Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/August 1903/American Titles and Distinctions

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By Professor W. Le CONTE STEVENS,


THOMAS CARLYLE is credited with the statement that England has a population of twenty or thirty millions—'mostly fools.' The definition of fool is not given. If the word means anything else than an expression of dislike it is that the unfortunate man who bears such a title is so deficient in intelligence or in good judgment as to be worthy of unenviable distinction. But a distinguished man, whether his distinction be good or bad, stands out among his fellows in some way. It is impossible for the larger part of any mass of human beings composing an organized body, whether the students of an educational institution, or the devotees of fashionable society, or the population of a great nation, to be distinguished. The mere fact that in such a body a majority possesses qualities which might otherwise confer distinction upon an individual destroys the possibility of preeminence based on such possession. Every one recognizes that Carlyle's epigram expressed no objective truth, but that he displayed only the acidity and peevishness of one whose influence was perceptibly waning.

Epigram is never quite consistent with truth. It may contain enough mixture of truth with falsehood to command the momentary assent of even a thoughtful man. Its essential feature is brightness rather than solidity, and it arrests the attention when accuracy fails to attract. A French writer who has recently passed away, Paul Blouët, visited America some years ago, and the inevitable book of impressions was the natural consequence. His fondness for epigram had amused many readers of a previous book entitled 'John Bull and his Island.' The first chapter of 'Jonathan and his Continent' began with the following words in imitation of Carlyle: 'The population of America is sixty millions—mostly colonels.' In a subsequent chapter he emphasized this idea with the statement, "Every American with the least self-respect is colonel or judge; but if you should discover that your interlocutor is neither colonel nor judge, call him 'Professor,' and you are out of the difficulty." This implication that professors belong by exclusion to a class without the least self-respect may be unwelcome to some of the unfortunates who are compelled to carry this mark of Cain; but there is enough truth in the Frenchman's epigram to suggest the question whether democratic America is not the richest in titles of any country in the world; and, if so, why should it be so?

Let an American visit Germany or Russia; any country of continental Europe where the encroachment of free institutions upon the military control of society is less marked than among our people. The first feature that obtrudes itself is that soldiers in uniform are to be seen in every important town. The visitor is required to register at police headquarters and answer a variety of questions, rational and irrational, about his present, past and probable future. He learns that titles of all kinds, but especially military titles, are protected by law. The man who calls himself a colonel, or allows his friends to call him so, is soon required to prove his claim to the title. Where is his uniform? If he is a foreigner, why did he not report his rank at the police registration office? Is he not a suspicious character whose actions must be watched? If he is a native jackdaw trying to wear borrowed plumage he is lucky if he avoids arrest. The professor, moreover, is an officer of the government, whose salary is paid from the public treasury, so far as his income is derived from a salary. Any one who assumes the title without official sanction does so at his own peril. To hold such an office is presumptive evidence of marked ability, and it carries with it a claim to social deference that is universally accorded. 'No colonel or professor in Germany can exist as such without having stood tests of special training that prove him an educated man. No such title comes by inheritance or courtesy. It means much and its value is great. No such prize can be stolen by the unworthy, for danger attends the violation of law where popular, sentiment sustains the military power that ensures its enforcement.

It must not be inferred, however, that all titles in continental Europe have retained the meaning or the importance originally attached to them. Everything depends upon the consideration whether the title has been directly acquired or has been inherited. In a German university where the present writer spent some time the physical laboratory assistant, whose duties were exclusively mechanical, was a count whose inheritance seemed to be limited to his title. In the duchy of Mecklenburg a traveler has found a count for landlord of the village inn, a countess for landlady, young counts filling the places of hostler, waiter and bootblack, and countesses for cooks and chambermaids. Indeed, in one village all the inhabitants except four were found to be of noble birth. America therefore has by no means a monopoly of cheap titles.

It would perhaps be interesting to trace in detail the evolution of titles with the development of society; but such a field is too extensive. Originally a name or title was merely the suggestion of an association. 'Young-man-af raid-of-his-horse' was a Sioux Indian whose fame might have been local only had he not come too near to the American newspaper correspondent. The desire of the weak to appease or flatter the strong has been the most fertile origin of titles. In darkest Africa the king is addressed by such names as the 'Lion of Heaven,' the 'Bird who eats other birds' or 'Thou who art as high as the mountains.' A proper name easily becomes applied to a family or a class, and is thus handed down to successive generations. Nothing is easier for the savage than to apply superhuman attributes to a successful warrior and to deify him after his death. After natural slumber he wakes with renewed strength. The slumber of death seems merely deeper and longer than usual, and it is easy to believe that latent power ha* not been lost. The warlike father of his tribe is transformed into the god of his tribe. The grand lama of Thibet does not wait for death, but is worshiped as 'God the Father' by his obsequious subjects. The ruler, whether visible or invisible, is 'father,' 'king' or 'God,' indifferently. If his authority becomes widely recognized, if his empire includes subordinate kingdoms like that of the German Kaiser to-day, he becomes 'king of kings' and 'lord of lords.'

