Old Smoke: Bear’s Guide

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Posts.

where I come from," the Wizard of Oz said, "we have universities–seats
of great learning–where men go to become great thinkers. And when they
come out they think deep thoughts with no more brains than you have. But they
have one thing you haven’t got–a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of
the authority vested in me by Universitatis Commitatibus E Pluribus
Unum, I hereby confer on you the honorary degree of Th.D, Doctor of Thinkology."

I first
heard of John Bear in 1990, when a man from Michigan named Bob Adams told me
about the Ethiopian ear-pickers. In 1966, Southern Methodist University gave
Bob Hope an honorary doctorate after the entertainer gave it a substantial donation.
Up at Michigan State University, John Bear was earning his doctorate the hard
way. Bear resented this. He knew that President Fillmore refused all honorary
doctorates, even from Oxford. Bear then founded the Millard Fillmore Institute
to honor the 13th president’s memory. The Institute awarded doctorates
with ornately engraved diplomas on genuine imitation parchment that read, "By
virtue of powers which we have invented…" granting "the honorary
and meretricious" doctorate "magna cum grano salis"–with
a big grain of salt.

Six years
later, while studying in London, he tried the same thing on a larger scale.
He and some friends created the London Institute for Applied Research and ran
advertisements in American publications: "Phony honorary doctorates for
sale, $25." Several hundred were sold, presumably keeping the promoters
in whiskey and cigars. As Bear wrote, half the world’s academic establishment
thought L.I.A.R. was a great gag. The other half felt it threatened life as
we knew it. After wearing out the joke, Bear traded the remaining diplomas to
a Dutchman for 100 pounds of metal crosses and Ethiopian ear-pickers. (The Dutchman
is still selling them–for $100 a piece.)

With this
kind of experience, Bear first published Bear’s Guide, his profoundly
serious and wildly funny guide to alternative higher education, more than a
quarter-century ago. The latest edition, the 14th, crossed my desk last week.
This is probably the best available practical guide to obtaining legitimate
college degrees without full-time attendance in a conventional college setting,
whether through correspondence, independent study, college credit through examination
or life-experience learning or the Internet. As Bear notes, in 1970, if one
wanted to earn a degree without sitting in a classroom for three or four years
and wanted to remain in North America, one had two choices: the Universities
of London and of South Africa. Today, one has more than 1000 options.

To be sure,
I loved my completely traditional undergraduate experience, down to the last
mug of beer. But that was a quarter-century ago, when one could pay a year’s
tuition with the money one earned over the summer as a dishwasher. That isn’t
the case anymore.

Also, American
college education is more about obtaining a credential than inheriting the intellectual
legacy of the West. I regret this; so, I sense, does Bear. This is part of a
phenomenon that might be called "credentialism." One might define
it as a false objectivity in personnel decisions by substituting credentials,
particularly academic diplomas, for the analysis of character, intelligence
and ability or even the intelligent exercise of judgment in hiring, firing and

Bear argues
that an academic degree is more useful to one’s career than practical knowledge.
Whether this is good for society is immaterial. He illustrates this point with
an anecdote about a telephone call from the man in charge of sawing off tree
limbs for a Midwestern city. The city government had decreed that all agency
heads must have baccalaureates. The head sawyer didn’t have one. If he
didn’t earn a degree within two years, he would lose the job he had competently
performed for two decades. The reality of his competence was immaterial to someone
else’s need for false objectivity.

Nor are
we in New York immune from this. For example, the city government now requires
applicants for the police examinations to have 60 college credits. Surely no
one who has attended college will seriously claim that accumulating credits
raises barriers to brutality or provides a sure test of intelligence, industry,
courage and character.

To Bear,
traditional education awards degrees for time served and credit earned, pursuant
to a medieval formula combining generalized and specialized education, in a
classroom on a campus. The kind of nontraditional education emphasized by his
book awards degrees on the basis of competencies and performance skills, using
methodologies that cultivate self-direction and independence through planned
independent study, generally off campus.

