Honorary degrees are a dubious bit of pomp

Stefanie Botelho's picture
Friday, May 30, 2014

Another college commencement season has come and gone. In retrospect, these are really odd affairs. The academic regalia is medieval. The solemn processions and homilies are liturgical. The speeches are futuristic, each being a verbal launching pad for the lives ready to take off. The mood is mixed, with some students delighted to leave college in the dust, and others fearful of what adulthood might bring. The music — Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" — is early Edwardian, dating to 1901. The ceremonies highlight scholarly achievement but are often held in athletic arenas, now that a changing climate has brought us soggier springs.

But the oddest part of commencement involves the conferral of honorary degrees. This tradition dates back to 15th century England, whe Oxford University had little to give beyond academic sheepskins.

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