Titles and Other Ornamental Self-Descriptions

By Werner Cohn

March, 2012

Some sixty years ago I wrote a letter to Albert Einstein. I disagreed with a statement he had made that seemed to me too indulgent of the Stalin regime. Within a week I had a reply, assuring me that he, Einstein, fully shared my own views of Stalin. He signed this note “A. Einstein.” No more, no less. Now here is my question to all the self-styled “doctors” and all the self-styled “Ph.D.’s” of our time: would Einstein have been more impressive to me, or to you, dear reader, had he signed “Dr. Einstein” ?

In August of 1952 the magazine Commentary published a brilliant article “Name Changing and What It Gets You” by J. Alvin Kugelmass. The author had interviewed twenty-five Jews who had changed their names to hide their Jewishness within the recent past. In the interviews, Kugelmass learned that each now regretted this step. It had not brought the greater happiness or contentment that they foolishly expected. Their non-Jewish contacts were puzzled, their Jewish friends and family members sneered. Perhaps a stranger who comes across the new name in a telephone book would not realize that the name-changer is Jewish. But of what value is that to the name changer ? Name changing, like pompous use of titles, is a transparent offense against authenticity and is rewarded by heightened esteem far less often than it is punished by ridicule and contempt.

Similarly, it is our understanding in the United States that self-adornment is generally suspect. Take the use of "Doctor" when used by a Ph.D. outside of the area for which the degree was awarded. On the university campus, a Ph.D.'d professor may be addressed as "doctor," but not outside of the academic context. How do I know this ? Like etiquette, usage with regard to titles may sometimes appear to be a matter of dispute; my "best usage" may not be yours. But fortunately we have objective information on the use of the doctor title by public officials. Of the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives, eighteen hold Ph.D.'s (there are no such US senators). (Here is the list). Each of the eighteen maintains a website, and there is not one who calls himself "Dr. This" or "Doctor That" on his site. The fact that the member holds the degree, however, is invariably mentioned among his other accomplishments in the biographical section of his or her site.

This modesty strikes me as altogether appropriate because a doctorate is not meaningfully relevant to the task of being a good lawmakes. No more, at any rate, than all kinds of other possibly relevant qualifications that do not yield a title.

Now like all accepted usage, an exception of sorts can be found; not among members of the US House but among the former members of the Louisiana House of Representatives. This exception, which of course goes a long way to proving the rule, is "The Official Website of Dr. David Duke."

Alas, usage in regard to the "doctor" title is less clear in other countries.

I recently attended the AIPAC conference in Washington where I listened with great pleasure to an address by an Israeli, a member of the Knesset. She spoke in completely fluent, American-accented English, and not only did I find myself in full agreement with what she had to say but I also acquired new insights on topics that I thought I knew well. She made an excellent impression on her audience in every way, I later learned from the Internet that this MK had a BA from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge in England. What an asset to Israel, to the Jewish people ! What an asset to contemporary political culture !

Ah, and then came the disappointment. When I checked this MK's English language website, I found that she is calling herself "Dr. X," thus contravening what we Americans would consider good usage. (In the spirit of bending-over-backward courtesy I don't mention her name here, but curious readers can of course follow the link.) As I say, to an American eye this looks like a piece of pomposity, which no (American) politician -- David Duke being the exception -- would dare to perpetrate. But when I quickly checked other Ph.D.'d members of Knesset, I found that, apparently, the Israeli political culture encourages this self-adornment on the part of its leaders. But Dr. X., if I may, here is a suggestion: keep the "Doctor" on your Hebrew site if you must, but when you address the American public on your English-language site you'd be well advised to adopt American-style modesty.

Cultures that encourage or allow such pompous self-adornment often pay a heavy price. Take the case of the German aristocrat "Dr." Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg. Until early last year he was considered the most popular (and most glamorous) of German politicians: a leading member of Merkel's cabinet and considered by many as likely to succeed her. And he had a Ph.D. in law, which, it was held, entitled him to be "Dr." zu Guttenberg on his website and elsewhere. And then it was discovered that much of his Ph.D. thesis had been plagiarized, whereupon the University of Bayreuth revoked the degree, and he, now simply Freiherr zu Guttenberg, had to resign all government posts in disgrace. (None of which prevented the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington to subsequently invite him to be one of its Distinguished Statesmen.)

