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?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more


Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.


What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world



More in Global

From This Author

Just In