I think I know what C.S. Lewis would think of this. Academic titles are often confusing to those unfamiliar with the maze of higher education. And their usage sometimes reveals the vanity of their bearers. For example, some people insist on using titles such as “Doctor,” even when they earned the degree online with requirements that pale when compared to an honest bachelor’s degree.
When young, most of us become acquainted with the title “Doctor” in association with medical treatment. Even as adults, many people immediately think of stethoscopes and syringes when they hear the word.
Because an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) is a professional degree, similar to an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) or J.D. (Doctor of Law), some holders of so-called academic degrees such as the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) disparage them. I recall a conversation with an acquaintance who taught college courses at our overseas military base. Upon my mention of one of our flight surgeons, the professor said with a chuckle, “oh, I thought you were referring to a real doctor.”
Professional degrees are, in fact, real. The current conversation about the First Lady’s desire to be addressed as “doctor” is inappropriate. She earned her Ed.D., and such honorifics are appropriate. While—prior to becoming an “emeritus”—I always preferred the simple title “pastor,” during my years as a chaplain, I was frequently addressed by my military rank. I would gently remind the individual that (per regulation) all chaplains, even flag officers, are to be addressed as “chaplain” or another appropriate religious title.
I have written about titles in the past. They are useful, and many possess deep inherent significance. Think of “rabbi” in the case of Jewish teachers such as Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who approached Jesus of Nazareth saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3).
Solid academic credentials, like hard-earned skills or talents, do not guarantee success. Circumstances, and even prejudices, often limit opportunities. It was, after all, the snobbery of the English faculty at Oxford that denied C.S. Lewis a full professorship while he taught there. The more enlightened Cambridge righted that wrong. You can read an account of that sad story here.
Shifting Fashions in Academia
This mention of Oxbridge leads us to the inspiration for today’s reflections. For a number of years, some universities have exchanged long held traditions for a variety of modern fashions. (They remain bastions of many archaic customs, of course, and not all of them noble.)
One such discarded tradition was referring to certain university roles with the title “master.” It was used in the British sense, owing nothing at all to the historical blight of slavery. Rather, as Yale University stated in their announcement:
The term “master,” when used to describe the role in the residential colleges, will be changed to “head of college.” The use of “master” as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning “chief, head, director, teacher,” and it appears in the titles of university degrees (master of arts, master of science, and others) and in many aspects of the larger culture (master craftsman, master builder).
The rationale for their decision—which one wonders whether it may eventually be applied even to “master degrees”—is revealed in the inevitable victor in contemporary social debates.
Some members of our community argued that discarding the term “master” would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history of use in the academy, the title—especially when applied to an authority figure—carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore.
What struck me was not the commonplace rejection of traditional verbiage. Words change and although I have a couple sheets of paper declaring me a magister (master), I possess no exceptional attachment to the title.
One thought that flashed upon my mind when I heard the choice of a replacement title. Head strikes me as an altogether loftier appellation than master. The head is the utter sovereign of the body. Consider the following declaration from the fourth chapter of Ephesians.
And he gave the apostles . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Head is a powerful word in the Scriptures. Doubtless its days are also numbered at Yale, should any of their “Religious Studies” scholars stumble across other biblical passages, such as Ephesians 5:23 or 1 Corinthians 11:3.
A More Ominous Reason to Beware of Academic Heads
Readers of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also referred to as the cosmic trilogy or the Ransom trilogy, after the name of its protagonist) should immediately draw the same connection I did about the potential dangers wrought by academic heads.
The three books are outstanding, individually and as a group. They deal with humanity living in the midst of a supernatural universe, when spiritual forces of holy and unholy purpose vie to influence us. (Just as they do in the real world in which we all reside.) One article echoing my encouragement to read the trilogy acknowledges,
While Narnia is a world apart from our own, this science fiction trilogy is set within our own solar system. While its events happen closer to home, perhaps one reason that it gets relatively little attention is that it lacks a Christ figure on par with Aslan the Lion. Though this of course is silly, as the Christ figure of our world is Christ himself.
Perhaps the biggest reason it is less popular than Narnia is that its lessons are not as easily digested. The Space Trilogy is aimed at adult readers and not at children.
I cannot reveal the significance of the academic leader at work in the final volume, That Hideous Strength. Suffice it to say that the head of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) may not live up to the acronym of the academy he oversees. He is rather dictatorial, as one of his faculty inadvertently suggests when attempting to recruit a young PhD candidate for the Institute.
“What exactly are you asking me to do?” she said.
“To come and see our chief, first of all. And then—well, to join. It would involve making certain promises to him. He really is a Head, you see. We have all agreed to take his orders” (That Hideous Strength).
C.S. Lewis’ life revolved around the university. I would love to share a cup of tea with him today and hear what he would think about the modern elimination of the title master. Still, I somehow doubt the Oxford and Cambridge don’s opinion would come as any surprise.