By James Clark Ross
This is the second article of a three-part series. Part I: Sexism can be found here.
Academia is essential to a progressive society. The fundamental aspiration to learn and to educate through the accumulation, development, and dissemination of knowledge reaps massive cultural benefits for us all: we thrive with new perspectives, induce excitement with discoveries, produce more efficiently with new technologies, cure diseases with new medicines, and so forth.
However, because their institutes of higher learning collectively suffer from an unbecoming image their commendable endeavours are obscured. Consider what impression they impart on you. To me, at least, the realms of academia conjure up images of stuffy and inaccessible spaces reserved for a snobby elite: circles of individuals striving to be highly regarded by each other; incomprehensible intellectuals using esoteric jargon; self-preservationists employing fierce gate-keeping, through tuition fees, grade requirements, and interviews, to protect prestige.
Stemming from such elitism are academic titles. They’re traditional and celebrate accomplishment—but are they really needed? We learn nothing from them. Worse, they introduce inequalities between people. Here’s why.
The language of a high society
Ancient Greek scholars developed the idea of a university over the course of centuries. At the Old Academy, a society founded by Plato in 4th century BC for individuals with common interests in philosophical subjects, knowledge was shared through lectures, seminars, and simple dialogue. This model of learning germinated and slowly grew, inspiring intellectual endeavours in art, science, maths, literature, poetry, politics, and beyond all around the world.
Knowledge was acquired through observation and exchange. This exhibited an important, progressive distinction from the inner learning of an individual: it was necessary for people to come together as peers and, by engaging with each other, corroborate ideas.
Such schools were sanctioned by monasteries and cathedrals under the Roman Empire. Later a handful schools rose to prominence around Europe, such as those in Bologna and Paris, claiming excellence and fostering perceptions of prestige and inspiring the development of many more institutions around Europe. In the UK religious precincts and lectures from theologians provided the ingredients of learning during the nascent of universities—most notably, at Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually more secular scholastic gilds emerged throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. Academic institutions subsequently attained the legal recognition and accreditation necessary to deliver formally-recognised qualifications.
From these origins myriads of learning hubs grew and flourished around the world, delivering significantly greater accessibility to higher education. Thankfully, this is true today—and the ancient terminology is still in tow.
During the 13th century systems of degrees with ranked precedence were formally developed, with the grades ‘Scholar’, ‘Bachelor’, or ‘Masters’. Titles were created in correspondence to the faculty assigned to the subject. (Incidentally, ‘faculty’, literally ‘an inherent mental or physical power’, is a term for departmental groups in universities.)
‘Doctor’ (‘Dr.’ or ‘Dr’) was derived from a Latin verb ‘docere’, meaning ‘to teach’, and is, thus, fully academic at its roots. Historically, it denoted that the individual was qualified to teach at a university. ‘Professor’ (‘Prof.’) denotes something similar to ‘Doctor’ but commonly with elevated status. Both are officially-recognised personal titles.
When we think of a doctor, however, we’re prone to conceive an image of a medical practitioner since the term gained clinical connotations over time—as was apparent even in Shakespeare’s writing.
In the UK and the British Empire the Royal College of Physicians legally restricted the availability of the title: prosecution of an individual professing to be a ‘Doctor’ without being qualified was enshrined in law with the Medical Act 1858. US medical societies were less strict as they enabled colleges to endorse medical practitioners with the use of the title in the 19th century.
Today, to be classed as an academic ‘Doctor’, a learned individual must successfully complete a doctorate-level degree with the approval of their peers. A medical ‘Doctor’, meanwhile, must obtain a formally-recognised medical degree and demonstrate competence academically and clinically.
You, then, might argue that ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’ rightly distinguish admirable achievements. However, the application of these titles is inconsistent since titles aren’t afforded at each level of academic and professional accomplishment.
The insinuation arising from asking others to address them with specially-reserved titles like ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ is that everyone else is a subordinate, subconsciously handing disproportionately more power to small groups of people—in academia, the workplace, or elsewhere.
Anecdotally, I’ve felt uncomfortable in clinical and research environments I’ve worked in when requested to ‘now address’ someone as ‘Professor X’ (as opposed to, God forbid, ‘Doctor X’). I’ve even met people who won’t acknowledge the presence of others below certain ranks (one doctor was particularly hierarchal about this). But just hearing people behave in line with societal expectations by continually using ‘Dr X’ feels like a form of attrition against equality.
The air of elitism is palpable, for only particular groups of individuals are deemed special enough to deserve titles, which have been retained needlessly until the present day.
Elitism is the belief that society be led by a small number of brilliant individuals. The academic system is quaint and honours history, sure; but the language symbolically ranks people and devalues the contributions of those who aren’t considered part of that elite, who may even work within the same institutions but sit lower on the pyramid.
