This June will mark the fiftieth aniversary of the day on which I was awarded a doctorate in Philosophy by Harvard University. Over the intervening years, many people have indicated that they were impressed by this fact. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to say a few words about the real value of a Harvard Ph D. A brief story from the first volume of my unpublished memoirs will set the record straight.
After earning my degree, and serving six months in the army as part of my six year commitment to the Massachusetts National Guard, I returned to Cambridge and spent 1958-61 as a Instructor in Philosphy and General Education. I was quite young, and not yet ready even to call my colleagues by their first names, inasmuch as they had, only a year earlier, been my professors.
At one of the infrequent department meetings [in my first year, if I recall correctly], Raphael Demos laid a problem before the assembled faculty. Demos at that time was near retirement, quite the oldest member of the department. It seems that he had heard from a former student who had left the department twenty-five years earlier without a doctorate. This man had made a career and a life for himself teaching philosophy at a small Canadian college. Now his college had decided to become a university, and it was retroactively requiring all of its faculty to have Ph Ds. The chap had sent Demos some material he had been writing on Kant and wanted to know whether he could submit it as a dissertation.
Demos said he had read it, and that it was simply awful. It was utterly unacceptable, and could not be made acceptable by any amount of revision that Demos could imagine. What were we to do? This poor man had a wife and children, he was too old to start another career, and he was about to be fired. We all pulled our chins and pondered. Finally, young Bert Dreben spoke up. [In order to appreciate the story, you need to know that Dreben had been a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and had never himself earned a doctorate]. "Look," he said. "There is only one thing to do. Let us all shut our eyes, except Rod [this was Firth, who was Chairman that year.] We will then vote on the motion that we are to give this man a Ph. D. forthwith, on condition that he never show his face again in Cambridge. Rod will count the votes, and without saying who has voted how, he will announce whether the motion has passed." We all looked at one another for a bit and decided that this was as good a way as any to handle the mess, so we shut our eyes, and when Rod called the vote, we either raised our hands or not as we privately chose.
Apparently, enough of us voted aye, because the motion passed and the man was awarded a Harvard doctorate in Philosophy.