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Doctor, doctor: Is there a ‘real’ doctor in the house?

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POSTED December 17, 2008 1:26 a.m.
I have few absolutes. Among them is honor my commitments, brush my teeth at least twice a day, and never address anyone as “doctor” unless they can cut me open to save my life, protect my eye sight, adjust my back, or undertake some other clinical persuasion to either enhance my physical or mental health.
The insistence of many to be referred to as “doctor” is a rather annoying trend. It creates a pompous aura about those who insist — strike that — demand a sign of respect that goes far beyond the universal “mister”, “madam” or other salutatory word attached to a name.
An acquaintance who had achieved his doctorate in education recently said he was now going by “Dr. Smith.” I’ve changed the last name to save him embarrassment even though he lives 60 miles away.
First of all, it is more than a little pretentious to insist that a friend or a work acquaintance call you doctor all of a sudden because you have achieved a little piece of paper that simply says you’ve invested more time in school by securing a doctorate.
One must assume the doctorate has given them an awesome wealth of knowledge and superiority by the way they act. It’s one thing to be proud of an achievement. It’s quite another to be pompous.
There are a great number of teachers and administrators in Manteca Unified who haven’t fallen prey to their egos. They may add “Dr.” in front of their name in formal correspondence occasionally, but they don’t demand their students, associates or parents to address them in a manner that has the sublime message of saying “me superior, you inferior.”
My distaste for the use of “Dr.” by people to demonstrate how superior they are to those around them reached a zenith about 21 years ago.
I was doing a column for The Press-Tribune in Roseville on a program in the Western Placer Unified School District on how Glen Edwards Middle School was undertaking a special effort to break down the barriers between limited speaking English speaking parents and the faculty. Some parents thought it was all show. I wanted to find out what the score really was.
I started with a call to the principal’s office. (I will refrain from using her real name because she is still employed as a school principal in the Central Valley.)
I asked the secretary for Ms. Jones.
The secretary said, “Dr. Jones.” I said “Ms. Jones.”
A few seconds later my call was switched.
“Ms. Jones,” I started.
“Call me Dr. Jones,” came the reply.
“Ms. Jones,” I countered.
“I insist you call me Dr. Jones,” came a fairly tart response.
I honestly don’t remember my exact words after that. I do know I said something to the effect I was sorry that we couldn’t carry on a conversation without her insisting she was in somehow a superior position because she kept demanding that I make a reference to her doctorate in education whenever I address her. I said good-bye and hung up the phone.
The column wasn’t to her liking. I found the phone conversation underscored community criticism that she was putting herself on a higher pedestal from the very people she claimed she wanted to break down the barriers.
She wasn’t a happy camper but then neither was I.
Respect is in order for others, especially educators, but not to the point where you kow-tow.
In fairness to the principal, she may not even have been aware of the line she was drawing with the not-to-subtle requests she made of staff, students and parents to refer to her each time with the use of the word doctor. But as sure as a person born of privilege rubbing a poor person’s face in their wealth, the insistence of “doctor” subtly drives home the point of class inferiority. In the case of education, it is a reference to one’s learned grasp of knowledge at least as far as it is the concern of the institution that bestowed the doctorate.
The “call me doctor so-and-so” disease isn’t limited just to educators. Granted, there are some ministers who prefer to be called “Dr. Jones” instead of “Rev. Jones” but I have yet to have one of those insist in either being referred to as doctor or even reverend for that matter. Ministers are in the business of communicating with people and helping them solve concerns. The last thing they want to do is throw up another barrier.
There are doctorates in everything from law to sciences. I would argue someone who not only has a thorough understanding of how nuclear energy works but is in the business of creating new weapons of mass destruction might by justified in professionally using the word “doctor” before their name. But rarely do you see them insisting upon that moniker when dealing with people.
One last thought: When you’ve stopped breathing in a theater and someone yells “is there a doctor in the house” are you praying that someone whose expertise is in education responds?
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