Academic titles are so revered in Germany that it sometimes prompts questionable shortcuts to respectability.
By now you’ve probably read enough of the brouhaha surrounding Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.
If I lost you at “Franz”, let me explain that I’m referring to former German Defence Minister zu Guttenberg who resigned from his ministerial post and parliament earlier this month. The reason?
Wholesale plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation.
Talk shows, parodies and editorials debated the minister’s misstep in cutting and pasting his way to a summa cum laude. It was unfortunate because he was the most popular minister in Angela Merkel’s cabinet.
Whenever the blue blood (freiherr means “baron”) was photographed with his equally glamorous wife Stephanie, they exuded Kennedyesque allure, prompting talk of him succeeding Mrs Merkel.
Then a professor decided to Google random segments of Dr Guttenberg’s dissertation, and everything unravelled.
First, he temporarily relinquished his title pending the University of Bayreuth’s investigation, then the University rescinded his PhD, and then unable to withstand mounting criticism from German academia and the media, and the dressing down he received in parliament from the Opposition, he finally stepped down.
One can learn two important lessons here: that politicians are not above the law, and “don’t play-play” with academic titles in Germany.
When this saga first unfolded, I Googled “German preoccupation with titles” and discovered local legislation that prohibits holders of non-European PhDs from referring to themselves as “Dr”. Violators can be liable to fines and a year in jail. This 1930s law states that only those who have earned PhDs or medical degrees in Germany can use the honorific before their given names. It was later amended in 2001 to include all European Union graduates.
I found a Washington Post article from 2008 that reported on how seven American academics who worked at the prestigious Max Planck Society (Germany’s most successful research organisation) had faced criminal probes for “title misuse”. They were eventually let off after the police were satisfied that they had no criminal intent. They were nevertheless instructed on how to append their titles to the end of their names.
For example, “John Doe, PhD, Stanford University”.
This actually led to a parliamentary debate and now Americans from ‘’certain accredited institutions’’ are allowed to use the title, while other foreign degree holders apparently need the Education Ministry’s approval before doing so. One could argue that these stringent rules help ensure the quality of the titles. Switzerland and Spain also have similar rules to ensure that you did not purchase your degree online from the University of Middle Earth.
What’s interesting, however, is that apparently in the case of the Max Planck Seven, they wouldn’t have even been hauled up if an anonymous sour grape (who couldn’t use his Dr title himself) hadn’t snitched on them!
For some reason, having a formal title in Germany is akin to being handed the keys to the kingdom.
Some argue that Germans value academic rankings as a substitute for aristocratic titles that no longer have clout and are only used as surnames by descendants. For instance, you are allowed to legally incorporate “Dr” to your name, regardless of discipline. Sometimes, it can be a stepping stone to better career opportunities.
What’s more, these titles even come in handy for the most mundane matters. For instance, a girlfriend whose husband is a Professor of English had faced problems finding an apartment when they first moved here. Then a friend advised, “It’s time to use your title.” During the next apartment viewing session, her husband casually remarked that he is a Prof, and doors literally opened.
When we lived in Hanoi, I had been a little confused by a name plate on the compound wall of another expat couple. It stated “Mrs Dr A and Mr A Dipl. Ing”. I had to ask my husband what that suffix meant. I was told that it denoted “engineer”. I can understand the need to list prefixes and suffixes on a business card, CV or nameplate in an office, but at your private residence?
Even on official forms, Prof/Dr/Herr/Frau precede the space in which to fill out your name. Imagine chairing a meeting featuring a Herr Prof Dr X or Frau Dr Dr Y. (Germans use a double Dr prefix if they have two doctorates.) Add lengthy, double-barrelled surnames and the poor minute-taker has his work cut out for him!
The zu Guttenberg saga had one positive outcome though — soul-searching on the worth and relevance of PhDs today.
After all, it’s not about accumulating titles. It’s about honestly earning them.
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. She is considering a PhD in Feline Musings.
Source : The STAR News Home > Columnists > Sambal On The Side Saturday March 26, 2011