Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 14, 2020


No doubt you are aware of this tempest in a teapot over a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer condescendingly attacking Jill Biden for calling herself "Dr. Biden." Regardless of anything one may feel about the merits of who gets to be called "Doctor,"  it is idiotic to be dismissive about the value of pedagogical research in general or the specific issue of retention of students in community college. The conceit that there are higher and lower scholarly disciplines is fatuous.

But while we're here we might as well talk about the whole concept of honorifics. 


In the first place, I am a doctor of philosophy. My students often spontaneously call me "Dr. Cervantes" (not my real name) as do colleagues who are introducing themselves. I don't ask people to do it and I don't care if they don't. Joseph Epstein probably thinks that Social Policy is an inferior subject, as well, but that's beside the point. I spent as much time in school after my bachelor's degree as do doctors of medicine, in fact more, so if we're going to go around calling people "doctor" I don't see any evident reason why only doctors of medicine should get the recognition. In fact most doctors of medicine aren't even scholars at all, they're just practitioners, although there are many exceptions, notably where I work. But I and my colleagues spend our professional lifetimes studying, researching, writing and teaching. I think that's as respectable as sawing bones.

On the other hand, I don't know that there's any good reason in the general context of society to slap an honorific on anybody. While I invested time and hard work and opportunity cost in my degree, people without fancy degrees have also worked hard and accomplished much, often while overcoming far more adversity than I and most of my fancily credentialed associates. To single out a particular achievement -- a doctoral degree -- for recognition in this way seems a form of unjustified braggadocio, and marks an invidious status distinction.


I feel the same way about calling ordained ministers "Reverend." I don't personally revere them. Some titles refer to an individual's specific profession or role, e.g. a police officer wants to be addressed as "officer." I don't see any particular justification for that. People earn respect by their conduct, not their employment status. Within a military style hierarchical organization such as the police, it's necessary to address people by their rank in order to maintain the structure, for better or for worse, but I'm not sure the rest of us need to do it, unless perhaps we find ourselves interacting within the context of the organization. 

High ranking public officials are addressed as "Mr. Secretary" or (soon) "Madam Vice President" when they are being addressed in the context of their office, and that makes sense. You aren't talking to a person qua the person, but qua the embodiment of their office. In my case, if students feel more comfortable addressing me as "professor Cervantes" in the context of our formal relationship, that's fine with me, and it's also fine with me if they call me by my first name. Similarly, if you want to address your own physician as "Dr. Zhivago" in the context of your medical care, that's also fine, but I don't see why physicians should insist on it and certainly not outside of that specific context. 

We're all of equal worth and deserve equal respect. I'd like to ditch the status labels in most contexts.

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