Tuesday, October 23, 2007

To Ph.D or Not To PhD.?

Classic books of etiquette from the Victorian era are filled with tips on the precise way to address various titled members of society. Kings, Presidents, Lords, Generals, Viceroys, Admirals and country squires all have their particular little niche and proper mode of address. But what about Doctors of Philosophy, or as they are commonly called, PhD.s?

My father was for thirty-four years a full professor at a California State University. However, as he entered the teaching profession as a newly-minted Master of Science in the early 1950s, he never actually earned a doctorate, though he did complete coursework and a good portion of a dissertation at the University of Southern California in the mid-1980s. However, throughout his career, students were prone to addressing him as 'Doctor' a title he felt he did not deserve and which he did his best to dissuade said students from using. He preferred to be addressed as 'Professor' or even 'Mr.', both of which being titles he had long since earned and which he felt were more appropriate in any case.

National Review's resident expert on all things linguistic, Jay Nordlinger, wrote a column back in 2002 on the New York Times and its highly inconsistent approach to calling various members of academia in strikingly different manners. As Nordlinger writes,
What’s in an honorific? Not Shakespearean, I realize, but it is our topic for today. The question came up — not for the first time — when the New York Times ran its several articles on the Cornel West controversy at Harvard. (West, a star professor in the Afro-American Studies department, was tiffing with the university’s new president, Lawrence Summers. It seems that Summers wanted West to straighten up his scholarly and professorial act. West, quite naturally, got upset.) Some of us suspicious types noticed that the Times referred to West and other Afro-Am profs as “Dr.” — “Dr. West,” “Dr. Gates,” “Dr. Wilson” — while referring to Summers as plain ol’ “Mr.” (The Times did the same with the school’s former president, Neil Rudenstine. All these people have Ph.D.’s, of course.) This was passing strange — the kind of thing that “made you go, ‘Hmmm,’” in the words of the old rap song.

Nordlinger continues by pointing out that then-Harvard President Summers is himself the possessor of a doctorate in economics and was the youngest man ever to receive tenure from Harvard's Department of Economics. Economics, unlike African-American Studies, is a discipline that actually requires real research and which does not present degrees based on racial politics. However, Summers prefers to be addressed as 'Mr.' in the pages of the New York Times, as opposed to 'Dr.' Cornel West. Seems Summers perchance is less interested in parading his credentials- perhaps because those credentials have far more intrinsic prestige and value than those of Cornel West. Nordlinger ends by writing,
For some, to be called “Dr.” is a way of saying, “I am somebody,” in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Ah, “the Rev. Mr. Jackson” and “the Rev. Al Sharpton” — that’s “a whole ’nother” article, as we say in my family.) Many years ago, another NR senior editor, Rick Brookhiser, surveying all the mail sent to Bill Buckley, adjudged that the most interesting letters were those from prison. And the least interesting? The ones from people who signed themselves “Ph.D.” I know someone who’s a lawyer in West Virginia who has found that the surest way to rattle his opposition’s expert Ph.D. witness is to refer to him as “Mr.”

But then, I have another acquaintance who earned a Ph.D. in biochem — and he pleads for his “Dr.” because, “There aren’t many perks in this line of work, and I’d like my little payoff from polite society.” Well, at least he’s not a drama teacher. The bulk of the Ph.D.’s I know balk at being called anything but “Mr.” (or maybe “Professor,” in the case of academics), believing that “Dr.” has come to mean Marcus Welby, and that’s about it. As for those who feel slighted when they are “Dr.”-less, all we can say is, “Ph.D., heal thyself.”

The entire article is an expose both on the corrupt labelling employed by so many liberal news organs and on the general practice of modes of address as practiced in the United States. Though of 2002 vintage, Nordlinger's commentary rings as true today as it did when he wrote it. Read the whole thing.

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