In pursuit of intellectual respectability – commentary

In pursuit of intellectual respectability

Stabroek News – Editorial –  February 15, 2013.phdgown

An excessive deference to figures in authority and an unhealthy obsession with titles, especially academic ones, are traits not necessarily confined to the Caribbean.

German education minister Annette Schavan resigned last week, after Düsseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University found her guilty of plagiarism and stripped her of her doctorate. Ms Schavan maintains that she did no wrong and has vowed to clear her name. She is, however, the second member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to resign over such a scandal, following in the footsteps of defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who stepped down in 2011, after he was also found to have plagiarised large parts of his doctoral thesis.   

According to a BBC report on Ms Schavan’s resignation, “These cases occur in Germany partly because of the German obsession with titles. German politicians take them very seriously, seeing them as a mark of intellectual respectability. It is not uncommon, for example, for a professor with two doctorates to expect to be called ‘Professor, Doctor, Doctor.’”

Now, there may be more than a hint of schadenfreude in the BBC’s tone at the discomfiture of the German government and not a little enjoyment at the prospect of making fun of the Germans – almost a national sport in Britain – but the reporter in question seemed ironically unaware of his own country’s enduring love affair with rank and title. The silliness does not end there though.

The Italians are so status conscious that almost anyone holding a university degree can be addressed as ‘Dottore.’ Latin Americans suddenly acquire the title ‘Doctor’ when they become lawyers or senior civil servants. And, in the Caribbean, there is a tendency to address the recipients of honorary doctorates mistakenly as ‘Doctor’ in spite of the honorary nature of the award. Such practices can perhaps be attributed to cultural norms or changes in societal attitudes over time, whether born of ignorance or genuine admiration for the accomplishments of the worthies amongst us.

The recent German examples, however, in spite of the fact that the degrees were genuine at the time of being awarded, should serve as a warning that a high academic title alone is no guarantee of personal achievement or, indeed, integrity. Nor should we, for that matter, take anyone’s curriculum vitae at face value.

Only on Monday, the St Lucia Star reminded readers of a disgraced former minister in the Kenny Anthony administration elected in 1997 and 2001, who had made much of his having a PhD in his election campaigns and during his time in office, until exposed as a fraud and forced to resign in tears on national television.

In Trinidad and Tobago, in 2011, a government minister was reported by the Guardian newspaper as having got his doctorate “by distance education from an institution incorporated in Hawaii and closed down by the US authorities” in 2004. Nothing wrong with distance education but such unaccredited institutions are known as degree mills and are seemingly more prevalent nowadays in the age of the Internet.

Public exposure, however, was not sufficient to warrant the gentleman considering his position. It is unclear why he, the holder of a first class honours degree from the University of the West Indies, would have felt the need to acquire a doctorate in this manner, but perhaps he was simply in a hurry to attain intellectual respectability in a competitive, status-conscious and generally unquestioning environment.

This attitude in the twin-island republic probably explains the behaviour of one Hafizool Mohammed, a member of the commission of enquiry into the 1990 coup attempt in that country, who according to the Guardian, “holds a doctorate of science from the unaccredited Atlantic International University,” another degree mill. To date, the soi disant doctor has refused to step down from the commission and has gone so far as to explain other discrepancies on his CV as mere “errors.”

Such examples serve to remind us in the Caribbean that it behoves us all to be more discerning, even as public institutions should be more rigorous in exercising due diligence, particularly with regard to persons elected or appointed to high public office, who may have doctored their CVs – if you will excuse the pun – in pursuit of intellectual respectability.

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  • de castro  On 02/21/2013 at 7:41 am

    Very interesting reporting…
    interluctual respectability should be “won” not “awarded” by its interlectual
    Institutions…a doctorate won in competition …not unlike competitive sport
    …the way forward…how it is measured and judged should be publicly
    “Open”. To scrutiny /critique…if it is to be respected.

    The few who DECIDE TO RESIGN than to be humiliated can only be admired for their unquestionable integrity….it is right to demonstrate by action more than words…I salute these individuals !

    GENETICALLY it has been proven “scientifically” by DNA testing that “northerners
    are more alike than “southerners”…German English share
    common genes…
    Our present monarch HRH QE2 anglo-saxon-german
    Wedded to a Greek !

    Not wishing to be considered disrespectful I will conclude
    The opinions above are my own “unique to me” but am sure others will
    Have opinions they wish to express…
    I will get off my soap box and give others the opportunity to
    Express their opinions…
    Would much prefer disagreement than agreements…
    I learn more from others.


  • Thinker  On 02/21/2013 at 11:33 am

    Your present monarch is also a descendant of Genghiz Khan.

