“Michael, I’m sorry that Nancy and I could not be with you for this very special day, but I want to congratulate you for the honors you are receiving tonight from the United Negro College Fund and the honorary degree awarded you by Fisk University. Let me be the first to call you the new Dr. “J.”-Ronald Reagan, 1988.
Wow! Just wow. I never realized there was so much confusion about Michael Jackson’s formal education until I officially started researching for this article. Initially, I was simply curious about Michael’s honorary degree from Fisk University, which he was awarded in 1988. In the wake of Whitney Houston’s recent passing, when I was searching for all photos and events of her and Michael together, I kept coming across references to, and photos, from the United Negro College Fund’s 44thth anniversary event in 1988 where Michael was awarded his honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from Fisk University as well as receiving the Frederick D. Patterson Award, and where Whitney Houston sang in his honor. So I decided I would learn more about what an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters actually is, what privileges it entitles its receipients, and a bit about its history. A nice story, right?
What I didn’t realize is just how much confusion and lack of actual knowledge exists about Michael’s education, even among some fans. For starters, just try googling “Did Michael Jackson Graduate High School?” You won’t have any trouble finding sources that say he did, and just as many that say he didn’t!
Here, for example, is an article published just after his death that erroneously reports that he was a graduate of Montclair College Preparatory School:
http://www.zimdiaspora.com/index.php?option=com _content&view=articl e&id=1459: michael-jackson-dies&catid=38:travel-tips&Itemid=293
And this website is very typical of the conflicting information that is all over the internet:
It’s almost amusing to go to sites like this just to see how many contradictory answers one might come up with! One fan commenting on the above site had even confused the images of the 1988 ceremony with an actual high school graduation.
Just As With Every Other Aspect Of His Life,
The Truth About Michael's Education Seems To Be
A Source Of Confusion And Contradictions
What is known for certain is that Michael rounded out his high school years at Monclaire Preparatory School in Van Nuys, California (9th and 10th grades) and Califonia Preparatory High School, but apparently did not officially graduate.
Michael's Kindergarten Teacher, Felicia Childress,
Remembers A Kid Who Was Bright And Eager
To Learn In School
In a way, it shouldn’t be too surprising to realize that Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly a kid in dire need of a formal education. He had been performing since age five; famous since age ten. As early as kindergarten, he was already having to explain to his teacher Felicia Childress why he was missing so much school. “M-Mrs. Childress, p-please don’t be mad at me, I-I was in New York,” he once told her, in his excited, childish stammer, when she had to ask why he had missed the last two weeks. This was a delightful story that Felicia Childress told the audience when I attended the 2010 Fanvenntion, and in other interviews she has always mentioned what a bright, gregarious and popular student Michael was, but that sadly, she witnessed at an early age for him how his childhood joy and eagerness to learn was-if not snuffed out, let’s just say, very dimisnished-by the demands of his childhood fame. It wasn’t that he ever lost the interest in learning. In fact, quite the contrary. As an adult, he would become a voracious reader, eventually amassing an enormous library of over 10,000 books on every subject, and by all accounts, a knowledgable art scholar and connoseur. But the demands of a show business career-especially in the halycon days of The Jackson 5′s peak fame-made the rigors of a structured school environment all but impossible to maintain. For starters, how can anyone expect a kid to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to learn at eight am, when he’s been up half the night performing, or up all night in the recording studio? Eventually, although Michael would continue to be enrolled in a succession of both public and private schools, his primary education-as is true for most kids living a life on the road or in front of the cameras-would come via private tutors.
That, and the school of hard knocks, as the old saying goes.
Michael's Yearbook Photo From Montclaire Preparatory School
And, let’s be honest here- with the immediate rewards of a show busness career, did Michael really have the desire or motivation for a formal education? I would imagine as a teenager, probably not. Michael’s year of graduation would have been 1977. But in 1977, Michael was already in New York, filming “The Wiz,” embarking on what he hoped at the time would be a succesful movie career-and also laying the groundwork for his first, huge solo album, Off The Wall. I would imagine at the time that a high school diploma was really the least of his concerns. He didn’t need a piece of paper to prove his worth.
But from varying accounts I have gathered, I do believe that Michael’s views on formal education changed as he got older. There was a rumor at the time of his death that he had planned to go back to school to study art (some sources saying, at Paris’s insisting). I don’t know how easy it would have been for Michael to trade in the white glove and fedora for a classroom desk and a notepad, but the story is proof that as Michael was entering middle age, he was thinking a lot about the different paths that were available to him-and about treading some new ones. Opening new doors of possibility.
