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  • Writer's pictureDr Kebba S. Bojang

What is in a title? The name ‘Dr.’ for a profession, the rank as a degree, and the Gambian context

Two weeks ago, an op-ed (opinion piece) published in The Wall Street Journal called on the incoming first lady of US Jill Biden — who holds two master's degrees and a doctorate in education (Ed.D.)— to stop using the title ‘Dr.’. Joseph Epstein, the author, suggested that Jill Biden using the title ‘Dr.’ would be “fraudulent” and even “comic” since her doctorate is not in medicine. The opinion drew widespread condemnation, slamming it as misogynistic and demeaning. There were calls for the Journal to retract the piece, apologize to Jill Biden and ban Mr. Epstein for all time.

However, the editorial page editor for the Journal defended Epstein’s op-ed, arguing that the commentary is “fair”; and that the outrage was overwrought since the issue of Jill Biden’s educational honorific isn’t new. It was addressed in 2009, in a piece in the Los Angeles Times in which Joe Biden, on a campaign trail, was said to have explained that his wife’s desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail. “She said, ‘I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.’”

Mr. Epstein also infuriated dozens of educators defending their doctorates by stating that “in contemporary universities, in the social sciences and humanities, calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league.” He lamented that “Ph.D. which may have once held prestige has been diminished by erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences.”

Like Mr. Epstein, the stylebook of some of the major news networks and newspapers in US is to use the honorific Dr. only when referring to medical doctors. The stylebook of the Associated Press (AP) is: "Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine, or doctor of veterinary medicine." This maybe the reason why on CNN we see or hear Dr. Sanjay Gupta and not Dr. Fareed Zakaria—or Dr. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, etc.

In Indonesia, which follows the Dutch system, the name doctor, pronounced ‘däktər’ is used only for medical doctors and written as dr.. Those with other doctorates including a Ph.D., the name ‘doktor’ is used and written as Dr..

Actually, who should and shouldn’t be called doctor depends on the country—and can sometimes be contentious. In India, for example, the usage of the title by certain professional groups was one time challenged legally; resulting in their supreme court ruling against it being used by a certain professional group.

Notwithstanding, there are those who contend that, in fact, it is those who earned a doctoral degree who deserve to be called doctor, moreso than medical doctors whose ‘doctor’ is a professional title due to their being medical practitioners rather than having gained a doctoral degree. Essentially, "The use of the title 'Dr' by medical doctors is a historical abbreviation for the profession; it does not indicate a qualification at doctoral level".

Bringing this home to The Gambia, it reminds me of the case of a Gambian educationist, I heard some years ago, who has a doctoral degree and always insisted that he was addressed as ‘Dr.’. He would take serious offense at being addressed as ‘Mr.’, even if by a ‘mistake’. And currently, a Gambian lawyer with an honorary doctorate who will demand, forcefully, that he is addressed by the title ‘Dr.’. True, earning a professional doctorate or a Ph.D., the highest distinction or terminal degree an educational institution can confer on an individual is to be celebrated, and something be proud of. However, the worth of a degree should not be in the title associated with it, rather the utility to which it is put. Well, unless the value for which it is sort, in the first place, is in the title; as it has been reported for Jill Biden, and for two cases of holders having Ph.D. on their vanity license plates as reported by Mr. Epstein.

His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa

Obsession with titles is a mark of vainness within an individual or a society. Here, I present to you The Gambia, and by extension Africa (official titles):

His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular;

His Excellency, The President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Patron of War Veterans, First Secretary of the Party and Chancellor of State Universities;

His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa;

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga, meaning The Warrior who Goes from Conquest to Conquest Leaving Fire in his Wake.

Mr. Epstein also bemoaned the further decline in the prestige of honorary doctorates which were once given exclusively to scholars, statesmen, artists and scientists for their contribution to a field, or a profession, or wider community; or an outstanding achievement in a particular field. But now, just anyone can be conferred with this doctorate as part of a quid pro quo. It is the conferral of this kind of doctorate (honorary) that birthed Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, Dr. Isatou Njie Saidy and Dr. Adama Barrow. The Gambia, I would say, is in her own league when it comes to obsession with titles. A Muslim who performed hajj, a fundamental pillar of Islam, would insist he is addressed ‘Alhaji’. In similar manner, I think then a Muslim who also gives zakat, fasts Ramadan and prays regularly should be called Al Hajj Zakat Ramadan Salat Ousman Jatta, for example.

And now, what is in a title? To many, it is: a degree of respect, a level of training, qualification or responsibility, or a respected position in a society. However, it is important to know that it is the appreciation or respect accorded to the implementation of one’s qualification that earns a person their specific title is what should matter most. Let the outcome of that function be the testament of the title associated with it. Few years ago, an officer at the Public Service Commission (PMO) told me that: “one of the reasons we don’t give scholarships for a Ph.D. is because of all the Ph.D. holders at NARI (National Agricultural Research Institute) of whom nobody sees what they do there.”

If you are a medical doctor and you have people asking “is he a real doctor?”, or a Ph.D. holder and you have people asking “what does he or she have his or her Ph.D. in?”, or, “what was his or her dissertation on?”; that will the worth of your degree being questioned. I have heard people say of doctors “I will never call him a doctor again!”.

Editor's note:

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