Zimbabwe's inflationary plague of doctorates

Jul 7, 2015

“Zimbabwe is the most literate nation in Africa,” you will often hear it boasted.  While we instinctively reject not-so-flattering measures of our national performance as ‘machinations of the imperialists,’ this one we eagerly, unquestioningly embrace as obviously true. To ask how much we have used that high literacy to improve our national condition is to risk being accused of being unpatriotic  and counter-revolutionary.
So prized has become the generalised notion of ‘being educated,’ or at least being perceived to be so, that it now matters little whether we seek education as a means to live better lives or to be more productive and innovative citizens. In Zimbabwe the idea of ‘education’ now is to a great extent another means to satisfy our national obsession with ‘status;’ or convincing ourselves that we have more intrinsic human worth than the people next door. 

With cellphones  and cars now being so widely and easily available and therefore having lost much of their cachet at showing ‘who is really who’ between us, titles of any sort are the in thing at the moment, academic ones being the most prized.  Last year the most fashionable Zimbabwean title was ‘prophet.’ Not only have recent events here and further afield rendered the term much less chic, so discredited is it becoming that it may soon be considered a swear word rather than a prestigious social accolade.
For some inexplicable reason, many highly (authentically) old-schooled Zimbabweans have gravitated towards politics instead of finding ways of being innovative and productive with their qualifications. And so many of the ‘doctors’ we know have been government ministers or held other esteemed positions in the State apparatus. Given the coincidence of the proliferation of people in high places wearing the title ‘doctor’ and our national decline in so many areas, this has led to many rude jokes about the  usefulness of ‘doctorhood’ to solving real world problems. Still, the title ‘doctor’ has for the most part kept its hallowed status. Hence its morphing and reduction from a professional or academic title into a highly-sought social one.
Unfortunately, the more sought-after and the more ‘gettable’ with money, social or political influence it has become, the more the title ‘doctor’ has lost its value. Those people who earned it the traditional way, by burning the academic midnight oil for it for years, now look quaint and old-fashioned. According to our 2014 Zimbabwean sensibilities, the attitude is, “Why toil away for something you can buy, intimidate or twist others’ arms into getting?” That is unfortunately how far our national value system has declined.
You know that even though you wear the vestment of the title, no one gives you the respect that would normally go with having studied for it, but you don’t seem to mind. You are so far gone in your hubris that you are no longer capable of feeling shame. Your life story is largely an open book so there is no way you can convince people you have suddenly  been re-incarnated as a scholar. You are oblivious to the real attitudes of the millions who smile to your face but giggle at you behind your back at your needy self-importance. 
“Why is Nhingi not comfortable in his/her own skin?” they wonder as you seem to almost desperately plead for respect from the same ‘low’ people whose opinion you say you don’t care about.
It doesn’t make sense to declare that you “don’t care” what people say.  If anything, your actions suggest that you appear  to care TOO much what people say about you, as if you have a deep sense of inadequacy as a person; who you are. 
If you “didn’t care,” surely you wouldn’t go to such extreme extents to impress people, even with false credentials that serve to do the exact opposite of what you are trying to do, but that you are so sadly, so tragically, so pitifully failing. As a child of God just like any other, why are you so needy for accolades, even those you haven’t earned? Why do you seem so ill-at-ease with yourself? You boast; insistently and almost angrily, of your accomplishments but in the same breath you unwittingly express deep anxieties about your self-esteem, as if you actually are the biggest doubter of your own chest-thumping.
Let us leave the needy for a minute and focus instead on their enablers. 
The University of Zimbabwe has not been spared the national decline we have undergone these last several years due to (take your pick according to your inclination) cynical, cruel and incompetent rulership or to ‘illegal sanctions.’  Arguably the nation’s premier institution of higher learning has done amazingly well in holding its head high academically during the deprivations of the last several years.
In one fell swoop, the controversial circumstances of the awarding of a doctoral degree to Grace Mugabe, the wife of the president, has suddenly opened up the UZ to questions and ridicule which it will take a very long time to live down. Perhaps the university has perfectly solid answers to the many legitimate questions that have been asked about the whole affair. If so, it has not done itself any favours by acting shy and refusing to address these and other relevant issues raised in public, and no doubt within the halls of the institution.