However, many don’t realize that Michael Jackson did, in fact, have a doctorate degree-and a legitimate one, at that! Although his honorary degree awarded by Fisk University received a huge splash of publicity in 1988, this fact was all but swept under the rug in the proceeding years, as the media became more and more obsessed with nonsense about plastic surgery, skin bleaching, baby dangling, and sleepovers at the expense of everything worthwhile he had ever achieved, including his enormous contributiuons to humanitarian efforts. By the time this same media was announcing his death in 2009, no one seemed to remember that Michael Jackson was actually Dr. Jackson! Perhaps if Michael, following the example of many honorary degree recipients such as Stephen Colbert, Hunter S. Thompson, or even the revered Maya Angelou, had insisted on using his “doctor” title, more would have remembered.
Michael With Just A Few Of His Over
10,000 Beloved Books
Of course, had he done so, I’m sure the media would have made a mockery of it, just as they did with his King Of Pop title (never mind how well earned the title may have been!). I’m sure they would have insisted on calling him “the self-proclaimed Dr. Jackson!” Even now, they can’t get it right. When Whitney Houston’s passing forced many news outlets to take a fresh look at the 1988 UNCF 44thth anniversary event, several of them mistakenly reported that Michael’s honorary degree was awarded by the United Negro College, rather than Fisk University! (Not exactly a forgiveable error, since all it takes is the most basic, rudimentary fact checking to get the story straight!).
Whitney Sang The Black National Anthem, "Lift Ev'ry
Voice And Sing" And "America The Beautiful"
In Commemoration of The Event
Well, rant aside, I decided to do some research on Michael’s degree, on honoray degrees in general, and The Doctor of Humane Letters degree in particular. What I found was a bit surprising-in a good way!
First of all, let’s look at what an honorary degree, awarded by a legitimate and accredited institution of higher learning, actually is:
An honorary degree or a degree honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of the honor”) is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations. The degree is typically a doctorate or, less commonly, a master’s degree, and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution.
Usually the degree is conferred as a way of honoring a distinguished visitor’s contributions to a specific field, or to society in general. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question.
The practice dates back to the middle ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for award of a degree. The earliest honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford He later became Bishop of Salisbury.
In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge. On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty-three members of his retinue (fifteen of whom were earls or barons) received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).
Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates – an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial.
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. In practice, however, such degrees tend to be popularly considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except perhaps where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree. Recipients of honorary degrees typically wear the same academic dress as recipients of substantive degrees, although there are a few exceptions: honorary graduands at the University of Cambridge wear the appropriate full-dress gown but not the hood, and those at the University of St Andrews wear a black cassock instead of the usual full-dress gown.
An ad eundem or jure dignitatis degree is sometimes considered honorary, although they are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or by attaining an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship.
Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc., are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably England and Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question. The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff, or graduates of several years’ standing.
Some universities, seeking to differentiate between substantive and honorary doctorates, have a degree (often DUniv, or Doctor of the University) which is used for these purposes, with the other higher doctorates reserved for formally-examined academic scholarship.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has the authority to award degrees. These “Lambeth degrees are sometimes, erroneously, thought to be honorary; however the archbishops have for many centuries had the legal authority (originally as the representatives of the Pope, later confirmed by a 1533 Act of Henry VIII, to award degrees and regularly do so to people who have either passed an examination or are deemed to have satisfied the appropriate requirements.
Between the two extremes of honoring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, many universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor comparable to an earned degree. Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities for similar reasons.
In some countries, recipients of an honorary doctorate may, if they wish, adopt the title of “DoctorMany universities, however, request that an honorary graduate refrain from such practice. A typical example of university regulations is Honorary graduates may use the approved post-nominal letters. It is not customary, however, for recipients of an honorary doctorate to adopt the prefix ‘Dr’ . In some universities, it is however a matter of personal preference for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of “Doctor”, regardless of the background circumstances for the award. Written communications where an honorary doctorate has been awarded may include the letters “h.c.” after the award to indicate that status.
The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding “honorary” or “honoris causa” or “h.c.” in parenthesis after the degree title. In some countries, a person who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title “Doctor” prenominally, abbreviated “Dr.h.c.” or “Dr.(h.c.)”. Sometimes, they use “Hon” before the degree letters, for example, “Hon DMus”.