With the development of successive grades of honor, power and position comes the demand for recognition to be accorded by those' below and the temptation to appease and flatter those above. The fundamental motive is the lively sense of favors to come; the wish to create obligation among those whose power enables them possibly to interfere with our welfare, and to exact allegiance from those whom we may possibly use for our own advantage. The ordinary father of a family addresses the king in the language of adulation, and is addressed in similar terms by his wives, children and servants; while these in turn receive from the dogs all the flattery that can be ostentatiously suggested by wagging tails and eloquent barking.

But while selfishness is one of the bases of title-giving, it is not the only one. Regard for others is a characteristic of humanity quite as natural and universal as self-regard. Selfishness and generosity are relative terms. The man or woman who is much less considerate of the rights of others than are the majority of people composing society is soon found out and becomes an object of dislike, if not of positive hatred. To be kind to one's friends, to take an interest in the welfare of those around us, to help those who are in trouble, to sympathize with the pleasures of those who are enjoying life, to make friends by being friendly—these are some of the most fertile sources of human happiness. Nor is this confined to humanity. If happiness can be judged by its visible manifestations, there is many a dog whose happiness is apparently bound up in the most unselfish devotion to his master. Love in the home circle and politeness in general society are not merely indications of refinement; they are positive contributions to the general welfare of the race. Every one understands that social usage often suggests words, phrases and sentences which imply more or less covert flattery. Indulgence in them is not only pardonable, but often demanded by an unwritten law, even if they are not accordant with the severest requirements of truth. They give pleasure without really deceiving; they excite laughter without derision; they hide sorrow; they brighten life. Much title-giving has been the outcome of an unselfish desire to express appreciation and good will. It may not be wise, but it is a good-natured attempt to give pleasure by covert flattery.

This unselfish basis for the giving of titles constitutes a sufficient explanation of that gradual diffusion and degradation of all distinctions that time invariably develops. A familiar example to all who have had experience in educational work is found in the class-room marking system, by which distinctions are based upon attainment in scholarship. Nearly a century ago the trustees of an academy well known in Virginia prescribed for the teachers a system of marking which was made up of three degrees of merit, bonus, melior, optimus, and three of demerit, malus, pejor, pessimus. If we apply to this the mathematical principle forming the basis of the theory of probabilities, it is easy to show that about 30 per cent, of all students examined ought to be graded bonus, and the same percentage malus, the sum of these two groups forming thus nearly two thirds of the whole. About 16 per cent, should be graded melior and the same percentage pejor; not quite 4 per cent, optimus and the same percentage pessimus. But what was the actual working of the system? The historian, Henry Ruffner, says: "The continual tendency was to mark inferior scholars too high. Thus it came to pass that not half the bad scholars got malus, the worst almost never fell below it, and bonus, though a mark of approbation, came to be considered as a disgrace, while optimus which ought to have been reserved for scholars of the highest merit, was commonly bestowed on all who rose above mediocrity." When Dr. Ruffner in 1829 became temporary president of the college into which this academy had developed, he secured the abolition of the discredited marking system, and the substitution of three grades: 'Disapproved,' 'Approved' and 'Distinguished.' According to the mathematical theory about 60 per cent, should have been approved, about 20 per cent, disapproved and 20 per cent, distinguished. But he writes that 'within two or three years some bad scholars were approved, and good scholars were nearly all distinguished.'

