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Doctor, Doctor!


Bravo to Lord Bandersnatch of Oxford for his piece on “Doctor” Jill Biden and other examples of title-inflation. As is usually the case when the subject is interesting, Jay has been tilling this soil for some time: The youngest man ever tenured in Harvard’s economics department is Mr. Lawrence Summers — hell, he’s generally Larry — but the pride of Princeton (and hammy counselor of Zion!) is Dr. Cornel West. MLK is generally Dr. King rather than the Rev. King, etc.

All of which is a flimsy excuse to relate my two favorite observations on the topic.

The first is an observation from Austin, though I suspect that it applies to Jay’s native Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and a few other college towns. In the vicinity of the University of Texas, nobody insists on “doctor,” because everybody has a doctorate: From the chancellor of the capital-U University (talk about title inflation!) to the guy bringing you your quesos asados at Fonda San Miguel, Ph.D’s are ubiquitous. What people insist on in Austin is professor — if you are a full-on professor, you let people know. (Until you grow into it, that is: Insisting on a title is like buying a red car with your first $1 million — you get over it.) (One of my all-time favorite expressions originates in Silicon Valley, where they say of a man who has just made his first real money and is eager to show it that he is “having his red-car year.”)

The second observation is from my third adopted hometown of Lower Merion, Pa., the celebrated “Main Line” of WASPy lore, where I never tired of mocking the local superintendent of schools (who was compensated to the tune of about a quarter-mil a year for managing a school district of fewer than 7,000 students), who styled himself “Dr. Jamie P. Savedoff, Ph.D.” One or the other would have been bad enough, but bookending one’s signature with “Dr.” and “Ph.D” is an act of epic self-beclownment.  

But then again, so is pursuing a graduate degree in education. 

The subject of titles is fascinating. One of the (many) things I love about India is the abundance of surnames that are also job titles. In Delhi, I had the pleasure of being acquainted with a Dr. Doctor, a mechanical specialist named Engineer, and an administrator surnamed Manager. And how could one fail to admire the German convention of referring to a man with two doctorates as Herr Doktor Doktor?

There is usually an inverse relation between title-coveting and real achievement. As a newspaper editor on the Main Line, I waged a lonely war against allowing lawyers to refer to themselves in print as “Sue Yoo, Esq.” My rule: Unless you are carrying a lance for a knight in full armor, you are not to be known as esquire. I once introduced a priest friend as “monsignor,” to which he responded: “The pope called me that, once. And once was enough.” I always thought it telling that the guiding spirit of this particular neighborhood, one of the most celebrated men of his generation, was in the habit of forgoing even “mister,” being simply “Bill” to one and all. 


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