When did its latest, most high-profile doctoral graduate register for the degree she was awarded last week?  Even if the candidate’s high profile was seen as a reason for secrecy during the progression of the academic work, why can that progression not be related now, after the fact? Would this not salvage the academic and social reputations of the doctoral graduate in question, but of that of the university as well? 
If we inflated the Zimbabwean dollar out of existence as a national symbol, must we subject the worth of a degree from the University of Zimbabwe to the same fate?     
Why has her thesis not been published like most doctoral scholars would not only be expected to do, but would be eager and proud to do? Why does the university act like the mere asking of these basic questions and others is subversive? If the spouse of the sitting Head of State sweated for and succeeded in passing the rigours of earning a doctorate through its hands, most institutions would be rightfully proud of that and want to trumpet the achievement to all the world. Instead, in this case the University of Zimbabwe has had its head hung down since graduation day, as if in shame. How can this be after what the Vice Chancellor referred to as an ‘historic’ graduation ceremony ‘perhaps never to be repeated?’   
What about the reputations of the current crop of UZ students of all disciplines and at all stages of study towards their degrees, not to mention the thousands of UZ alumni scattered all over the world? Are they not deserving of responses to the swirling questions, answers to which all essentially distil down into what now remains of the value of a qualification from the University of Zimbabwe?
In the style of all kinds of Zimbabwean officialdom that we have become accustomed to, the UZ authorities may choose to simply hunker down and ignore the crescendo of immediate public ridicule. They may be able to ride out the storm until the next inevitable national scandal to grab the public’s attention, but the self-inflicted stain of not being able to defend what remains of its academic standards and public reputation will not nearly be as easy to wash off. To paraphrase a currently in vogue Zimbabwean expression, ‘You can fake a degree qualification but you can’t fake an academic  reputation.’      
 If a person of humble, threadbare scholarly origins earns a doctorate in their field of choice, that is surely an achievement of which they should be proud to be willing to share how they did so. The publishing of a thesis is the crowning culmination of this long process. Increasing the body of knowledge in a particular narrow field of inquiry is after all one of the very reasons for going to the trouble of studying for a doctorate.  
The UZ seems to have dispensed with all the academic traditions associated with the earning of a doctorate, including its own standards and conventions. If it has adopted new conventions, it could simply say so. Explain what they are and explain the reasons for casting off the old known and accepted ones and adopting new ones. By failing to do all this, the University of Zimbabwe seems like it has bastardised and reduced its own product to nothing more than the parcelling out of Zimbabwe’s latest social fashion accessory, being called ‘doctor,’ even without paying any of the dues that make having such a title so sought after in the first place! 
If we are seeking more ‘status’ and prestige than our neighbours, do we win those social qualities by  divorcing the getting of ‘prizes’ from the effort that should accompany the winning of those prizes? Does the ‘prestige’ come from the prize, or is the prize merely a representation, a symbol of the effort expended?  If a ‘doctorate’ is divorced from scholarly effort and achievement, how much is it really worth, even in merely social one-up(wo)manship terms, not to mention academic ones?     
It is tempting to look at this tale from merely the comic angles. But the University of Zimbabwe is the country’s oldest institution of what used to be called ‘higher’ learning. Too, as long as it shares the name of the country, whether we like it or not all of us, even those with no direct relationship with it in the past or the present, share in the shame and ridicule when it becomes a laughing stock.
Beyond the jokes and sudden mocking to which the University of Zimbabwe has allowed itself to be subjected is a frightening, sad tale: the extent to which we have all participated in the loss of many of the bedrock values of a nation. 
We set up rules and standards in various areas of national endeavour and then show our lack of respect for them, and arguably for ourselves, by throwing them out of the window at the flimsiest excuse. In doing so we are cheating no one but ourselves. This is the real Zimbabwean national ‘crisis,’ with the economic, political, social, cultural and other contradictions and problems we face merely being symptoms of this central malady.
Until we are able to decide who we are and what we stand for, and furthermore, to then respect and abide by the accompanying rules we set for ourselves, we will continue to be a nation in decline, no matter how many would-be investors come ostensibly bearing gifts...or what ‘prestigious’ titles we insist that we be referred to by in vain efforts to satisfy our egos at the expense at tackling the real issues that dog us.
It may be raining doctorates in Zimbabwe, but in a way that makes us look very simple, crude and unschooled.   
Chido Makunike  
23 September 2014


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