Honor by degrees

Do you ever get the feeling the world is passing you by? Not just simply passing you by. Shooting past you like a turbocharged Firebird Trans-Am with chrome stacks, while you are all but blocking traffic with your electric tricycle.

This feeling settles over me like too much honeysuckle on a hot day. It happens mostly in the month of June while I am watching graduation exercises on television, specifically the part where they start awarding honorary degrees.

I don't seem to mind the people on TV winning crimson cars, vibrator vinyl recliners, or hideous dining room sets, nor do I even mind people winning millions of dollars on lotteries. Aside from the fact that in general they seem an undeserving lot (at least less deserving than I), I don't feel deprived. But when it comes to the dispensing of that instant cultural status symbol, the honorary degree, I feel like the cousin who was left out of the will. So many are given out that I can think of myself only as a faded satin lampshade which no one wanted after a three-day bankruptcy sale.

I must be the only person left in the United States who has not received an honorary degree. My wife says this is an exaggeration, but what does she know? She only watches Charles Kuralt.

The thing about honorary degrees is that they are given to such a wide variety of people, including some who I suspect are completely devoid of academic brilliance, a category I could probably fit into.

Hoping to find some justification for this huge academic neglect in my direction, I decided to do some research on the subject. As a result I feel even worse. Some sources flatly state that everyone who has accomplished anything in any field of endeavor has received, or will receive, an honorary degree. The sources don't say a few, they say everyone. Over 5,000 honorary degrees are given out each year. When one realizes this happens within a span of a few weeks , the hourly rate is phenomenal.

If, as it seems, the vast majority of people get honorary degrees, I suppose I should happily number myself among an elite few. But it doesn't seem to work. It is like belonging to that small band of people who get to the class picnic after all the ice cream is gone. Of course someone feels sorry for them and scrapes up a plate of leftover cole slaw, but it isn't the same.

Perhaps it is a fear of being anonymous.

For instance, no one in a Rolls-Royce has ever driven up beside my Buick at a stoplight to ask if I had any Grey Poupon. There is so little hope of its happening that I don't even carry any mustard in my car.

I find that over the years I have been using the toothpaste that 4 out of 5 people didn't select.

Continuing my research on honorary degrees, I found a number of disconcerting facts. Andrew Jackson received an honorary degree, even though a lot of people thought he was too uneducated to get it. Adding to my dismay, I discovered there was no evidence of fair play. Somehow I had the idea that one person got one degree. But it proved not to be the case. A lot of people, like Andrew Jackson, got only one, but others got carloads of them. I don't suppose there should be a law about this, but couldn't they have guidelines?

Take Herbert Hoover. He got 89 or 90 and he wasn't that much more popular than Andrew Jackson. The most extraordinary degree collector is the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, who has more than 100.

When a college gives an honorary degree, it furnishes the robe. I had a friend who had an honorary degree. He kept his robe in a glass case in his living room. It had moth flakes sprinkled inside.

''Wearing the robe is a sort of one-time thing,'' he explained.

''Sort of like a wedding dress,'' I suggested. But he denied any similarity.

The most interesting discovery of all was that Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., gives honorary degrees only to those who have not received one anywhere else. I considered sending Lawrence a photo, some biographical data, and my robe size, but my wife said the robe color would clash with our yellow slipcovers.

I have since made adjustments. I no longer feel deprived.

I met someone the other day who has three honorary degrees. When I expressed my admiration, he seemed amazed that I should want one.

''What I've always wanted,'' he said, ''is an honorary fireman's badge. One of those badges that lets you cross police and fire lines.''

I could hardly believe my ears.

''I have one of those,'' I said.

On several evenings this week I have taken my badge out of my dresser drawer, just to look at it. It gives me a warm and satisfied feeling, even though I never use it.

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