This continual temptation to grade as many as possible in the highest class is by no means based on selfishness alone, or even to any large extent on selfishness, though personal pride is one element. It is impossible for an examiner to make an exact numerical statement of a mere judgment of merit. Since the estimate is confessedly only approximate, the student receives the benefit of every uncertainty. If any mistake has to be made, let him be encouraged by a false estimate that includes full credit rather than discouraged by one that does injustice. The numerical estimate of average success expressed as a percentage thus tends to become continually higher unless the generosity of the examiner is periodically and frequently checked by having his attention called to the absurdity of recording the majority of his students as distinguished. Dr. Ruffner says: "A temporizing professor who loves popularity, and desires, like the old man in the fable, to please everybody, is sure to be guilty of this fault, and, like many a politician, to sacrifice permanent good for temporary favor." If the passing mark is high, for example, 75 per cent., all marks will be proportionally high. What this limiting mark should be depends upon the idea underlying it. If the grade assigned means that the student is credited with knowing half, or three fourths, or nine tenths of what an ideally perfect student would know of the subject of study, the corresponding grade should obviously be 50, 75 or 90 per cent. Probably this is the most usual theoretic interpretation. But in practise the fundamental question is, in a large proportion of cases, not whether the student's attainments can be expressed accurately by a percentage, but merely whether in the teacher's judgment he ought to be passed or not. If so, his marks will be above the arbitrary limit, whatever may be the numerical value of this. If not, it makes little difference whether the grade assigned to the failure is 10, 30 or 50 per cent. In an institution where the teaching is good and where the discipline is firm and consistent, it is not often that more than one fourth of all students fail to pass in their studies. Theoretically, therefore, 25 per cent, would be better than 75 per cent, for the passing mark. This would mean no lowering of standard, but only a more rational system of marking than that which is most common. If results be represented graphically, the curve showing variation in grades attained would have its maximum corresponding to 50 per cent. This is an arithmetical mean between perfection and total failure, and should therefore be the numerical representation of the average grade. The curve would thus be substantially the symmetrical 'probability curve,' which is divided into two equal parts by the maximum ordinate, as shown in the accompanying diagram.

This study of the distribution of students' grades is worth more than passing notice, because it affords the best means of showing the tendency in relation to distinctions generally. Many years ago in a western university by comparison of the grades of 287 students in physics, it was found that the average grade attained was about 85 per cent. In the institution with which the present writer is connected, he made an investigation two years ago which showed that, taking into consideration all subjects of study available for the degree of bachelor of arts, the average grade of the average student under the average professor was 86 per cent., and that the most usual certificate conferred for successful work was a so-called 'certificate of distinction.' The curve of distribution is shown in contrast with the probability curve. According to this investigation it may be expected that about one student out of 200 or more will attain maximum grade. Out of 100 students about 10 may be expected to attain a grade of 95; 21

PSM V63 D321 Probability curve of students grades.png

The Probability Curve has its Maximum at 50 Per Cent.; that of Distribution of Students' Grades at 86 Per Cent. The Axis of Number of Students is Vertical; that OF Percentage Grades is Horizontal.

will attain 90; 22 will attain 85. The slope of this unsymmetrical curve is thus very steep at the right. At the left of the maximum ordinate the slope is much more gentle, less than one twentieth of all grades assigned being below 60 per cent. In this connection it should be observed that the passing mark is 75. The area at the left of the dotted line corresponding to 75 is seen to be about one fifth of the whole area enclosed by the curve. This shows twenty per cent, of failures. Such a radical change of custom as that of substituting 20 or 25 for 75 as the passing mark, however desirable on account of its convenience and consistency, would be so misunderstood by both the students and the general public as to make a trial of the experiment very impolitic. The tendency to raise marks would at once re-assert itself, and very soon the majority of students would again be recorded with grades corresponding to the highest distinction.

This tendency to high marking is inherent in human nature. Every professor wishes to be at least as fair, at least as generous, as his conscience may permit; and he is apt to regard his own teaching at least as good as that of his colleagues. Every student wishes credit for the best he has done, and is at least willing to have his shortcomings excused. He considers the professor who gives him a high mark to be eminently fair; and the professor who remembers all shortcomings is thought to be unsympathetic and inconsiderate. To receive a high mark is to receive a distinction, temporary perhaps, but none the less acceptable, and often stimulating, even if a high price has not been paid for it. All of us love to have others in sympathy with us, to receive expressions of esteem and to present testimonials of success. The supply becomes gradually adapted to the demand; and the demand causes all titles and distinctions to become more common, continually cheaper, until at last their meaning becomes merely nominal. To be nominally distinguished becomes the rule; to fail of such distinction becomes a disgrace.

