Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Problem with Honorary Doctorates

I actually have no problems with honorary doctorates as such. It can be a great way to show respect for a commencement speaker, or for someone worthy of honor. However, in Christian circles, an honorary doctorate seems to be taken as a license to be called “doctor;” it is viewed as conferring a certain level of prestige or respectability. While there is nothing wrong with receiving an honorary title for a day (as many sources indicate was common), there is something wrong, in our current culture, with claiming to be a doctor in such circumstances. Not all of these points will apply equally to every person, but they do apply to most.
First, the honorary doctor is not in a position to do solid academic research. As documented yesterday, many, perhaps even most, pastors do not advance beyond the initial stages of research. The vast majority of pastors (in my tradition) do not go beyond the “Bible college” level of research. Because of this, they don’t even know what questions to ask, much less what the answers are, when it comes to current scholarship.
The second problem stems directly from the first. The honorary doctor is not in a position to be a scholar in his field. Because of not being able to do first-rate research, he will not be in a position to do first-rate scholarship, interacting with the best in his field. A true dissertation is not simply a long research paper; it is an original thesis defended by original research to bring original knowledge to whatever field in which one finds himself. Someone once told me a successful PhD ought to be one of the top scholars in the world on his or her dissertation topic.[1]
An objection presents itself: “But what about ministry! Surely that’s not the same as a PhD!” This is exactly right. The comparable doctorate is a D.Min. While this doctorate involves “less” research, it involves research nonetheless. Moreover, the research requires a command of the theoretical side of statistics, something most people lack.
The third problem is an answer to the objection often heard in these debates. “But Pastor Dave has been in the ministry so long, he’s learned the equivalent of a doctorate.” The problem is that, almost always, no, he has not. Pastoring for twenty years takes an incredible skill set and is something to be honored greatly (far above a PhD, in my opinion), but it takes a completely different skill set than a PhD. Without fail (so far), the people pushing this objection have never actually engaged in academic research at the post-graduate level (formally or otherwise).
The final problem tends to be two-fold. When those people in the church and in our society hear of a doctorate in the pulpit, they will assume he is a scholar in that field (that’s what a doctorate-earner is). When they find out he is not, either by observing his teaching or discovering the doctorate is honorary, his credibility is damaged. In turn, it damages the credibility of likeminded churches (fair or not). The second part of the problem is pride. People think we’re pretty intelligent if we are called “doctor.” It is not uncommon to have church members, staff, or even the pastor himself insist on being called “Dr. So-and so.” I once heard an anecdote about a well-known independent Baptist pastor from decades ago who ran a large conference. Someone innocently asked the man a question, addressing him as “Pastor So-and-so.” He was shouted down with the correction from the crowd, “That’s DR. So-and –so!” May it never be said among us.
That all being said, I have absolutely no problem with honors given to people by Christian colleges and seminaries. That is a completely different debate altogether. However, in this present cultural setting, it implies a distinction that has not been attained, and thus is a form of deceit. Those with honorary doctorates should avoid calling themselves “doctor.”

[1] Incidentally, some Christian colleges tend to have the view of dissertations that they are simply “really long papers,” and this dilutes the quality of doctorates they produce. In the United States, quality doctoral programs will have you engage in some legitimate coursework (not book reports), then write an original dissertation using original research for an original contribution to the field. For doctorates, anything less is a doctoral degree mill.


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