A New Book Says Doctorates in Education—Including Actor Bill Cosby's—Are a Joke

When comedian Bill Cosby received his Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on a fine May day in 1977, he was the star of the commencement. The press took photos as Cosby, wearing his academic robes and later smoking a congratulatory cigar, received his diploma from the chancellor of the university. Now a disgruntled former professor at the university is calling for a second ceremony. “I think it would be wonderful if Cosby staged a media event similar to the one that took place when he earned his doctorate,” says Reginald G. Damerell. “Only this time he would give back the degree to show that he finally realizes it stands for nothing. I hope that Bill Cosby would raise consciousness about how lousy schools of education are.”

In his new book, Education’s Smoking Gun (Freundlich Books, $17.95), Damerell, 64, claims that Cosby’s Ed.D.—like many an advanced education doctorate—is a sham. “Everybody knows Cosby,” says Damerell, a U. Mass. associate professor for 12 years before he left in 1982. “He just happens to illustrate the point. He earned his degree much as a lot of other people do. It was a ridiculous situation.”

Damerell says that Cosby, who had dropped out of Temple University before completing his undergraduate degree in phys ed, was recruited personally by the assistant dean of the U. Mass. education school. He entered a program designed to award advanced education degrees to “mature students,” some of whom hadn’t attended or completed college. According to Damerell, Cosby did not take semester-length courses. Instead he attended “at least one” weekend-long seminar and received credits for appearances on TV shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Cosby’s 242-page doctoral dissertation discussed ways that teachers could use his Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids animated TV shows as educational tools. “Cosby could have given up show business and spent six years at the school and not know any more than he did anyhow,” Damerell says. “Unlike chemistry, education has no body of knowledge, so it doesn’t matter how long you spend on it.”

A member of Cosby’s doctoral committee for five months, Damerell claims that in that time the only full board meeting on Cosby’s dissertation took place during a sumptuous meal at the entertainer’s Massachusetts home. Damerell says Cosby took the group on a tour of his 16-room, 135-year-old restored farmhouse, including an admiring visit to a closet filled with fur coats belonging to his wife, Ca-mille, and drawer after drawer of Cosby’s shirts. “It was a scene right out of The Great Gatsby,” notes Damerell. “We did not discuss education,” Damerell says, but that wasn’t unusual. “All the time I was at the school we never discussed anything basic about education with anybody.”

A longtime advertising copywriter whose 1968 book about integration, Triumph in a White Suburb, led to his U. Mass. faculty appointment, Damerell claims that Cosby’s degree typifies the empty schooling given many education majors. He says that thousands of badly educated teachers are undermining elementary and high school instruction across the country. Holding a copy of Cosby’s dissertation, Damerell says, “A dissertation is supposed to be a contribution to human knowledge. This isn’t. And I would say that 99 percent of [education] dissertations aren’t either.”

Cosby, who has won acclaim for his ability to reach young people through TV, has no comment on the charges. But Louis Fischer, acting dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Education when Cosby received his doctorate, defends the entertainer’s effort. Cosby’s dissertation, Fischer says, was “a very respectable piece of work.” Fischer adds that U. Mass. at the time was trying “to get away from the historic rigidities of schools of education” and that there were “at least 50 other students at that time who also received Ed.D. degrees through such nontraditional methods.”

That’s partly what makes Damerell so angry. His wife, Edna, has worked in a real estate office to support them since his disgusted departure from the school. He has no plans to return to education or to moderate his outspoken views. “You can see I have paid a price,” says Damerell, who now lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Bronxville, N.Y. “But I recommend that education schools be abolished. There’s no way to save them.”

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