Monday, February 02, 2009

Dr. Who

I found this article from Media Matters, referencing an article in the LA Times, to be an amusing example of the current state of the media and the add nature of "liberal" bias.  Apparently the LA Times finds that some people think it a bit pompous of Jill Biden to refer to herself as Doctor based on her having a PhD in education.  The Times seems to feel that Doctor should be reserved for those of the medical profession. 

Now, full disclosure, I have a PhD in physics so I have a bias on this subject.  But the history of the title is kind of significant here.  The title Doctor dates back centuries and has, until very recently, been exclusively a title of general academic accomplishment.  The main character in the story of Faust, Doctor Faustus, for example is based upon a doctor of divinity.  The renowned Samuel Johnson, often known as Dr. Johnson, never studied medicine.  This pattern is repeated for centuries.  Indeed, not too many centuries ago, at a time when scholarly doctors were common, medicine was not a field in which one could get a doctorate.  In the brand new republic of America, however, folks had initially a very low opinion of titles of all sorts (Article I section 9 of the constitution forbids Titles of Nobility, for example) led to a much reduced use of the title Doctor in the new nation.  Later in the nineteenth century the medical profession finally started getting its act together and established itself as a truly professional order and happily embraced the title of Doctor.  At that time the nation's earlier animosity to titles had abated so the the medical profession met little resistance from the general public or from those from academic society.  That coupled with the fact that most people came to know medical doctors as a regular part of life, but were much less familiar with academic doctors.  So now the irony is that academic doctors, in spite of the much longer history for the title come across as the interlopers.  Such are the oddities of history.

So it is perfectly reasonable for Dr. Biden to refer to herself as such.  Actual usage of the title today is, however, far less common than it once was.  It is a generational thing.  In my first place of employment there was nothing odd about the fact that the older gentleman who headed our department was Dr. Pontius.  On the other hand, younger PhDs do not use the title on a daily basis.  But that is part of a general trend in society.  No one today, on a daily basis, calls me Dr. Robinson, but then before I got the PhD no one called me Mr. Robinson either.  Having said all this, it is also true that in more formal, professional settings the title is used.  So at formal, project reviews, I stop being Mike and become Dr. Robinson.

As a final note, as others have pointed out, the pompousness of using the title never seemed to apply to either Dr. Rice or Dr. Kissenger.  I wonder why?

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