Old Smoke: Bear's Guide

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"Back 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 promoting.

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

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