In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common in certain countries to use certain degrees, such as LLD or HonD, as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title HonD instead of the usual PhD Some universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the University (DUniv) to selected nominees, while awarding PhD or EdD degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.
MostAmerican universities award the degrees of LLD (Doctor of Laws), the LittD (Doctor of Letters), the LHD (Doctor of Humane Letters), the ScD (Doctor of Science), the PedD (Doctor of Pedagogy) and the DD (Doctor of Divinity) only as honorary degrees.
This was taken from the Universal Degrees webpage:
Universities that offer honorary doctorate degree or honorary degrees usually have an entire panel of experts which selects, nominates and then awards the honorary degree to individuals. How, when and why the degree will be awarded is also discussed and evaluated among the panel. With regards to the policies of the institute that rewards honorary degrees, the degree can be perceived as the same as achieved after completing an education. [my emphasis]. Honorary degrees are also called doctorate degrees.
If We Can Call Elton "Sir," There's No Reason Not
To Call Michael "Dr." Both Are Honorary Titles;
One No Less Legit Than The Other!
One good analogy for the receiving of an honoray doctorate degree could be to compare it to the UK’s current custom of bestowing honorary knight titles to celebrities and other persons of note. Do you think that Paul McCartney or Elton John would have ever been knighted in the days of King Arthur? Probably not. But by the current definition of the knighthood, they are seen as British citizens whose contributions to the world have earned them the respect of the government. They have earned their titles, not by bloodshed or battles fought, but by example and servitutude (i.e, their contributions to their country and as goodwill ambassadors). And from what I’ve seen, the media seems to have no problem referring to them by their titles, without even so much as a hint of snarkiness. After all, they were legitimately “awarded” their titles-along with all the honors and priveleges thereof!
In the same way, the bestowing of an honorary doctorate in an institution’s way of saying, We recognize that this individual’s accomplishments are the equivalent of an earned degree in that field.
Specifically, Michael’s honorary degree of Doctorate of Humane Letters is a degree bestowed upon those who have made significant contributions to philanthrophy and the humanities-an academic discipline that includes not only the arts and sciences, but literature, history, and philosophy as well.
Humane letters is a term for classical liberal arts education that emphasizes history, literature, and other humanities fields. The term has its roots in the intellectual movement known as Renaissance Humanism, a 14th century movement marked by the rediscovery of Greco-Roman literary works by European scholars.
With His Honorary Doctorate Degree
In Humane Letters, Michael Jackson Joined
The Ranks Of Such Luminary Figures
As Benjamin Franklin
In being bestowed an honorary doctorate, Michael Jackson, in fact, joined a long list of very accomplished important and historical figures, including not only the aforementioned Maya Angelou and Hunter S. Thompson, but also such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Booker T. Washington, Georgia O’ Keefe, Prince Charles, Eudora Welty, Margaret Thatcher,and the Reverend Billy Graham, to name just a very few (of course, it’s a list that also includes some less stellar names such as Diane Sawyer!). In fact, it’s an honor that has yet to even be bestowed on our own president! There was controversy when Arizona State University refused to grant an honorary degree to Barack Obama, their excuse being that Obama had yet to prove himself. “His body of work is yet to come.”
Apparently, Fisk University had no such qualms about Michael Jackson, who by 1988 had accomplished more-and contributed more to the good of the planet-than most will ever do in a lifetime!
Fisk University in itself has a fascinating history, of which many may not be aware. This is from the college’s “About” webpage:
Barely six months after the end of the Civil War, and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville, named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmens Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashvilles Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning.
In 1954, Fisk became the first, private, black college accredited for its music programs by the National Association of Schools of Music. Today, Fisk also holds memberships in the American Association of Schools of Music, the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Its department of chemistry is on the approved list of the American Chemical Society. Fisk is a member of the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States and is approved for teacher certification purposes by the State of Tennessee Department of Education.
Today, Fisk is recognized nationally for its ability to produce young leaders. Specifically, Fisk has received multiple awards for our traditional capacity to put students, many of whom are the first generation of their families to enroll in higher education, on the pathway to academic success. In the last three academic years, Fisk has been recognized for its success in graduating students by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton Review’s Best 368 Colleges, US News & World Report, and Washington Monthly. The consistent theme throughout those accolades is that Fisk excels among all liberal arts schools in the nation in terms of research, service learning opportunities and its work to aid the social mobility of 1st generation college students.
