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John R. Tunis does not often enjoy the experience of being either accurate or penetrating, but in an article on honorary degrees in the June issue in an article on honorary degrees in the June issue of "Harpers" he presents a case which should give thought to this university and all other who award these annual kudos.
Early in their history honorary degrees were just what the uninitiated would expect of them. They were tributes given by the universities to men who had made a significant contribution to the world of learning or who had performed some especially laudable deed in the service of humanity. As learning became more commercialized during the nineteenth century and competition between the universities keener, the requirements for an honorary degree became ever more lenient, until the present spectacle of politicians, rich suckers, and back writers receiving honors from the colleges should disgust any one with the slightest pride in higher education.
Tunis lists as the chief requirements for honorary degrees under our system a fat pocket-book, a same of publicity value, an influential place in politics, or the position of college president. There are, to be sure, other avenues of entrance into the charmed circle, such as a career in education, sciences, literature, or journalism, but at a modern American commencement men from these fields are definitely playing "minor league" and as a rule are far from distinguished even at their own work.
An examination of the honorary degrees conferred by Harvard during the past five years proves that Tunis's frame fits out picture, with the possible exception that publicity value does not cut much ice at a university which makes news and does and need to court it.
During this period six college presidents were touched with the magic wand. Except for A. Lawrence Lowell the recognition was not due to any starting contribution to education, but rather to a strange habit of reciprocity among American colleges. In the field of government Samuel Seabury rendered a great public service, but degrees were similarly bestowed upon A1 smith, Orden Mills, and Secretary Wallance. Even the casual reader of the Bible will admit that it much easier for a rich man to enter the Sever Quadrangle than the gates of heaven, and it is hard to see how being President of "Filene's" or Vice-President of the "American Telephone and Telegraph" makes one automatically eligible for an academic degree at Harvard. Many men of science and literature have been honored, but in reading the lists one cannot help feeling that the awards were extravagantly made and that a distressing number of the recipients were men of mediocre talents. Thomas Mann and Einstein honored Harvard by their very presence here, but it seems that the editor of the Emporia Gazette and the chronicler of Harvard history have yet to reach their full stature.
Honorary degrees, carelessly awarded and worn by men of small abilities can do nothing but cheapen the university that gives them. While the tawdy publicity-hunting described by Tunis does not motivate Harvard, this university has had its part in the movement which has made of honorary degrees an insincere and meaningless farce.
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