An Apple a Day Keeps the Doc Away…

This article originally appeared at i711.

A friend recently referred to the head of a major deaf services agency as Dr. Smith (Smith, of course, being a fictitious name). I asked why he was referred to as a “Dr.” when he didn’t have a doctorate and wasn’t a medical doctor. “But this guy has a honorary doctorate, so of course we should call him Dr.!” was the e-mailed response.

When I edited Silent News back in 2000, I got an e-mail from a representative of the same agency requesting that I refer to its CEO as “Doctor” in all printed materials. You see, they often sent in press releases and articles referring to the CEO as “Dr. Smith” and I would always remove the “Dr.” before printing stories. Apparently this didn’t make them happy, and the e-mail reflected this displeasure.

I replied by quoting the Associated Press Stylebook, a book that has stringent guidelines on how to word or spell things in an article, such as abbreviations of state names or words and how to spell/use certain words. On the page listing “doctor,” it says:

Do not use Dr. before the names of individuals who hold only honorary doctorates.

After I faxed a copy of this page from the stylebook, I never received a complaint from that agency again.

Honorary doctorates are bestowed upon those who have performed a great service in certain fields. I have no question or doubt that individuals who have earned honorary doctorates deserve the recognition that comes with being granted such a privilege; they usually have done so much for the community. An honorary degree is just a meager but valuable recognition of their work and contributions.

However, in our quest as Deaf citizens to become as intellectual as and equal to our hearing peers, I’m afraid some of us have lost sight of the appropriateness of being called “Doctor,” especially when an individual has an honorary doctorate rather than an academic doctorate. I don’t have a doctorate and doubt I ever will have the energy to pursue one, but I recognize just how much work is involved in earning such a degree. Years of research, meetings, writing, and presentations, at the very least. I think to call someone who has received an honorary doctorate “Doctor” may be a bit of an insult to those who have actually earned their academic doctorates or those who are in the medical field (including dentists and veterinarians).

Even actress Marlee Matlin received an honorary doctorate soon after she won an Oscar. Should we dare call her Dr. Matlin for being able to swim naked and scream her character’s anguish out in the landmark film Children of a Lesser God, putting her in the same categories with individuals who have academically earned a doctoral degree? I’d prefer that we recognize her for her sudden and impressive surge to stardom at the age of 19, her impact upon the community, and recognize what work she has done to date — and say, “Oh yeah, by the way, she’s got an honorary doctorate. Isn’t that great?”

We should absolutely laud the achievements of individuals who earn honorary doctorates. But unless an individual actually has a doctoral degree that s/he earned through years of academic sweat and toil, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and call that person Doc.

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