  • de castro  On 02/21/2013 at 12:54 pm

    according to my grandaughter
    “competition in academia” can discourge the not so bright academics from competing…she is 12 with an opinion already…
    I tried to explain that it is not a test of the physical/atlethic/or fitness that is in question … but the mental abilities …. we are still in “discussion/disagreement”

    as for the British Monarchy …is it from the Duke s ancestors the GrEEKS !??
    I do feel empathy for CHARLES …he will only succeed after the passing of QE2
    one recent development is that William/Kate offspring will be next in line to throne whether boy or girl….CHARLES was heir because he was first born SON.
    Hey I am no ROYALIST but they do serve a valuable purpose….TOURIST ATTRACTION….and also most do a lot of charitable work….

    Privately I feel they should be “elected” not “ordained” ! Why even POPES are
    voted into the job…and it was their ancestors that divided christians…which they have never apologised for….arrogance of power !!

    Now I will be “chastised” for my expression of an opinion…as anti ROYALIST !

    In my defence hand on heart… “I AM NO PRO/ANTI” …but find snobbery obnoxious…HRH QE2 is having elecution lesson on how to “speak” common !!


  • Wentworth Lionel Carrega  On 02/22/2013 at 12:49 pm

    This self aggrandizment is nothing new. Here in New York and elsewhere in the media and politics we have many people calling themselves dr. when the sheepskin was honorary. We also have people in politics locally who could not remember when and, in this case, a female West Indian politician, who could not remember when she graduated from college- she did not.

    In Guyana there is a flood of people doing the same.Some of them, with initials like G. S, claiming to have several doctorates and these are from US mills. Some have even ventured to open medical schools, as administrative heads. And, if one looks closely, many of the earned doctorates are from “also ran schools” in Russia and Europe- the past President of Guyana is a good example.

  • unanimous  On 02/22/2013 at 1:02 pm

    absolutely hilarious laughter.!!……..Wentworth Lionel Carrega
    sheep in wolves clothing…we have DOCTORS in UK from INDIA IRAN AFRICA
    et al
    that dont even speak ENGLISH………..and understand little…
    WHY …more economical to employ than to train…….

    Today CHINA is focused on its “service sector” to improve GROWTH…
    plumbers/carpenters/electricians/builders et al…wonder why !

    As our world becomes more GLOBAL the next generation will be “walking the talk”…interesting times ahead….

    My motto is simple…

    THINK global and ACT local.

    forever the optimist

  • Ron Persaud  On 02/25/2013 at 1:23 am

    Here is a story my MIL once told us.
    One day, the Rajah decided to go hunting. Hunting was a big thing – dozens of servants, fancy clothes etc. etc. The weather for the duration had to be fine. So the first thing the Rajah did was to call in his “Chief Meteorological Officer” to ask what the weather was going to be like.
    “No rain for the next three weeks!” The “Chief Meteorological Officer” replied confidently.
    So the Rajah and his retinue set off for the hunt. On the way, they met a farmer leading his donkey that was pulling a well-loaded cart. The farmer inquired, “Rajah? Ah weh ya’ah guh?”. You see, in those days farmers could speak with their Rajah.
    “I am going hunting”, asserted the Rajah.
    “Rain guh prappa fall, Rajah”, the farmer told him almost apologetically.
    “What do you know about the weather? My “Chief Meteorological Officer” says that there will be no rain for the next three weeks”.
    And so they went their separate ways; the chastened farmer and the dismissive Rajah.
    Well, as they occasionally say in the game of cricket, “Rain! No Play”
    The hunting trip was aborted next day and all returned to the palace – soaking wet!
    The Rajah furiously fired his “Chief Meteorological Officer” and sent for the farmer. When the latter arrived the Rajah presented him to his top civil servants and announced proudly, “I want you all to meet my new “Chief Meteorological Officer”. The confused farmer managed to blurt out “Nah me! Ah me dankey does tell me the wedda”.
    The Rajah was momentarily flummoxed, “Your donkey?”, he asked, a hint of wariness in his tone.
    “Yes, Rajah; if e aize stan up strait – rain guh fall and me kyaan wuk. If e aize drop down sun guh prappa hat and me can wuk good money.”
    The Rajah quickly regained control of the situation by declaring, “Very well then; I will make your donkey my “Chief Meteorological Officer”.
    The animal was duly installed in the office of the disgraced “Chief Meteorological Officer”
    “And ever since then, every jackass has been trying to get a high office any way he can”, my MIL ended, trying to keep a straight face.

  • de castro  On 02/26/2013 at 9:13 am

    ha ha !
    what comes out under tail of A** is more valueable than what
    comes out of its mouth !
    Politicians and Bankers ” take note ”
    “ha ha !”
    cynically yours kamptan

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