It was recently convocation time around here, with convocation comes the slate of honorary degrees that are awarded during the ceremonies. As someone who resides in the Faculty of Law I’ve noticed that most (though not all) honorary degree recipients receive a Doctor of Laws. This occurs even though the recipients may be getting their honorary degree during an Arts, Engineering or other ceremony, which leads to the obvious question, why? As it turns out the history and evolution of honorary degrees does not seem to be a well researched area and consensus is difficult to build. I was able to find one article in particular that has proven to be very helpful and must give credit: “Pomp and Circumstance at the University: The Origin of the Honorary Degree” by Pieter Dhondt in the 20:1 European Review of History 117, answered my questions as best can be.
There does not seem to be a consensus on when or where the awarding of honorary degrees commenced however, there is general agreement that, depending on a flexible definition of “honorary degree”, it generally began around the beginning of the 19th Century in Germany. Why law? It seems that the Doctor in law degree may simply have been the first doctoral degree awarded. The earliest traceable doctoral degree was at the University of Bologna in 1219 and in Paris the doctoral degree was reserved for professors in the faculty of law. Slowly the title of doctor was applied to other faculties, however, law was first. There are also a couple of instances where individuals who were students of law were given honorary “promotions” which do not mimic the concept of the honorary degree but stand as points in the evolution of the honorary degree as we know it today. So the partial answer is the Doctors of Law seem to have been the first doctoral degrees awarded and so when honorary degrees began to be awarded with some regularity the prestige of being the first doctoral degrees awarded carried over to the granting of honorary degrees. It is interesting to note that most institutions consider it unbecoming for recipients of honorary degrees to refer to themselves as doctor.
As for our recent ceremonies, I would like to wish a belated congratulations to all of our grads, as I had to miss the ceremony whilst in transit. I also want to highly recommend that you watch the valedictory address given by our Grad Emily Coyle. If I didn’t know better I would say that our grads are in a competition to top each other’s speeches from year to year. For me, this time of year and these speeches are an affirmation of what students achieve through their three year of law school. While we debate the future of legal education and the legal industry, seeing the creativity, wit and intelligence of our grads serves to remind me that while improvement is needed, we haven’t done half-bad up to this point. Now, really, I cannot recommend highly enough taking the 9 minutes to watch this valedictory address.