The case of Martin Luther King, Jr., commonly referred to as "Dr. King," reminds us that the situation in the United States is not as clearcut as the current usage by members of Congress would lead us to believe. Unfortunately, King's acquisition of the Ph.D. appears to have been as fraudulent as that of Guttenberg's. There are sub-cultural factors in the United States that perpetuate the "Dr. King" usage; these factors, in my view, need re-examination.

Of course, the problem of inappropriate use of personal adornments is much deeper that the occasionally fraudulent acquisition of doctorates. The notorious Dr. Joseph Goebbels, for instance, has never been accused of plagiarism. But is it therefore any less objectionable when he and his henchmen used his doctorate in literature to bolster his political campaigns ?

The basic problem lies in the inherently fraudulent nature of the use of titles outside of certain narrow limits. When used to suggest excellence in fields others than the one for which it was granted, it is obvious that such usage is dishonest.

There is also a different, though related problem. A Ph.D. title -- let's say that it was honestly acquired -- could have been the result of many different types of study. I am willing to assume that a Ph.D. in math, say from MIT, means a great deal (in the world of math, that is); but what does a Ph.D. in educational psychology indicate, say from an unknown struggling little campus ? It could possibly signal an achievement no less exalted than the aforementioned MIT doctorate, but then again, how sure can we be of that ?

My point of view of what is and what is not appropriate -- a point of view that I take to be the best current American usage -- is perhaps best illustrated by a series of hypothetical examples. (Some of these examples are taken from situations that I have encountered).

1) You are an MD, and also have an earned Ph.D. In addition, you are licensed to practice medicine in New York state. You try to make a reservation for tonight at Peter Luger's, whose reservations run several months ahead. When you call the restaurant you call yourself Dr. ThisOrThat, hoping to gain an advantage. Legitimate ? Obviously not, because you try to gain an advantage to which you are not entitled, and which would, if granted, unfairly disadvantage others .

2) You are an MD but have never served an internship, and you do not have a license to practice medicine. You have a job in a hospital as administrator. In your office you call yourself "doctor;" after all, you have an MD. This usage is misleading since it invites others to assume that you are a licensed physician. This practice is also expressly forbidden by the statutes of most states.

3) You were born as a Jew in Austria but emigrated to America just before the war. You are now one of the Jews against Israel. You sign statements condemning Israel's actions in Gaza. To your name you add "Holocaust Survivor," leading others to assume that a) you are a survivor of the camps, and b) that your HS status gives you special insights on the military situation in Gaza. Inappropriate on both counts.

4) You have a Ph.D. and list your biography on your website. Good practice suggests that you indicate when and where you received that degree, among other biographical details.

The next examples raise a different issue. Current good practice, as I understand it, requires not only truthfulness but also modesty. A title like "Dr." may involve purely informational value, as when it is listed in a biographical account. Or, either in addition or by itself, it may also be intended purely as an honorific, similar then to the use of "Mr." You can speak of another as "Mr. Jones," but you will never say "I am Mr. Jones," not unless you want to appropriate for yourself something that can in fact only be done by another: bestowing honor and respect on you. You will not do this without risking ridicule.

5) You are a full professor at a leading university, holder of a high-quality Ph.D. On the first day of classes you introduce yourself to your students as follows: "My name is Dr. (or Professor) SoAndSo." While you can certainly expect to be called "Professor This" or "Doctor That" by others, and indeed refer to you colleagues by these titles on campus, you do not use such titles to refer to yourself. Just say "I am Jack ThisOrThat." What goes for professor or doctor also goes for rabbi and minister. By all means let your people call you the Rev. This or Rabbi That; but when you introduce yourself -- generally -- just be Jim This or Abe That. Of course, when the context requires the title for informational (rather than honorific) purposes, by all means, be Rabbi That.

6) Nor should you, as I say, ever call yourself "Mister ThisorThat" on the telephone. Disclaimer: I do not know what the best usage would be in grammar or high school classes.

Finally, what is the harm of a bit of puffing ? What is the harm of calling yourself "Dr.," or sign "Ph.D." after your name, say on your sigfile ?

As I see it, there are three classes of harm:

1. The puffery of an inappropriate "Dr." is, like all bragging, an assault on your audience: "look at me," you are saying, "I am better than you."

2. And like all bragging, inappropriate "doctoring," etc., is also self-defeating: you want more esteem but you are likely to earn scorn.

3. But the main problem with these offenses is that they are offenses against authenticity, against truth.




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