Did you know that “Dr. Maya Angelou” was neither a physician nor the holder of a real Ph.D? Mark Oppenheimer says that the poet, who died this week, never went to college, but she held lots of honorary doctorates, and vainly insisted on being called “Dr. Maya Angelou.”  Excerpt:
In any event, throughout academia, it is agreed that an honorary doctorate does not entitle one to call oneself “Dr.” The media generally agrees, and a good thing, too. For if newspapers or websites referred to everyone with an honorary doctorate as “Dr. So-and-So,” thousands of greater and lesser celebrities would be immediately elevated to doctoral status. We would read about Dr. Paul Anka, Dr. Puff Daddy (as he was called when Howard University honored him), Dr. Glenn Beck, and Dr. Dennis Hastert. And don’t forget Dr. Marcel Marceau, Dr. Charles Colson, and Dr. Willard Scott.
In the grand scheme of things, the proliferation of pseudo-doctors is not a big problem. But as someone who in fact has a doctorate in religious studies, it troubles me. Not because only people like me should be calling ourselves “Dr.,” but because almost nobody, including me, really should.
I agree with this, though I don’t quite buy Oppenheimer’s egalitarian reasoning. I actually like titles, but only when they’re earned, and only when they are held lightly by the bearer. Well, I take that back: I like “Dr. Kissinger,” because it makes him sound more sinister.
I don’t like it when churches identify their leader as “Dr. John Doe, Senior Pastor”. Why does a Christian pastor advertise his Ph.D? Is it a status thing? I don’t get it. It telegraphs to me a lack of confidence, but maybe I’m misreading it.
But at least those preachers earned their degree. When people like Maya Angelou call themselves Dr., based on their honorary degrees, it’s like seeing someone with a bad toupée. It doesn’t make them look better, but rather calls attention to their vanity and insecurity.
UPDATE: Enough with the sanctimony about how one must not observe anything negative about Maya Angelou upon her passing, and how it’s not right to say that someone like her shouldn’t call herself “doctor.” I take it as given that she was an accomplished person, and a morally upstanding person. I was pleased to read Erick Erickson beautiful appreciation of her memoir , which one reader posted. Here’s an excerpt:
I have learned over the years, particularly during my time at CNN, that one can have friendships with those whose life, issues, politics, or values do not align with my own. I had a friendship with Maya Angelou’s beautiful voice. I could listen to her read a grocery list and it would be an emotional event.
I never met Maya Angelou. But I admired her from afar. Some people are just worthy of praise, regardless of their positions, convictions, or titles. We should not be so counter-cultural to the present culture and politics that we as conservative are not willing to recognize that caged bird sang a melody worth humming along to even when we didn’t care for the words.
Amen to that. It made me order a copy of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I will read it with my kids. That has nothing to do with whether or not someone who is not a holder of a Ph.D — or someone who is a holder of a Ph.D — should insist on being called “doctor.” I think it’s a silly, vain practice, though apparently a common one in our society. It’s worth talking about. It is not a sin against the Holy Ghost to say that Maya Angelou should not have called herself “doctor,” or that any other great soul should not do it, absent a Ph.D. Do you think that a veteran who was never officially awarded a medal, should be entitled to wear medals based on the fact that he is an exemplary person?
And by the way, for those of you who think this is some sort of right-wing racist thing, I remind you that Mark Oppenheimer, who raised the issue and brought it to my mind , is a liberal. In fact, he objects to the use of the honorific, even by Ph.D holders like himself, on egalitarian grounds.
If you want to debate what Oppenheimer calls “title inflation,” fine, let’s talk. But if you want to enjoy being outraged that somebody would notice this minor peccadillo in Angelou’s public persona, and use it to make a general point about a common but unfortunate practice in our culture, well, you’ve had your say in the thread this morning. Henceforth, this thread is about title inflation.