It’s also worth noting that in 1866, when Fisk University was established, Nashville was a struggling community still scarred from the recent Battle of Franklin in 1864, described as “the bloodiest hours of the American Civil War.”
It’s doubly amazing to think that out of the ashes of that ruin, three African-American men with little more than a dream managed to establish one of the first succesful black colleges in America.
"To Want To Learn, To Have The
Capacity To Learn, And Not Be Able
To Is A Tragedy"-Michael Jackson
In March of 1988 Jet Magazine gave Michael’s honorary degree and the accompanying ceremony a full, seven page spread. I’ve reproduced the spread here, as best I can. As you can tell, it was quite an event and Jet Magazine seemed to fully grasp the importance of this honor, as well as why Michael was deserving of it!
Yet for all of the above, this achievement, like so many other of Michael’s achievements outside of music, has been underplayed and under reported. How much so? Well, apparently enough that he doesn’t even merit an inclusion on the wiki page of famous honorary degree recepients! (An oversight I definitely intend to correct, so don’t be surprised if you do see his name included by the time you read this!).
When Michael died, there were a bazillion “tribute” articles that rehashed all the controversies of his life, and a genuine few that actually paid decent homage to his contributuons to music and his cultural legacy. But precious few that actually acknowledged him as someone worthy of academic respect. This piece by Jennifer Viegas was one of the brief but notable exceptions:
Pop star Michael Jackson, who died one year ago this week, not only changed music and pop culture, but he also impacted engineering, law, medicine, psychology and other academic fields, according to a Texas Tech University pop culture expert.
(Michael Jackson; Credit: Drew Cohen)
Rob Weiner, a pop-culture author and associate librarian in the Texas Tech Libraries, recently helped compile a bibliographic guide for a special issue of The Journal of Pan African Studies showing Jackson’s influence into the often dusty halls of academia.
The list of scholarly papers and peer-reviewed articles, culled from more than 100 databases, found the King of Pop referenced in psychology, medical, chemistry, mass communications and even engineering journals.
For instance, researchers used Jackson to critique the media’s handling of criminal cases. A 911 call made by Jackson prompted an article in Fire Engineering journal, while a British Medical Journal piece written after Jackson’s death discussed ethical issues that arise when a patient is more powerful than the attending physician. ( I am fairly certain that the 911 call she is referring to is actually a reference to the 911 call placed by Alberto Alvarez, not by Michael Jackson)-my note.
One chemistry professor argued that reframing popular songs such as “Billie Jean” could help students understand difficult chemistry concepts.
“I knew that Jackson permeated pop culture, but academics can be kind of snooty about what they choose to study,” Weiner said. “The fact that someone would take a Michael Jackson song and co-opt it as a means to convey chemistry concepts just shows the pervasiveness of Jackson’s influence.”
The below video, a compilation of Jackson images from Ebony Magazine, shows the pop star receiving his PhD. Few people remember that he was Dr. Jackson, having received this Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Fisk University.
Here is the video referenced in her article:
More of Michael’s big night, captured on video:
I can’t help but be struck by the sad poignancy of Viegas’s closing words: “Few people remember that he was Dr. Jackson.”
Well, it’s time to start remembering. We cannot begin to fully acknowledge or appreciate Michael Jackson’s contributions until we have recognized the full scope of his abilities and the true range of what he achieved in his amazing life. Michael wanted young black people, especially, to realize that they were only as limited as their dreams allowed them to be. For those who don’t know, the term “doctor” actually comes from a Latin phrase that simply translates “to teach.” A person with a doctorate-honorary or otherwise-is literally one who teaches.
The True Definition Of A "Doctor" Is One Who Teaches...
And Those Who Teach Correctly, Inspire! Michael Was, Then,
In Every Sense Truly "Dr. Jackson"
By the accounts of almost everyone who ever knew him, Michael was a teacher. He never stopped inspiring others to reach their full potential. He mentored so many countless people, especially young people. Even in This Is It, during his last weeks of life, we see him patiently mentoring the young dancers, and coaxing the shy Orianthi into the spotlight: “This is your time to shine.”
Maybe it’s fitting. The world at large remembers Michael Jackson, The Entertainer. But to those whose lives he touched, he was truly Dr. Jackson-a teacher and mentor to the end.
Make that, Dr. Jackson, PhD! Not bad for a poor kid from Gary, Indiana’s “colored” side of the tracks
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[Edited 4/21/12 14:05pm]