‘Honourary doctorates are mere decorations’

‘Honourary  doctorates are mere decorations’

By *George M. Chellah*

Its a good thing that men and women in this country get recognized for their contribution to society in the fields of their choosing such as politics, health, human rights etc. Some of these are recognized through awards of honorary doctorates by different institutions. The credibility or lack thereof of such institutions is not in my place to say for now. It’s fair enough that one has to be recognized for their efforts and they must be duly congratulated.

What seems to be at issue however is firstly the absence of standards in such recognitions and the wide range of subjectivity involved such that an honorary doctorate accepted in one quarter may not be accepted in other quarters. This is why honorary doctorates are not meant to confer the title “Dr” to those awarded. These are mere decorations for contributions made to society. In fact, if you observe, all credible institutions in the UK and the US, for instance, advice recipients of honorary doctorates to refrain from using the title ‘Dr.’ beyond their dealings with the awarding institutions. At the very least, a credible awarding institution will advise you to add, immediately after the title, that yours is an honorary doctorate.

What is disheartening in Zambia is the indiscriminate manner in which the media begin addressing people with honorary doctorates as Dr. without due regard as to whether those people are really entitled to use the title. In this case, the media is in the forefront of confusing the public and cheapening academia. Tied to this is the silence by academia themselves who should know better and educate the population about this. In addition, the recipients themselves haven’t helped matters. It beats me how someone with an honorary doctorate can insist on being addressed, as “Dr” and he or she is comfortable with it. It portrays them as being pretentious, self-aggrandizing or vain. They deserve the honorary doctorates but ladies and gentlemen, they should refrain from addressing themselves as ‘Dr.’ because they certainly have not gone through the respectable yet rigorous study for a real doctorate, which involves writing and defending a thesis before a panel of the cream of intellectuals. Those who may recall in the 1990s, many prominent intellectuals at that time refused to address the great Kenneth David Kaunda as “Dr” Kaunda because whilst they recognized his being honored, they also understood that to address him as “Dr” was a bit of a misnomer.

Lastly, watch all great men and women of reputation that have been honored with several honorary doctorates and you will tell me that they don’t self-aggrandize about it. For example, Nelson Mandela had over ten honorary doctorates. As the world bade farewell to this great son of Africa, he was still addressed as Mr. Mandela. Robert Mugabe had read for over six degrees, and has been awarded several honorary doctorates but he prefers being addressed as Mr. Mugabe. Others that have honorary doctorates but are too self-respecting to want to be called “Dr” include Barack Obama and Thabo Mbeki among others. So, drop this “Dr. Bishop, Prophet, Apostle, Professor chakuti” thing, it’s eroding the integrity of our education system.

Curiously, this seems to be more rampant in Zambia than anywhere else, especially among leaders. What type of self-deception is this? Look at it this way, can someone just wake up and insist on being addressed as ‘Brigadier General Chanda Mfula’ when he knows very well that he is a civilian without even cadet training?

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