There’s a lively discussion raging at the pad of Dr. Isis (here and here) about whether there isn’t something inherently obnoxious and snooty about identifying oneself as having earned an advanced degree of any sort. Commenter Becca makes the case thusly:
“Why are people threatened by the idea that a profession ought to have professional standards, anyway?”
1) It gives the gatekeepers even more power than they already have. Given a world where professional credentials are denied to certain groups, it can get a bit ugly. I think the worst part is that people who are traditionally trodden upon, because they fought so hard to get the darn credential, end up being the ones most viciously fighting against respect for people without the credentials.
2) I’m not horribly opposed to professional standards in general, I just don’t think they should necesarily apply to researchers. If an MD doesn’t know what she’s doing, she kills people. If a scientist doesn’t know what she’s doing, she can change the status quo by doing something incredibly novel that others couldn’t imagine (not that it’s the most likely scenario; the most likely scenario is she will fall flat on her face… but there is an important distinction nonetheless). Heck, a kid in a science fair can discover something new (ocassionally, at the highest levels like Westinghouse, even something that academics should recognize- something publishable).
Ultimately, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t take “Dr.” as a proxy for respect. No one will ever earn my respect by spending X years in school. Plenty of people without PhDs will earn it.
I’ve met very few PhDs who have unearned my respect for their hard work and intelligence that got them that degree (note the distinction between symbol = degree and reality = character). But there have been a few. I feel no obligation to call them “Dr.”.
“Seriously, what is the problem with recognizing expertise, hardwork, perseverence, and yes, intelligence? Why is that not progressive?”
There’s nothing wrong with it, and a great deal right!
But the relationship between schooling, expertise, hardwork, perserverence and intelligence and the number of letters displayed after your name is not a one to one function. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (most likely a diploma).
“Ms. Manners would suggest that the polite thing to do would be to inquire of Dr. Biden which she would prefer, and (so long as the preference is for an honorific she has earned) use that.”
Did you mean Miss Manners? On the original discussion I posted her commentary on this. It can be summed up as: if someone wants to use a title, give it to them. If you are thinking of your own title, however, it’s a tad crude to draw excessive attention to your need for status.
I’m sympathetic to Becca’s points here, so I want to explore why it is I find myself leaning in the other direction on the appropriateness of “Dr.” as an honorific.
First off, I think respect for persons ought to be absolutely central to our interactions with each other, every day and in every way. I’m with Kant on that one. People have the potential to do wonderful things — even of they haven’t delivered on that promise yet — and they have the potential to feel really bad if treated poorly by others. There’s never a good reason to go out of your way to treat someone poorly, and the extra effort it may take to treat the other people you encounter as actual human beings rather than just obstacles in your path is almost always worth it. (Sometimes the value comes in what kind of person it makes you to treat others well, but that’s still value-added.)
While we’re busy respecting each other as persons, there are other things we’re doing as well. Sometimes we’re psyching ourselves (or others) up to tackle daunting tasks. Sometimes we’re accomplishing those tasks. Sometimes we’re seeking the assistance of others in accomplishing our tasks, or being called upon by others to offer our assistance.
Some of the daunting tasks we psych ourselves up to tackle involve learning new things, or even bringing new knowledge into existence. Sometimes accomplishing those tasks is recognized with a degree, maybe even one that comes with the “Dr.” honorific.
Clearly, not all daunting tasks that people tackle and conquer are connected to academic degrees. Without a doubt, people do very hard, and very valuable, things that don’t confer academic status (or even a salary). Expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence are worthy of respect on their own, whether or not they also result in a degree. But this doesn’t mean that we should not respect expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence when they are accompanied by a degree!
And here’s where the messiness of the real world starts impinging on our Kantian utopia. There are a number of people who, in the world we currently inhabit, are repeatedly confronted with the experience of having their expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence discounted, in big ways and in small ways. When these people jump through all the hoops that the folks discounting them recognize as certifying something, are they supposed to shut up about their advanced degrees because it’s not quite polite to draw attention to them?
Let’s remember, in answering that question, that respect for persons includes respect for oneself.
Noting that advanced degrees are held by women, members of underrepresented (and traditionally undervalued) minorities, folks from lower socioeconomic strata, people coming to formal education late in life, people living with disabilities, etc., is one way to combat the default assumption that members of these groups aren’t quite worthy of the same respect other people are accorded before they even open their mouths. It’s a way to say, “By your own lights, I do know something worth listening to! So don’t write me off!” To me, that’s the main issue — shifting a default assumption where some people are preemptively accorded more respect, others less.
Now, none of this is to say that we won’t have occasion to update our assessments of expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence when people actually open their mouths. (We should still strive to respect the humanity even in people who say stupid things or behave like asses, although we may judge them less able to assist us in our projects, and we may deem their projects as ones in which we’re unwilling to participate, owing to how dumb those projects are.)
As well, the people pushing back against the default assumption that people of their sex or race or class or age or whatever are not worthy of regard and could not have real expertise or accomplishments, upon earning the higher degrees that might count as some kind of evidence against these default assumptions, ought not to pull up the rope-ladder behind them. Rather, they ought to point out that it was the talents and determination (and some measure of good luck) that they had, members of a suspect class though they were, that allowed them to earn those degrees, not the degrees that suddenly made them valid human beings — which means that other members of those suspect classes can be presumed to have that same potential.
Things can get tetchy if we start in on potential that people have versus potential that they bother to develop, so I’m going to walk around that issue for the moment. (As a parent, though, I’ll note that sometimes being respected can feel a little but like being pushed.) Also, there are instances in which we’re more concerned with locating actual expertise rather than the potential to develop expertise.
Still, we ought to be able to respect each other. To do that, we need to be willing to look at how others have been preemptively disrespected, and work out ways to shift the default closer to where we hope, in the glorious Kantian utopia, to end up.