Kanye West, We’ll Let You Finish But That Honorary Degree Raises an Issue
Kanye West is already a self-proclaimed God, but there's one thing we're not quite ready to worship.
One week ago, the college dropout received an honorary doctorate degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on May 11. Sure, he has achieved career heights that artists with similar years of experience only dream of obtaining -- he earned 21 Grammy Awards, which include four for Best Rap Album; and 11 BET Hip Hop Awards, owns DONDA creative agency, launched the G.O.O.D. Music record label and created the Yeezy Boost, to name a few. He's entered the music, fashion and design industries and come out with quite a few merits, but how does that equate to an advanced degree?
An honorary degree being given out to an artist who has never completed the process of higher education poses this question: Is giving away degrees to highly-respected musicians and influencers sending the wrong message to future college students? And does this degree in theory diminish the value of the scholastic process?
Speaking in terms of experience, the nod can be rationalized. It’s been 11 years since West released his critically acclaimed debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004, and since then, he has remained a monumental influence not only on hip-hop but on the entire music industry. But given that it takes roughly four years to complete a Bachelors of Arts degree, another one to two years to complete a 60-credit Master's Degree in Fine Arts at SAIC and an additional eight years for the average student to complete a PhD curriculum, it may seem as though Yeezy has not put in enough work.
Outside of the time pupils invest in their education, there is also a monetary investment involved with achieving a top-notch degree. Students, who do not have the luxury of being multi-millionaire entertainers, put in an exorbitant amount of finances as well as invest their time and energy into obtaining degrees the traditional way -- you know, putting in years of listening to professor's lectures, also known as the hard work way.
In reality, the costs of higher education can leave students with more than $140,000 of debt -- Kanye has cars that cost more than that. On average, doctoral student debt trumps the already bustling tab from undergraduate studies depending on the discipline. From an economic standpoint, issuing honorary doctorates to artists that have never finished or fully invested in college is not only unfair, but it's downright disrespectful.
On one hand, it appears as though by earning an honorary doctorate musicians are in an exclusive time capsule, evading the time spent dedicated to the traditional route of becoming a student, then landing an internship and finally a job. It's as if they jump straight from intern to staff employee to CEO without so much as experiencing the collegiate process, writing an essay or taking an exam.
But just because music stars such as Ye, Pitbull, who received an honorary doctorate from Doral University in West Miami in 2014; Diddy, who sparked controversy in 2014 when Howard University, the college he withdrew from, awarded him an honorary degree; or Aretha Franklin, who has four honorary degrees; opted for a less collegiate route in life, that doesn’t mean the School of Hard Knocks, also known as the music industry, isn’t just as demanding.
In fact, Yeezy has admitted to studying his craft just has diligently as a student in a higher education setting. If you recall, on his 2004 song “Spaceship,” he outlines his work ethic. “Y'all don't know my struggle / Y'all can't match my hustle / You can't fathom my love, dude / Lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers / That's A Different World like Cree Summer's / I deserve to do these numbers,” he rhymes. Still West did not have to write a thesis, purchase textbooks, sell his soul to Sallie Mae or be restricted to a demanding collegiate schedule. But it’s safe to conclude that his musical genius and his achievements can be looked at as a rare case because honestly, how many Kanye West’s are there in the world?
For high school kids or undergraduate scholars who aspire to be like Kanye, Diddy, Pitbull or Aretha, they can avoid the astronomical student debt but continuing on with life to pursue their dreams outside of higher education does not guarantee that later on in life they'll achieve honorary PhD status. It is wise to understand that honorary doctorates in Fine Arts are awarded to those who possess work experience equivalent to a degree for the highest caliber and those who likely have bank rolls that stack even higher.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago granted Kanye West a doctoral accolade because of his “transformative, genre-defying work,” but how many other artists have also achieved such status? Take West’s frequent collaborator Charlie Wilson, who has been penning hits since the '70s or singing sensation Chaka Khan, who Yeezus sampled on his breakout track “Through the Wire.” Both Wilson and Khan have catalogs full of “genre-defying work,” but only Khan has a honorary doctorate.
Additionally, the qualifications for receiving a honoris causa is at the discretion of the said school's governing body, which nominates and approves someone of status who they intend on establishing ties with or an individual who already has a relationship. Read that again: someone of status who they intend on establishing ties with. Sounds like a big publicity move if you ask us. In the 1400s, when the first honorary degrees were given out, the purpose was "an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, but was apparently unsolicited and clearly an attempt to honor and obtain the favor of a man with great influence," according to Oxford University.
It may help to avoid the sentiments of unfairness and superiority felt by students who are actually pursuing doctorates if the guidelines were stricter for those awarded honorary degrees. For example, honorary degree recipients should be required to donate funds towards students tuition bills, whether it be through a scholarship or a lottery system. Musicians that are awarded doctoral degrees are typically the ones who can actually afford to foot the hefty PhD bill. Kanye alone is worth more than a handful of PhD holders tuitions combined. He’s even wealthier than rappers including 2 Chainz, J. Cole and Chuck D, to name a few, who all have college degrees, according to Forbes.
While we know the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree is at the discretion of the university or college who presents it, the decision to present the honor could be more about what that artist can do for the university as opposed to what they have accomplished. While some degrees seem warranted -- Michael Jackson has an honorary doctorate degree of Humane Letters from Fisk University -- others such as Kermit the Frog’s Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College in New York are complete jokes. He's a puppet, people. Honorary mentions such as the one received by Kermit make a mockery of the higher education system.
Overall, the youth and potential college students should note that just because Kanye and any other of their favorite music stars received an honorary degree after dropping out of school doesn’t mean they should choose the same path. Yes, an honorary degree alludes to the fact that the recipient is equipped with the knowledge and skill set to thrive in his or her profession. Essentially it's a battle between life experiences versus institutionalized structured learning.
Ultimately, deciding to pursue a PhD is a serious commitment, which could have financial and personal repercussions. Nevertheless, the degree is mandatory to be certified to practice in specific fields of science and medicine. So even with the element of the honorary degree depending on your career goal, there is no dropout option. However, where a PhD is not a requirement it may be wise for students to think hard about continuing education in a field where the level of hierarchy is not mandatory. A student could instead opt for the liberal school route and rely on work experiences, which, if they reach the holy status of Kanye West, may land them with an honorary degree later on down the line.
But let us be clear. We are fans of Dr. West, as he is now called. We appreciate his influence and the gifts he has given us in the music world and beyond. We anticipate his next hit, enjoy his tangents and his passionate displays of emotion in the name of artistry, buy his albums and praise his performances at awards shows -- we know that Billboard Music Awards censorship was no fault of yours, 'Ye. When he was awarded his honorary doctorate degree, we took our hat off to salute him as we retraced his career achievements since he let the world know he was “The College Dropout.”
Yet, we couldn’t help but to empathize with the students who sat through hours of boring lectures, lugged around pounds of 10-inch-thick textbooks and stayed up to the wee hours of the morning cramping their fingers to complete 40-page papers. Not to mention, the student loans and frequent Ramen noodle dinners that are all a part of the process. Yeezy has put in work over the years as well, but when "The College Dropout" receives a degree in what seems like a snap of a finger, there's a sense of defeat that is surely felt by the people who are still sitting in those classrooms.
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