That was pretty funny. :~)

  10. Elaine says:

    With apologies (of sorts) to Rush Limbaugh, I offer the first of Elaine’s As Of Yet Undetermined Number of Undeniable Truths:

    When it comes to Catholic faith formation, a secular university with a well-staffed, active and orthodox Newman Center is preferable to a “Catholic in name only” private university. (It’s also a lot more affordable.)

    My daughter isn’t in the college or university market yet — probably won’t be for a while due to her disability — but I would, on this grounds alone, choose to send her to the U of I Champaign over Notre Dame, Loyola, DePaul, et al. In fact I would argue that UIUC may be one of the best Catholic colleges in Illinois, and it’s not even Catholic!

  11. Elaine says:

    Plus, as Don can attest, St. John’s Chapel can hold its own in architectural wow power, even if not in size, with ND’s Sacred Heart Basilica.

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