Stop Calling Professors ‘Professor’
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As woke culture has led to a reexamination of American language and life, from pronoun usage to calling slaves “the enslaved,” perhaps it is time to look at professional titles. Why for instance should I be called “Professor Cowen,” but few people would address the person fixing their toilet as “Plumber Jones”?
Aren’t we giving some professionals too much status automatically? Aren’t we relegating some individuals to lower-status jobs by a consensus they cannot fight? We mock the German honorific “Herr Professor Doktor,” but are American practices so much better?
For a long time I have insisted that my graduate students call me “Tyler.” My goal has been to encourage them to think of themselves as peer researchers who might someday prove me wrong, rather than viewing me as an authority figure who is handing down truth.
I prefer the honorifics world of Twitter, where @tylercowen seems like a more just and egalitarian naming system. I can compete for attention by placing credentials in my Twitter bio, but there is a sense there that too much reliance on titles is a negative signal of quality.
Social media more generally have overturned naming and credentials practices. The good side is the neutering of titles. The bad side is the elevation of popularity in their place. One’s number of social-media followers carries a great deal of weight, and on Twitter a select number of individuals are designated with blue checks to verify their identities. One possible benefit of titles is that they may signify a world where popularity does not matter so much.
When giving academic talks in Australia and New Zealand, I have noticed that many audience members, and students at that, simply called me “Tyler,” rather than “Professor Cowen.” That was hardly the end of the world, and it indicates that another way is possible.
Some of the strongest norms are around the title “Doctor.” Just about everyone calls their physician “Doctor,” though the esteemed profession of lawyer does not receive similar treatment. As a Ph.D.-toting academic, I’ve even had people say to me — correctly — “You’re not a real doctor.”
I fear that by ceding this unique authority status to doctors we are making it easier for them to oversell us medical care, a major problem in the U.S. If your doctor suggests that you need a procedure done, it can be hard to say no, especially if you have been deferring to that person for years through the use of an honorific title. On the upside, perhaps all that deference has encouraged many people to get their vaccinations.
I am not aware of a reliable system for measuring the quality of doctors, but I would like to see such a method evolve, if only to remove doctors from their position as de facto titled nobility in America. Just as we judge athletes by their batting averages or grand slam titles, so might doctors be put into this same realm of quantification. Plenty of athletes have honorary titles such as “King James,” but it is their numerical accomplishments that persuade us.
During the years when Donald Trump was in the White House, I noticed that some people were more likely to refer to him as “Trump” instead of “President Trump,” at least compared to his predecessor Barack Obama. That is a sign of flexibility in titling practices that perhaps could be extended. I don’t for instance think we should address senators as “Senator.” Just choose “Ben” or “Mr. Sasse,” depending on which is appropriate.
Titles in the military seem fine and indeed necessary. The whole point of a chain of command is to establish authority relationships, but that practical reality should give us pause about the use of professional titles elsewhere. You also might think that titled nobilities have their uses. I am fine with there being a Prince of Liechtenstein, and it does seem that we have to call him “Prince” for the system to work. But again, the practicality of those titles suggests they do not deserve a broader use in the U.S.
Sometimes a title can be used to suggest a subordinate position, such as the use of Nurse. It can be an honorific, but it also places the person below the Doctor. The advantage, however, is one of greater anonymity and remove. A woman in particular might prefer “Nurse Washington” over the use of her real full name, given the potential risk of harassment.
Title issues and gender issues intersect in tricky ways. A title such as doctor or professor can give a woman newfound respect, but perhaps the practice hurts respect for women as a whole, since they are titled at lower rates than men.
Titles are complex, and we cannot abolish them outright, but perhaps professional titles are due for a rethink?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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