It’s good to command respect through merit but overemphasising the importance of a supreme, intellectual elite detracts from those whose contributions are otherwise essential to a thriving society. For example, although prowess can be displayed in many forms, belittling less traditional degrees and formal qualifications, such as diplomas, is common. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur, an artist, or a councillor might bring boundless value to people yet won’t enjoy the special privileges of titles.
As humans we feel proud of what we perceive to be our achievements. Groups of individuals such as academics who collectively betray an image of excellence might, therefore, seek to maintain or improve paradigms that favour this image: sustaining such favourable perceptions proves their worth not only to themselves but to others.
This incentive to form an elite society to partake in has manifested countless times before, from the formation of royal societies with restricted access to the stranglehold of private schools and Ivy League colleges on top jobs. Merit would redeem academia somewhat; yet I’ve seen many doctors seamlessly sneak onto the authors lists of peer-reviewed papers without providing any intellectual input. Further, through the grapevine I heard that a request was made for a relative to be added to a list in one case.
Where is the uproar? Well, if you are part of an elite, why would you challenge your elevated status and vocalise discontent? Self-preservation is in the elite’s best interests. Nonetheless, there’s a strong case for higher learning institutions to dictate and lead on decision-making—strictly academically. They’re vital to our culture so, of course, academics should be at the very least heeded: their intellectual foresight can guide us in times of darkness and unmask the unknown. But, for the sake of equality, we should be wary of attitudes of superiority.
An academic elite who present a grandiose and aloof image of themselves will lose traction; not least because it’s politically untenable for higher bodies to ignore the people they should serve. Such sentiments became apparent when the Brexit saga began: we’ve had enough of experts, it was claimed. An engaged population is one who is consulted, not disregarded. A remote elite who appear to care little for common folk is resented.
People must believe in academia: to achieve the ideological support and government funding that allows academic institutions to operate and provide meaningful advancement in knowledge and communal value, they must maintain people’s trust. Only then can we behold a society whose culture undergoes genuine, felt intellectual advancement.
Lofty titles equate to elitist language because they nullify the affinity between people. When our knowledge-bearers linguistically use symbols that suggests that they are of higher importance we feel inferior, for it instils a notion of a better class of people.
The employment of academic titles during regular, everyday interactions creates commonplace inequalities between people, even though the tiers of academic accomplishment bear little relevance in most situations. Calling someone ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ generates assumptions: by forcing others to recognise an elevated, strictly-academic status an imbalance is created, whereby the titles assert authority and assign more importance to one person over another.
Academic superiority in a specific field shouldn’t undermine the equal consideration of all people. The assumption might be that their voice should be regarded with reverence, when there are people out there who are extremely well-informed in certain areas but ignorant in others.
We don’t need continual reminders of academic success. If someone believes that they’re better than you before they’ve met you, they’re introducing a conceited barrier to equality to their encounter with you. It’s subconsciously quite manipulative as it hinders mutual interaction.
The case for the existence of academic titles per se is unidentifiable. They’re unnecessary and their application is seldom relevant in practice. You can be a doctor or a professor without the associated title. The potential for the individual to attain a qualification itself should be the incentive for achievement. This qualification, along with one’s experience, can be boasted appropriately on the CV, where it belongs.
Insisting that other people unnecessarily address you with an academic title dupes them into accepting an abstraction that they’re inferior and that they probably should unconditionally respect your views. But we mustn’t conflate academic achievement with human decency and compassion. An academic title demonstrates the successful pursuit of knowledge; it doesn’t make you decent person who applies it for the common good.
Celebrate academia; drop titles
The use of academic titles is historical, not logical. What we’re accustomed to often isn’t best practice. Practice should evolve with the times.
Socially, using titles prevents us from fully embracing equality. Dropping them would challenge prevalent and persistent modes of asserting authority. We should promulgate the idea that we all matter; that we should treat all people with decency. Without titles we’ll be better able to transfigure human interactions to create mutual consideration of people from the outset.
The language of academia is elitist. At a human level it’s important to celebrate achievement and fully motivate aspirational, talented people; however, when motivations stray too far away from the course to public service to quenching more individually-satisfying desires, the ultimate effect is to garner distrust in expert and public bodies. In times when populism and anti-establishment sentiments are rife it’s important for the so-called academic elite not to shelter their motivations from the people their knowledge can aid.
The fundamental value of education should be expressed as cultural realisation and evolution, not the pursuit of individual recognition. As Benjamin Franklin remarked, true education is “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family; which Ability…should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.”
The language of superiority contradicts ideals of equality and inhibits it from developing between us. Replace the arrogance with humility: abandon your title to bring us closer together.
Next, the third and final article in this three-part series explores the personal titles of the upper classes of Britain and how their usage distract us from the inequalities they represent.