Germany's Degree Mania


Imagine a star member of a U.S. cabinet, with a renowned family name and presidential ambitions, thinking enough of the Ph.D to acquire one in his spare time so he or she could be called Dr. o-and-so, then resigning after being accused of plagiarizing large parts of it. And now a criminal investigation has started, according to Deutsche Welle:

Prosecutors in Germany announced on Monday that they were proceeding with an investigation into the plagiarism allegations against former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

The team of prosecutors responsible for Guttenberg's case is based in the city of Hof, near the University of Bayreuth where the shamed minister submitted his degree thesis in 2006.

"So far, we have received more than 100 complaints relating to the plagiarism allegations," senior prosecutor Reiner Laib said, adding that the team was looking into possible charges of breach of copyright.

No culture fetishizes the doctorate more than German-speaking Europe. According to the BBC report,

[i]t is said that a search for a doctor on a Lufthansa flight when someone was taken ill revealed a string of doctors of philosophy, a doctor of music, a doctor of law and a doctor of theology

And Germans consider their degrees special. Even as their university leaders recruit U.S. academics, provincial bureaucrats turn up their noses at the American Ph.D, a strange attitude considering some of the German dissertations I read while writing my own in German history. In 2008, an American institute director at the University of Jena was formally charged with abuse of academic titles, a criminal offense in the Federal Republic. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

Mr. Baldwin's crime, under a Nazi-era law governing the use of academic titles, was to assume that his doctorate from Cornell University entitled him to call himself "Doctor" in Germany. The honorific, apparently, is reserved for recipients of doctoral degrees from German universities.

Mr. Baldwin's legally correct designation, as a subsequent letter from the Thuringian Culture Ministry spelled out, is "Professor Ian T. Baldwin, Ph.D., Cornell University (Ithaca, New York)." A professorship at Jena's Friedrich Schiller University entitles him to call himself a professor.

"The parenthetical reference to the university is to really emphasize that my degree is a doctor of philosophy and comes from this little university in an inconsequential country," Mr. Baldwin explained.

Meanwhile Deutsche Welle has revealed a flourishing consultancy industry expediting their credential-seeking countrymen. And Guttenberg has more than 10 times as many fans as detractors on Facebook, according to the New York Times.

Of course none of this will satisfy critics of "American anti-intellectualism."  After all, doesn't it show that even a baron really cared?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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