Letters in the Mail

Upon receiving another solicitation for a Master's or PhD, by mail, no doubt with credit for life experience, Cullen Murphy proposes the new science of exaltametrics. This measurement of a society's propensity to bestow titles (yeah, we're on an upswing) is further justified in the March issue of the Atlantic:

Does title inflation (or deflation) have any historical correlation with the more general decline (or advance) of civilization? One could cite some suggestive evidence... Our own Founding Fathers, seeking to establish a more perfect social order, rejected various baroque suggestions for the title of the nation's chief executive ("His Majesty the President" and "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same") in favor of something more homespun.

...By the same token, epochs in which people betray a grasping appetite for status are often times of decadence and decline. Think of the ancien rĂ©gime's array of ever more finely sliced noble distinctions, which the guillotine's blade brought to an end. Recall Edward Gibbon's description of the desiccated nobility in early-fifth-century Rome: "They contend with each other in the empty vanity of titles and surnames, and curiously select the most lofty and sonorous appellations … which may impress the ears of the vulgar with astonishment and respect." We know what happened next: the barbarians were at the gates (and they all wanted titles).

It would be going too far to assert any hard-and-fast correspondence between title inflation and social decay. But surely it's worth knowing whether the titles of our age are the equivalent of gold bullion or of Weimar banknotes.

Murphy is trying to account for the proliferation of Senior Vice Presidents and Endowed Chairs. But I'm also reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, a novel about a future where the automation had left the masses idle. All the people still working (designing bigger and better machines) had doctorates, though in ubiquity the term had become meaningless.

This occurred to me about this on rounds a few weeks back -- one of our patients was a retired physician. The nurses, who are only too happy to call me "Doctor", often addressed him as 'Mister.'

He didn't correct them, and that sat well with me. Maybe it's because Dr. Evil's remark ("I didn't spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called 'Mister'") has driven home to me the narcissism of insisting on the title. Or, more likely, titles seem best kept to the professional realm, amongst colleagues. In this case, the interaction was nurse/patient, not nurse/doctor, and the appellation was appropriate.

I wonder if this interaction-specific restraint would appease Murphy, who seems to bristle at title-holders' sense of... entitlement... outside their sphere of work. Keeping the ranks at the office, or in formal communications, is a suitable compromise as post-graduate education becomes more common, even as the topics of study become narrower.