The Politics of Labels

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Prof. Dr. Schavan, former German education minister, was forced to resign from her post last Saturday after the explosion of a plagiarism scandal that reached back more than thirty years. In addition to her expulsion from the German political elite, Dr. Schavan’s doctorate was revoked from Heinrich Heine University upon suspicion that substantial parts of her 1980 dissertation were lifted from other sources without credit [1]. This is Germany’s second governmental plagiarism scandal in less than two years; in 2011, defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had to leave his post over similar charges [1].

The occurrence of two plagiarism scandals within the upper ranks of the German government in a short period of time brings to light a key question: what, if any, internal pressures within Germany are leading to such missteps? And perhaps more importantly, what does this pressure reveal about the nature of German politics—and, by comparison, American politics?

According to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kulish, both the Schavan and Guttenberg scandals reveal a deep-seated German obsession with labels, particularly doctorate labels [1]. In Germany, approximately 25,000 graduate students receive their doctorates every year [2], compared to roughly 60,000 per year in America [3]. If the populations of each country are taken into account [4], however, Germany produces almost double the doctorate degrees per capita as the United States.

The obviously heavy emphasis placed on doctorate status in Germany suggests that the label carries a significant connotation that is not nearly as prevalent in the United States. While those who have attained their doctorates often go by “Dr.”—and even “Dr. Dr.” if two degrees have been obtained—in Germany, the practice is much less common for non-medical doctors in the United States [1]. In the realm of U.S. politics, the acquisition of a doctorate is, by contrast, of lower priority. Only twenty-three Representatives of the 111th U.S. Congress—and no senators—had doctoral degrees, up from a total of nine Congress members in the 91st Congress of 1969-1971 [5]. While the expectation that government officials are well-educated inarguably still exists in the U.S., there appears to be a much more significant value placed on the academic mastery of politicians in Germany.

The emphasis on the academically elite label even in the political sphere reveals a great deal about political ideals in Germany. Compared to the United States, the German government is relatively scandal-free [6]; the fact that two major sources of upheaval in recent history have academic roots, then, is significant. If two intelligent and powerful figures in German government felt at some point—albeit early—in their respective careers that achieving a doctorate was necessary enough to political success to cut corners, clearly the weight of the doctorate label is heavy.  While the number of awarded doctorates per year is steadily increasing in the U.S., few would argue that a PhD is a prerequisite for reaching a high political rank.

The diminished political necessity of a doctoral degree in America compared to Germany does not, however, necessarily imply that Americans have lower standards for their governmental officials. Rather, the pronounced difference between the political cultures of the two countries points to what appears to be an underlying gulf between the nature of American and German politics. One could argue that labels are critical in both societies, but the type of label given precedence varies. If the academic label is revered so highly in Germany, is a corresponding standard held up by Americans against which politicians are judged? While almost all members of the U.S. Congress have some form of college degree, a full twenty-seven members of the 111th Congress had attained no more than a high school diploma [5]. Perhaps, then, academia is not considered as critical to success in government in America as it is in Germany—and if this is true, are politicians more apt to be judged based on subjective characteristics such as personality and appearance? While the latter idea is speculative and perhaps potentially controversial, the nature of the label in Germany and America seems to reveal a great deal about the differing ideals of the electorates in the two nations.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/world/europe/german-education-chief-quits-in-scandal-reflecting-fascination-with-titles.html?pagewanted=all

[2] http://www.research-in-germany.de/info/51584/phd-in-germany.html

[3] http://chronicle.com/article/The-Future-of-the-PhD/131749/

[4] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL

[5] http://www.senate.gov/CRSReports/crs-publish.cfm?pid=%260BL)PL%3B%3D%0A

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/opinion/notes-on-german-scandal.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

[Image credit: http://www.ideastream.org/news/npr/165790164]

About author

Katie Miller

Raised in Tucson, Arizona and later a suburb of Chicago, Katie is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Science. She is majoring in psychology with a likely double major in English, but since taking a government course in high school, she has had a strong interest in learning and writing about American politics.

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