Don’t call me ‘Doctor Lawler’—yet

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 20, 2019

When I was asked to deliver the commencement talk at Thomas More College, I accepted the invitation immediately because I love the place. Only later did I learn that I would also be receiving an honorary doctorate, and I probably can’t convey how delighted I was by that honor.

Many years ago I aspired to academic life, and entered a PhD program, studying political philosophy at the University of Chicago. But while I loved the subject matter, I grew increasingly disaffected with academic life—not at the University of Chicago particularly, but at American colleges and universities in general. I realized that there were very few schools at which I would be comfortable teaching, very few schools I could respect. And that for a simple reason: very few school remain committed to the pursuit of truth, since belief in the very existence of truth has fallen out of academic favor.

“What is truth?” asks cynical Pilate, and all through the groves of academe, tenured professors nod their heads and stroke their chins. Or worse, defining today’s “truth” by the latest fashions in political correctness, they suppress dissenting views. I saw these trends developing as early as 1974, and left graduate school to embark on a career as a journalist. With my first book, Coughing in Ink, I broke off my love affair with higher education.

Almost forty years later I found myself gravitating closer and closer to this tiny Catholic college in New Hampshire, where the entire curriculum is devoted to the liberal-arts tradition, and where truth is treated with reverence—not as an unattainable abstraction, but as a manifestation of the Word. TMC is an unabashedly Catholic school, and on campus one finds a recognizably Christian community. If you haven’t visited the campus, you should—particularly if you or someone you know is interested in a genuine, Christian liberal-arts education.

Last year I helped to establish the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture as a project of TMC, and for the past three years I have offered one tutorial each spring semester for a few juniors and seniors. So at last I’m doing the teaching that I had envisioned so many years ago. In this environment—with students who do the work, care about it, and debate every point as if it matters (because it does)—I have found it immensely rewarding.

My students have occasionally addressed me as “Dr. Lawler,” because they are polite. Sometimes I have let it pass, because they mean well, but usually I have corrected them, because I held only a bachelor’s degree. But after he conferred the degree on me, I noticed that Dr. William Fahey, the president of TMC, referred to me as “Dr. Lawler,” and I realized with pleasure it was no mistake.

It’s thrilling to receive an honorary degree, and I was gratified that the graduates and their guests enjoyed my talk. (I guess the graduates at Morehouse College might have been happier with their commencement speaker, but you can’t have everything.)

A day later, reflecting on my new status, I realized that I need 149 more honorary doctorates to match the all-time record set by the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame. I won’t make it, of course; there aren’t many schools offering me honorary degrees. But that’s quite all right with me. Given the state of academic life today, I wouldn’t want that sort of recognition. Coming from Thomas More College, a school that clings to ancient standards, the degree isn’t just another credential; it really is an honor.

Then another question occurred to me: Is it proper protocol to address me now as “Dr. Lawler?” I investigated, and the answer suits me perfectly. The holder of an honorary doctorate is appropriately addressed as “doctor” only at the institution that conferred the degree. So you shouldn’t call me “Dr. Lawler” unless you’re on the campus of, or somehow affiliated with, Thomas More College.

Then again, if you’re not somehow connected to Thomas More College, I suggest you should be.


P.S. If you’re interested, my commencement address is now available on the Thomas More College web site.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: MatJohn - May. 22, 2019 7:29 PM ET USA

    "Don't take the soup!" A battle cry to all Catholic colleges.