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Swellboy on… acquiring a doctorate

The curious case of the politician and the dodgy doctorate

Swellboy on… acquiring a doctorate

Image: Brijesh Patel

June 09 2011
Nick Foulkes

I cannot help feeling a little sorry for Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, who has felt it necessary to resign from a ministerial post in Germany over allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis. However, at least this storm in a Bier Stein has brought a fairly colourful character to our notice; I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble identifying the members of our own government, let alone familiarising myself with those of other EU nations.

The aristocratic politician seems to have had it all: a family Schloss from the Middle Ages; a glamorous and similarly posh TV-presenter wife; a couple of children; a very fine head of hair kept in place with lashings of product; and a reputation as a rising man in the fairly colourless world of the Bundestag. But he wanted a doctorate, too, and that, it would appear, is where the problem has arisen.

I can understand why a doctorate is a nice thing to have; I would quite fancy one myself. But as I have yet to get around to collecting my Bachelor and Master of Arts (I scraped through my finals but I’m not sure that I have technically graduated as there might be a small matter of some unpaid battels on my college account) the doctorate is still a long way off.

I did toy with buying one from an American institute of higher education which, as I recall, offered the convenient facility of changing the discipline in which the doctorate was held within the first year; handy if I suddenly felt that my doctorate in medieval water transport would be more useful if it were in tropical medicine instead. But in the end I think I decided that the money would be better spent on riotous living. I bet that the baron is wishing he had bought one of these flexi-doctorates, rather than having to go through the laborious process of, allegedly, cutting and pasting his thesis together.

Besides, as it ran to a length of 470-odd pages, I find it hard to believe that anyone could be bothered to plough through so much information on constitutional development, let alone stay sufficiently alert to cross-reference it with other learned treatises on this most compelling of subjects. It puts me in mind of the story I heard from Simon de Pury about the annual reports that Baron Thyssen used to compile for his sisters; he used to put a note some way through the document to the effect that if the reader had got thus far he or she should get in touch with him so that he could send them a case of Krug – apparently Heini’s Krug remained in his cellar.

However, out of this trivial scandal it is possible to discern a positive message for Europe, namely that, in spite of the various centralised functions of the European superstate, national identity is still alive and healthy.

It is hard to imagine that an accusation of academic borrowing would occur in British politics; the closest analogous situation that I can think of would be if some ambitious young Cleggeron, who had been up at Oxford, described himself as a former member of the Bullingdon without being entitled to claim membership of this cradle of our political élite. That really would be a scandal.

And the hysteria in Germany is in marked contrast to the attitude of Italy, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year. As such, Italy is a decade older than the unified state of Germany – if I remember correctly, Germany announced it was an empire around the time of the Battle of Sedan and the Siege of Paris and the crushing of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War – and, as befits a more experienced nation, has a much more relaxed view of academic qualifications. From what I can tell during my visits to Italy, it seems only good manners to address anyone who has received a modicum of education as “Dottore”, “Professore” or “Avvocato”.

I have to say I rather like this free-and-easy abandon with which Italians bestow upon each other titles that, a few hundred kilometres to the north, are the subject of such forensic scrutiny. It displays a true generosity of spirit and presupposes a level of general education that puts our own island home to shame.

However, there are times when the Italian enthusiasm for academic qualifications can go a little too far, as the joke I was told by a worldly Italian of my acquaintance shows. It concerned the problem of an illiterate man faced with a document to sign. As the signatory was unable to form the letters necessary to spell his name, the bureaucrat with the form suggested the old expedient of putting a cross in the place where the signature should be. Gripping the pen fast in his fist and knitting his brow in concentration, he managed to put two crosses on the dotted line.

“Why did you put two crosses?” questioned the bewildered official.

“The first one stands for ‘Dr’,” came the answer.

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