When I first saw the news about Taylor Swift receiving an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from New York University, I rolled my eyes. Anyone who’s worked toward an advanced degree knows that it takes years of focused study of a specialized topic to earn a doctoral-level credential relevant to their field.
During my own path to a doctoral degree, there was no idolization or fandom and certainly not millions of dollars. The journey for many people who go the academic route is often replete with aggravation, self-doubt, exploitation, institutionalized racism, student loan debt and — if they’re lucky — employment opportunities, many of which rarely reflect the effort they put toward their educational pursuits. It can initially feel annoying to read about celebrities receiving honorary degrees without having done the work as defined by universities and doctoral programs across the country.
These honors are little more than symbolic.
The social media responses to Swift being recognized by NYU speak to the controversy underlying this issue. Reactions — including from those who claim to hold advanced degrees — were largely mixed, ranging from predictably positive and congratulatory to the negative, with people posting statements like “Hell no!,” “Hey look, another celebrity with a thing they didn’t earn,” and “She was given that title, she never earned it.” I understand the compulsion to react so cynically. We’re living in a world worthy of deep and sustained skepticism.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my initial reaction was shortsighted.
In learning more about the careers of those who’ve been recognized by colleges and universities for their contributions to art and culture, such as actress Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey and singers John Legend and Aretha Franklin, I’m reminded that there’s more than one way to receive and maximize an education. For Swift, her education came from navigating an impossible industry at a young age and making sacrifices most of us wouldn’t dream of making. More recently, she’d taken on the industry in a fight for control over her career which was punctuated by a sexual assault case (which she’d also won). Swift is the walking definition of influence, hard work and accomplishment in her chosen field.
This is not a “poor Taylor Swift” piece. She’s a multimillionaire who made a decision: Receiving a traditional education culminating in a cap and gown was less important than pursuing her dream career in entertainment.
And my own opinion of her honorary degree further shifted when I learned that she had never had the opportunity to don a cap and gown before her moment at NYU. In fact, from the time her career took off at the age of 15, she didn’t experience much by way of traditional schooling and commencement ceremonies. She also never went to college. Her career path had — obviously — taken her in a very untraditional direction, precluding her from participation in many common rites of passage.
To be clear, this is not a “poor Taylor Swift” piece. She’s a multimillionaire who made a decision: Receiving a traditional education culminating in a cap and gown was less important than pursuing her dream career in entertainment.
But we should understand that bestowing an honorary degree was a simple, inspiring (and harmless) way to recognize Swift’s talent and impact on a generation soon to carve out their own path in the world.
It seemed that NYU knew all too well (yes, that’s a nod to one of her popular songs from last year) how her choices influenced her millions of fans.
I understand the controversy swirling around institutions that grant honorary degrees. There’s an argument to be made for the possibility that these decisions are nothing more than cheap publicity stunts designed to forge connections between universities and cultural icons (and while a bit silly, I don’t understand how a university’s transparent attempt to buddy up with a celebrity affects the average person). There’s also the hard-to-swallow truth that honorary degrees are lacking in recipient diversity, which is a much more compelling criticism than most others I’ve seen. Clearly, there’s important and necessary work to do in this realm.