Acer rubrum To Zyzyphus jujuba
Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Drs. and Doctorandus
Titles, degrees, and honorifics are important in some circles to distinguish the achiever by the achievement, the apparent status of the individual by the designator before the name, or the degree credentials after the name. No doubt that it is a cultural affectation that is used by some to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses but, mercifully, the use of honorifics is not pervasive everywhere.
Lofty titles are like national flags and coats of arms that proclaim pedigree and status to all who come to read credentials engraved in bronze, chiseled into granite or engraved on personal name plates.
If you are anything like the Footloose Forester, you must decide in advance and in your own mind which venues are more appropriate, more culturally acceptable and less pretentious in the listings of military rank, academic achievement or medical specialties. There are appropriate places and appropriate circumstances for displaying rank, credentials, and honorific titles; but there are also places where they probably should not be on display. The trick is in knowing when and where to marry the person with the title; and knowing when it is OK to dispense with formalities.
Putting formal titles aside is not the same as ignoring them; it is more like putting the titles on a pedestal until the proper time and place to use them. That, of course, requires more tact and social grace than most people have in them. Graciousness is not something taught in schools. But it can be learned.
It is no secret that the Footloose Forester is iconoclastic to the point of abhorring those who are pretentious. An earned degree deserves some respect for the person who earned it, even if the degree itself does not always earn the equivalent respect as co-equal to any other degree. The higher the degree, the greater the respect to the degree holder, all other things being equal; at least within the principle of giving credit when credit is due. The situation, however; should not be a cause for discomfort. But the world doesn’t always work that way. In reality, capable people with good brains may earn high degrees but live as repulsive human beings. You can’t judge a book by its cover or the wholesomeness of a profession or the professional by their titles. That goes for kings, medical doctors, or academics.
Nowhere is the use of honorifics more pronounced than in academia. And nowhere is the propensity toward using academic credentials more overblown than in German academia. Professor Dr. Engineer Hans Solo* will get greater halting respect than would the title Professor Dr. Hans Solo or Professor Hans Solo. They may be the same person with the same credentials, but the unknowing who gaze upon the credentials may not be aware as they wonder about the person.
Poking fun in secret at an obvious buffoon whose name plate says Dr. Nigel Snooty-Brit may be satisfying in retrospect, but until one gets to know the person, we are all a bit disarmed at first encounter. After all, when a person earns a degree or has a title of heraldry, there is a story that goes with the conferment. Some of the stories are legitimate, some are embellished, and some are contrived. There are more than a few people in the world, both male and female, who are wanna-be academics, wanna-be military heros and wannna-be scholars. Dr. Nigel Snooty-Brit may be a made-up name, but if you listen closely, you may hear him or someone like him introduce himself on the phone. Speaking only for himself, the Footloose Forester has taken plenty of phone calls with a Dr. Snooty-Brit—or equivalent on the line. Apparently, others have, too.
Some years ago, in the midst of making travel arrangements to Denver to work in collaboration with a senior ecologist known in his office as Dr. Cotton, the Footloose Forester was instructed to call his secretary for instructions. When I identified myself as Dick Pellek, the secretary, whom I had never met, immediately said “thank you for that.” The message was clear, she didn’t have to converse with someone who insisted on being addressed as Dr. Cotton, Dr. Nigel Snooty-Brit, or whatever. On the other hand, my erstwhile friend from the University of Hawaii, Dr. Mohammad Aziz, did not want to be called Dr. Aziz while he was still in graduate school in Italy, where everyone who finished a B.S. degree was referred to as Doctore. He was uncomfortable with that, so he left Italy to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota. He also told the Footloose Forester that he had wanted to earn his degree and his title. And he did.
There is a grey area surrounding what is permitted and what is acceptable in regard to academic titles. Calling a person Professor is not risky or overly pretentious if that person is a practicing academic, regardless of their earned degree(s). But calling them Dr. is not acceptable if they do not possess a doctorate, whether it is an earned degree or an honorary one. And getting close to an academic title should not qualify, even if some scholars in a few SE Asia countries announce themselves as Doctorandus so-and-so and emphasize their status by attaching the credential Drs. behind their name. Drs. and Doctorandus are both code words signaling everything was completed except the thesis or dissertation.
* The people and events in this chronicle are real, but the names have been changed to guard their dignity.