In primitive society all government is the outcome of military organization. Aristocracy is originally based on brute force, and titles are the evidence of privilege accorded by the warrior chieftain in return for allegiance and military service. The assumption of a title without his consent is an act of rebellion and is treated as such by an absolute ruler. Limited monarchies have always been slow in development, and have in every case retained some features derived from the early establishment of caste fixed by privilege. The system of hereditary aristocracy which constitutes the groundwork of organization in English society is sustained by laws that could never have sprung originally from a democracy. Every Englishman knows his station. If he has not a place among the aristocracy by birth, he may still indulge the hope of admission to the charmed circle by royal favor. To call himself a lord, or to accept such a title by courtesy of his friends, or to buy it from some self-appointed college of heraldry would subject him at once to ridicule and social ostracism, even if he were not subject to prosecution for violation of long-established law. The mere fact of social organization imposes restraints upon personal liberty, but restraints that are deemed light in proportion to the general recognition of their reasonableness, justice and necessity. Personal liberty is, all in all, probably as nearly universal in England as it is in America, but the subjects in which limitation is imposed are somewhat different in the two countries. Titles and distinctions are granted in England in accordance with a well organized system, not theoretically perfect, but well enough established to be liable to but little misunderstanding. A colonel or a professor has no reason to fear ridicule in virtue of indiscriminate use of the title.

In America since the settlement at Jamestown there has been no basis for titles except the will of the more or less uninstructed people. Education was long exceedingly restricted. Aristocracy was based partly on personal character and partly on family influence, but never on legal prescription. There was no army requiring educated officers. A militia colonel was elected by his friends, and the title thus conferred by them was a possession for life. Throughout many parts of the south to-day by common consent a man is called colonel in virtue of being a lawyer. No harm is intended by either the victim or the perpetrators of the practical joke. The explanation is perfectly simple, that by the inevitable process of good-natured degradation the words colonel and lawyer have in many places come to mean the same, neither of them suggesting the slightest suspicion of military education. In like manner, professors at first constituted a very limited class of scholarly men engaged in the work of college instruction, a class sharply differentiated from that of preparatory school teachers. This separation seems to have been maintained until the close of the civil war. But prior to the war the title had been assumed by dancing masters, showmen and all mountebanks. The good-natured American public, believing in universal freedom, had no objection to such thievery, and there was no law to prevent it. Annually the use of the title became more extended. Barbers, tailors, bootblacks and prize-fighters had as much right as the dancing master to assume any title that might have a commercial value. Teachers of high schools prepared students for advanced entrance in college. If the college teacher of geometry is called professor, why should not the distinction be extended to the high school teacher of the same subject? Moreover, what is the difference between a college and a high school? None whatever in many southern and western communities. If the high school teacher is a professor, why should a discrimination be made against the county superintendent, the grammar school principal, the primary school principal? The accommodating spirit of degradation has so changed the original signification of the word that now it may still mean a college teacher, but much more generally it means teacher without reference to the grade of teaching implied. Moreover, the great majority of teachers are persons with exceedingly small incomes; so that the title professor is in the large cities generally recognized as a badge of poverty.

Has the professor then no refuge from the charge of mediocrity implied in his once honored title? There is a Latin word for teacher, which was given a few centuries ago by the European universities to men who had proved their distinguished ability, such as Martin Luther or Nicholas Copernicus. The doctor was a man of learning, fit to teach medicine, or jurisprudence, or theology, or philosophy. Ambitious young men coveted the title, and the universities were places where doctors could lecture, and young men could enter upon the work of original investigation so as to establish their theses against all opponents. Even now the flood of literature made up of young doctors' theses in Germany is so great that no single reader can give attention to a tenth part of them. In America the university standards, in respect to both scholarship and scale of equipment, have risen so rapidly during the last few decades, that young doctors of all kinds are annually put forth by the hundred. The young man who is not a doctor has now but little hope of winning the position of college teacher. The professor's refuge, therefore, is found in his doctorate.

But in this free country, made up of forty-five separate states with varying grades of civilization, each with its legislature able and willing to incorporate colleges with standards suited to local demands and local ideals, or absence of ideals, there is little hope of outgrowing the tendency to degradation of titles. If the dancing master was professor a third of a century ago, he is equally free in the early future to advertise himself as D.D., which for him means Doctor of Dancing. Our only hope is in the gradual elevation of educational standards, causing the people to become intolerant of such dishonesty. Titles received from universities should be protected by law in America as they are in Europe. The corrupt purchase and sale of professional degrees and of honorary degrees, which is now practised secretly, is to some extent punishable by law, but there is little vigilance in ferreting out offenders, and we seldom hear of prosecutions. Charlatanry will continue to be practised so long as there are gulls to be fooled in this world. Legislatures will continue to incorporate colleges without endowment, and these colleges will give degrees that imply no scholarship. With full knowledge that present evils will not be removed during the lifetime of any one now living, each educational institution that has a faculty of honest men can do its share toward the attainment of a higher moral standard of titles and distinctions by setting an example of truthfulness and moderation.