Wednesday, September 04, 2002
They Call Me Mr. Tibbs-Mr. Claybourn cited a pair of articles from Mr. Musgrave that are worth responding to. The first is the reduction in the use of honorifics in academia and in life in general. I go by Dr. Byron with my students, but I don't bite their head off if they call me Mr. Byron. None that I can remember has called me Mark. In the teaching environment, there is a level of respect that is required to teach; without it, classroom discipline and authority of presentation is lost. You can have that respect when going by a first-name basis, but it's harder. Using Sir or Mister or Ma'am gives the recipient a degree of respect. It makes them something more than a grunt worker. As I was writing this, I went back and changed the headline from "Professorial Musings" when I remembered the old Jim Crow custom of whites calling a black man "boy" rather than "sir", regardless of his age. It was a way of dissing the black guy as an inferior being, in the position of being a perpetual teenager. It was that tradition that helped get Fuzzy Zoeller in trouble years ago for calling a college-aged Tiger Woods a "boy" even when it was likely aimed at his youth rather than his skin color. I remember the movie version of In the Heat of the Night where the black northern cop visiting the south insisted on being referred to as "Mr. Tibbs." in order to remind the rednecks that he was their equal. In most languages that I'm aware of, there are two forms of you, the familiar and the formal. Your elders and superiors outside of the home get the formal version in most societies. We lost the familiar form Thou a while back, now everyone get the formally-formal you. One line of demarcation we do have is the name. In a formal setting, people are Mr. or Ms. or Dr. I grew up with calling adults Mr. or Mrs. Smith as a rule, with the exception of Mom's best friend Lillian, who had surrogate aunt status. Being informal, Americans are usually quick to move to the informal first-name. That's our line of demarcation, whether were on a "first-name basis" with someone. In teaching, however, the instructor needs to have the respect of his students, thus being Mr. Smith or Dr. Byron makes since. I had one teacher in high school, Mr. Trzinski, who would go by Trz (triz). Not Mr. Trz, Trz. I felt a bit less respect for him given that posture. I beg to differ with Mr. Musgrave on the classless society. The talented can be upwardly mobile, while slackers can be somewhat downwardly mobile. Our class system, such as it is, is one of a combination of wealth and merit, and merit will bring some wealth in most cases. Every native-born blogger has the potential to rise to the level of his talent. I might not be Bill Gates, but if I come up with the next big tech idea, I could be a billionaire in years. I think of Mark Cuban, the Broadcast.com founder who now owns the Dallas Mavericks. He's rich as all get out, but he's not much different than the guy at the sports bar. He's a Joe Average guy with lots of bucks. Most professors are from middle-class backgrounds and aren't much for putting on airs. As "old money" becomes less of an issue, the "upper class" becomes middle-class people with money. In that, we don't have much of an upper class. The middle-class kid in me felt uncomfortable at first at the country clubs my father-in-law and Dr. Wiseman belong to, but once you see that the people there aren't your superiors, you can start to be comfortable.
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