Archives For Titles

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.

Do Titles Matter?

December 5, 2016 — 10 Comments

cbeThere are many sorts of titles one may accumulate, and some people pursue them with great passion. There are familial titles like “Grandmother,” military titles such as “Ensign,” academic titles like “Associate Professor,” and ecclesiastical titles as in “Archimandrite.”

And that’s only the tip of the titular iceberg. Titles are prominent in many fields, such as medicine, politics and the judiciary. And appellations such as “Coach,” are precious to multi-millionaire athletic leaders and folks working with preschoolers in the gym or on the field alike.

The best way to tell how important a person’s titles are to them, is to witness how they respond to the “misuse” of one. My wife and I have a joke when I show my identification card when we enter a military installation. If the guard courteously says, “have a good day, colonel,” after I roll up the window and proceed, I will sometimes say (for Delores’ benefit) “that’s lieutenant colonel!”

If you’re unfamiliar with the armed forces, there’s a good chance you miss the joke. A lieutenant colonel is junior in grade to a “full” colonel, although addressing one simply as “colonel” is allowed. In fact, in a sense it’s an added courtesy or sign of respect. (I should mention that it’s not uncommon for some of the civilian guards to follow up such a greeting with a glance towards my wife and the words, “and a good day to you, general.”)

I have mixed feelings about titles, a trait I believe I share with C.S. Lewis.

In 1952, Lewis declined appointment as a Commander (CBE) in the Order of the British Empire. He did so to avoid entangling his Christian witness with political considerations. But by declining he forsook the opportunity to be known as “Sir Lewis,” although, I doubt he lost sleep over his decision. (In fact, in his humility, Lewis never revealed the matter for public scrutiny.)

A 1959 letter to Lance Sieveking, the BBC producer who wrote the radio script for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, offers an interesting insight into Lewis’ attitude about titles. He begins with this greeting:

Dear Sieveking

(Why do you ‘Dr.’ me? Had we not dropped the honorifics?)

Volume three of Lewis’ letters reveals this was representative of his thinking. Once he had established a rapport with some correspondents, he requested that they drop the use of titles. A typical example reads, “We may both drop the honorific now, mayn’t we?.” In one case he writes in the imperative, “Dear Hooton (Do drop the honorifics!).”

So, Do Titles Matter?

My grandchildren surprised me the other day by addressing me as “Doctor Grandpa.” They proudly shared in my joy (read “relief”) at having completed my Doctor of Ministry degree.

I responded to their adulation with “actually, kids, it’s ‘Reverend Doctor Grandpa.’” This led to a fun discussion about titles during which I was able to explain to them how my pastoral title was of greater significance to me than the doctoral honorific. After which I reminded them the matter was moot because all I want them to call me is grandpa. I explained how only eight people in the entire world can call me that, and it made that title extremely precious to me.

Ultimately, the most valuable title any human being could have is to be addressed as son or daughter, by God. As Jesus’ disciple John wrote:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1).

On this, I have no doubt C.S. Lewis would agree.

Despite this, there are cases where titles are critical. The military, with its “chain of command” sometimes being a life or death matter, is a prime example.

In other settings, the honorifics are less significant. I addressed all my instructors in college as “Professor,” regardless of whether they were full/associate/assistant/whatever.

I doubt that many of Lewis’ very fortunate students thought less of his lectures because of Oxford’s politics which withheld from him the full “professorship” he had certainly earned. (It would be left to the wiser University of Cambridge to rectify this oversight.)

This suggests to me that titles mean less to most people than the way others think of them. If people respect you as someone with integrity . . . if they call you “friend . . .” how much more fortunate could you be?

 

eyechartThe world’s oldest man just died—and I’m not looking forward to ever becoming one of his successors. I mean, I understand the sentiments of non-Christians who quip that any day on this side of the grass is a good one, but I would only be interested in staying around here that long if I still had a keen mind and good health.

I’m not sure most of the people who eventually earn those titles have either. This gentleman was 111, and in the picture of him receiving his Guinness certificate, he actually looks like he had already expired. I mean, no offense, just a statement of simple fact.

As for his state of mind, I’m a bit more optimistic. Apparently when asked a while ago how he had lived so long, he responded, “because I haven’t died yet.” Assuming that was tongue in cheek (I recognize that is merely an assumption), he had retained his sense of humor. A good sign.

I don’t think ultra-long longevity is all it’s cracked up to be. I remember my 92 year old grandmother (my only relative who lived to be “elderly”) telling me that she was ready to go to heaven. She was in a nursing home, but not in pain, and still witty.

She said, “Robbie, I’ll miss you and everyone who is still here, but if you live long enough, more of the people you love are already in heaven than remaining here.” She had been widowed for three decades. And, unbeknownst to us at the time, three of her four children would follow her within three years of her own passing.

I am not eager to die, of course. And, unlike Polycarp, the bishop of second-century Smyrna, I’m certainly not zealous about the possibility of someday being martyred.

Still, God-willing, when I’ve come to the end of my appointed days I will make that transition peacefully, as is appropriate for a child of God who has been blessed with a full life.

When death is seen as a dark end—a soundless void—it’s understandable that many would resist it to the “bitter” end. That theme has been common in literature and cinema.

In a comic light, a character on Parks and Recreation exhibits the desire to live as long as humanly possible. He exercises without pause and takes every vitamin that exists in horse-pill doses. Soon after Chris Traeger was introduced to the show, he shared his view of life:

I take care of my body above all else. Diet, exercise, supplements, positive thinking. Scientists believe that the first human being who will live 150 years has already been born. I believe I am that human being.

Humorous. And, a respectable goal perhaps, if not driven by deep fear.

I don’t share Traeger’s goal of being the first human to reach 150. Nor, as we considered at the outset of our discussion, do I long to gain the title of World’s Oldest Man.

And I take comfort that I find myself, once again, in the comfortable camp of C.S. Lewis. In his essay “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis wrote:

Progress means movement in a desired direction, and we do not all desire the same things for our species. In “Possible Worlds” Professor Haldane pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness.

The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

More important, we believe, is the quality than the quantity, of our lives.