About 20 years ago, right after college, I was on an interstate bus, the transportation I could then afford. At the beginning of the ride, the driver got on the speaker and said, “Welcome aboard, I am Operator Jones. I’ll be taking you as far as the state line…” And I thought, Operator Jones?
I always think of Operator Jones when I encounter a case of title inflation. Yesterday, it was Maya Angelou, who died at the age of 86. Ms. Angelou was a civil rights activist, a Tony-nominated actress, a memoirist of some gifts, and the inaugural poet for the first presidential election in which I voted. But Ms. Angelou, who never went to college, was not “Dr. Angelou.”
“Dr. Angelou,” which was repeated by many media outlets after she died, was willed by Ms. Angelou herself: Her website referred to her as “Dr. Angelou” and her Twitter handle was the unambiguous @DrMayaAngelou. Wake Forest University, where she taught for many years, colluded in this ruse, referring to her in its obituary as “civil rights activist and professor Dr. Maya Angelou.” When I called the school to ask why it went along with this misdirection, a spokesman told me, “That was her choice, to be called that.”
Ms. Angelou did have numerous honorary doctorates, from Smith College, Mills College, Mount Holyoke College, Northeastern, Lafayette, Eastern Connecticut State—the list goes on. These degrees are given at commencements to lure big names to the ceremonies, impressing graduates and their parents. I have long thought little of this tradition; at Yale, my alma mater, honorary degree recipients pop onto campus, meet with administrators and a few students (student government presidents, that type), collect their degrees onstage, then leave. Paul Simon got an honorary doctorate in 1996, Paul McCartney in 2008—and neither graced us with a song.
In any event, throughout academia, it is agreed that an honorary doctorate does not entitle one to call oneself “Dr.” The media generally agrees, and a good thing, too. For if newspapers or websites referred to everyone with an honorary doctorate as “Dr. So-and-So,” thousands of greater and lesser celebrities would be immediately elevated to doctoral status. We would read about Dr. Paul Anka, Dr. Puff Daddy (as he was called when Howard University honored him), Dr. Glenn Beck, and Dr. Dennis Hastert. And don’t forget Dr. Marcel Marceau, Dr. Charles Colson, and Dr. Willard Scott.
In the grand scheme of things, the proliferation of pseudo-doctors is not a big problem. But as someone who in fact has a doctorate in religious studies, it troubles me. Not because only people like me should be calling ourselves “Dr.,” but because almost nobody, including me, really should.
Let’s posit that there could be only three reasons, at least that I can think of, to use titles. The first is because there is a pressing need to know who in the room has the credentials: airplane captains may need to know if there is a doctor on board (and we know what kind of doctor they mean); in the military, privates need to know who the sergeants are, corporals need to defer to captains, and so forth. In such limited cases, there are very good reasons to use titles.
Second, we use titles just to honor our supposed betters: Queen Elizabeth, Sir Paul McCartney. As an American and a democrat, I think this usage is stupid, un-American, and best left overseas.
Third, we use titles, as Ms./Dr. Angelou did, to denote a credential, awarded by ratifying experts, to one who has attained a certain level of expertise. Hence if you write a history dissertation, your professors can award you a Ph.D. in history, then you get to be called “Dr.” It is this usage of titles that we see throughout the academy, often misapplied to people without doctorates; that we see people forging to be taken more seriously as intellectuals (consider the recent case of Leslie Berlowitz, disgraced former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences); that we see those with honorary doctorates, like Maya Angelou, appropriating; and that we see people in every walk of life, the Operator Jones on the Greyhound bus, aping.
I have three objections to this. First, these titles are often pretty meaningless. It’s true that I got a Ph.D. in religion over 10 years ago, but I am hardly a scholar. I haven’t kept up with the latest scholarly writing and have never held a tenure-track academic post. Unlike physicians, I can’t actually do anything to help people. What’s more, there are plenty of people in the field of religion with only master’s degrees, or less—clergy, laypeople, enthusiastic amateurs—who know plenty more about my subject than I do. My doctorate just signals that I went through a program of exams and paper-writing, including a thesis-length paper at the end. But so what? Graduate school is not even that hard. I am a good cocktail-party bullshit artist, but I was that before grad school, and some of the best BS’ers I know have only a B.A.
Second, there are so many kinds of doctors now. Once upon a time, “doctor” was at least descriptive. It meant physician or Ph.D., more or less—medical doctor or scholar. But now there are plenty more people who have, in the public’s estimation, won doctor cred: chiropractors, naturopaths, osteopaths, school administrators with the Ed.D. degree, preachers with the D.Min. degree, therapists with the Psy.D. degree, and so forth. Now, I don’t want to disparage any of these people. The best therapist I ever had was a Psy.D., not a Ph.D. (and there are plenty of excellent therapists with master’s degrees in social work or counseling, and the only reason they could use a Ph.D. would be to bill insurance companies more). My point is that the more people who call themselves doctors, the less it means.
Finally, we are heading toward a world in which the main effect of the “Dr.” title is to exclude the millions of gifted people who don’t have doctorates. With hundreds of universities offering doctor degrees of all kind, and thousands of people picking up such degrees online, in dozens of fields, and the Maya Angelous of the world flashing their honorary-doctor badges, we have reached a point of such title inflation that all the excellent scholars and professionals who choose to call themselves “Mr.” and “Ms.” may seem like quaint exceptions. It’s too bad: “Mr.” and “Ms.” are our universal, democratic titles. We should stick with those.
I am aware that many people who have earned doctorates are loath not to use them. Particularly when one comes from a historically marginalized group—and this includes women—earning the highest degree in one’s field is something worth announcing, not only from pride but also to inspire others. Nevertheless, I believe the academy, in particular, is a place that works best when it’s collaborative, not hierarchical. Respect does not come from titles. I want a world in which Tony Kushner and Gloria Steinem, who despite their honorary degrees never call themselves “Dr.,” receive as much, or as little, deference as Ms. Angelou gets, without regard to any academic degree, honorary or otherwise.
Above all, the goal should be a community of learning in which we are as willing to listen to the first-year graduate student, or the returning adult student, as to the crusty white man with the doctorate. That’s the man I will someday be. And when I am, you can call me Mr. Oppenheimer. Or just Mark.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of three books, including a memoir of high school debate and a travelogue about crashing bar mitzvahs. He writes a religion column for The New York Times and is on Twitter @markopp1.