Academia is made the news in the New York Times in its March 1 release, and these news have a flavor of scandal. In Germany, the defense minister and star of the conservative wing, Kari-Theodor Guttenberg has to resign over the discovery that he had committed plagiarism in his 2007 doctorate. The doctorate was then revoked by the University of Bayreuth which had conferred the degree. In the UK, the London School of Economics gave to charities the money offered by Seif al-Islam el-Qadaffi, a son of the Lybian ruthless ruler who completed there a Master’s degree and a doctorate—also in 2007, apparently a cursed year for politicians to be involved in Ph.Ds. He, also, is suspected to own degrees tainted with plagiarism.

Two different affairs both connected to one fact: in the modern world academic credentials have a social value, which can be paid for. It poses a problem when this value is more and more disconnected from academic values. That a doctoral student, obviously gifted, and obviously aware of what he was doing, could indulge in plagiarism for the sake of putting what Anglophones refer to as the “magic DR.” before his name, that the son of tyrant seeks academic recognition from a well-known institution are sadly meaningful facts. But what is the meaning?

The first, sociological, one is what sociologists of the critical school (and yes, for once, I will praise the critical school) have long denounced as the contamination between the different fields of social competences. It is not that academic status has only recently gained social prestige: it always has, but this prestige used to be limited to the narrow circles of academia. Now, the story is different: the social prestige is not academic, but a tool of distinction in a sphere that is no more academic, but political or social.

The second meaning I see is that the hope academics could have that the diffusion of academic values and academic standards among social elites would raise the standards in the different fields of society is a delusion. We could think that having Ph.D.s in a government is a good thing, as academics would bring a certain conception of fairness and honesty in their opinions. We may dream that training the children of a dictator would help educate elites towards a more opened and democratic way of considering how peoples should be ruled. The sad, and partly tragic, truth is that those elites import their own habits and behaviors in their academic practices rather than the other way round. You want to become a minister and you know that having academic credentials will help, you treat those credentials as mere tools to your goal, and if it takes some copying, it is not that important.

In these two aspects, we see that academia influences society less than society influences academia. This is coherent with the fact that society does not expect from academia the disinterested quest for knowledge. “Disinterested” here does not mean inefficient, or severed from the whole social life. It only refers to the imperative of conducting research through methods which should not be fraught with vested interests. But in this “disinterested” form, academia does not fit with what is requested from science and academic work: to be a social service, mostly providing economic qualification. Graduates are no more expected to knowledgeable in their field, whatever this specialization is, nor are they expected to export this knowledge in the different areas of society where they are to work. They are expected to be well-trained professionals. In the case of politicians, we should not be surprised that they treat academic titles as a mere symbolic qualification in a political sphere where symbols are eminently prized goods.