More practically,
nontraditional routes are now radically less expensive. One can obtain a bachelor’s
degree from New York’s Excelsior College (formerly Regents College)
or New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College without stepping into a classroom.
For example, Excelsior awards degrees to persons who have accumulated sufficient
credits through various means, including noncollege learning experience such
as corporate training programs, military training and professional licenses;
equivalency examintions such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP),
the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the Graduate
Record Examinations (GRE); its own nationally recognized examination program;
and even educational portfolios evaluated through its partnerships with other
institutions, such as Ohio University.

in a world that cheapens the humanities to a mere credential and refuses to
evaluate intelligence, experience and common sense, it’s a short step to
advancing one’s career through exaggeration and even downright deceit.
Remember that a diploma is merely a document evidencing the holder’s completion
of a particular course of study.

Even the
once-sacred transcript, the official record of the work one has done to earn
a degree, is no longer so. Some made creative use of color copiers and laser
printers. Others hacked into college computer systems for fun and learned how
to alter records for profit.

though, has always been part of the American doctoral tradition. Bear claims
the first American doctorate came about thus.

only a person with a doctorate can bestow a doctorate upon someone else. At
the end of the 17th century, Harvard’s faculty had no instructors with
doctorates. Its president, Increase Mather, belonged to a religious sect anathema
to the Church of England and hence legally ineligible for a doctorate from any
English university. Harvard’s faculty, which then consisted of two people,
solved this problem by unanimous agreement to award Mather an honorary doctorate.
Mather, in turn, conferred doctorates upon his instructors.

They, in
turn, began doctoring their students.

Yale apparently
awarded America’s first professional doctorate. Daniel Turner, a British
physician, gave Yale some 50 medical textbooks. Yale awarded him an MD in absentia
(Turner never set foot in America). According to Bear, some suggested that the
MD must stand for multum donavit: "he gave a lot."

Bear also
discusses as one might expect the anomaly of the honorary degree. In a country
where the government is forbidden from granting titles of nobility, higher education
fills the gap with honorary doctorates, which are simply titles bestowed for
various reasons upon various individuals. Bear suggests an analogy to an army
granting the honorary rank of general to a civilian who may then use it in everyday

Of course
there are doctorates and there are doctorates. My alma mater, for example, grants
honorary doctorates to a few distinguished men and women every year. Among them,
invariably, is the chief executive of some corporation whose foundation has
made a substantial contribution to the college’s endowment. The Rev. Kirby
Hensley’s renowned Universal Life Church, which awards an honorary Doctor
of Divinity degree to anyone who ponies up $30 (it used to be only $5), merely
takes this to its logical extreme.

My favorite
chapters discuss phony degrees and diploma mills, some of which operate wildly
beyond the law: In 1978, one diploma mill proprietor was arrested as Mike Wallace
was interviewing him for 60 Minutes. Usually unaccredited, usually operating
in one of the handful of states that barely regulate private higher education
(currently Hawaii seems the happy hunting ground of the degree mill), such institutions
flourish because people want to avoid the work of getting a real degree. After
60 Minutes aired its program, the network received thousands of telephone
calls and letters from people who wanted the addresses and telephone numbers
of the diploma mills exposed by the program.

And who
can blame them? In some states, a doctorate from a one-room Bible school is
sufficient to set up practice as a marriage counselor and psychotherapist. At
least one major figure in the New York City Parking Violations Bureau scandals
had been a marriage counselor on the strength of his advanced degrees from the
College of St. Thomas in Montreal, Canada. This was a theological seminary sponsored
by an Old Catholic church whose archbishop, a retired plumber (I met him once:
his weakness for lace on his episcopal finery left me cold), operated the college
from His Excellency’s apartment. Quebec simply did not regulate religious
seminaries; this allowed the archbishop to claim, accurately, that the degrees
were lawful and valid. They were also worthless.

As Bear
notes, in Hawaii and Louisiana, the one-man church founded yesterday may sponsor
a university today that may grant a doctorate in nuclear physics tomorrow. One
Louisiana diploma mill successfully argued that as God created everything, all
subjects were the study of God and therefore a religious degree. This may be
theologically sound, but if I learned my physician held his MD from this school,
I would seek another doctor.

As long
as people value others more for their pieces of paper than for the content of
their character, the diploma mill will flourish. But the intelligent careerist
will use common sense and the guides of John Bear.

Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123,
Berkeley, CA 94707, $29.95, www.tenspeed.com.