A cynical observer recently described the holder of an honorary degree as a man who had bought well for his college. Surveying the welter of estimable mediocrities who are annually acclaimed at Commencement, it does not always appear that they have performed a better service. Actually, few academic traditions have been more causally corrupted than that by which the symbol of scholarship is bestowed on persons of exceptional distinction in intellectual life of public service. The unhappy fact is that many colleges which are so liberal with their sheepskins lack faculties capable of measuring achievement from the point of view of scholarship.
It is a legitimate point of pride that Harvard has remained aloof from the general slackening of standards in this respect, and that an honorary degree from Harvard is esteemed and coveted more than any other. Such a degree, if it means anything, should mean that the disinterested scrutiny of scholars has approved the pattern of a life-time of effort; not merely that buildings have been built or zeal manifested for a cause. The names of the chief recipients of this year's honorary degrees from Harvard indicate that the selection has been dictated by the highest standards. Certainly the recognition bestowed on "Al" Smith will be applauded by everyone who appreciates the spirit of Professor Whitehead's reputed remark, that Governor Smith knows more about the theory of government than any living man. In his case, the University brushes aside externals to salute the disinterested sprit which is common to both scholarship and public service. Such an award is the only fundamental justification for the bestowing of honorary degrees.