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So Enough with the Letters Already



I know what a couple of these stand for, but I have no idea what most of them are. And I’m a guy who’s got a whole bunch of letters after his name, so I should be an expert in deciphering random letter combinations. But then again, my attitude toward such things has changed significantly over the years.

When I was younger, and even more foolish, I longed to define my place in the world, as most young men and women do. Human beings do this by, first, placing things in categories, and this they do by giving names to groups of similar things.

So in the olden days, John Butcher was the butcher, Harry Bookbinder bound books and Peter Piper, well, OK, he did—and this is hearsay mind you—pick pecks of pickled peppers. But his primary profession was that of piper.

Because few Butchers are butchers any longer, we now add letters to the ends of our names as a way of saying what we are. Apparently, some folks feel elevated above their peers by the sheer number of letters after their names; others, by what those letters actually stand for; others, by the quality of the institution that awarded them. But what’s the point if most folks don’t have a clue what they mean?

For those not attuned to the nuances of the meanings of these letters, perhaps we should establish a rating system. For example, it took me eight years to get the three letters PhD but only three to get the J and the D, and one to get the EMT-P. So if we award points, it would look like this: PhD(8), JD(3), EMT-P(1) and my total worth would be 12. So I could just put 12 after my name, which would make me better than the 11s but not as good as the 13s. Oh, but then we would have to add value, as well as years. So I should get extra points for getting a degree from, say, Cal Tech than Auto Tech.

My faith in these letters has eroded over the years. For example, in the mid-90s, I was teaching at Oberlin College with a bunch of dysfunctional academics who claimed many, many letters—and good, shiny letters too. Many of them couldn’t teach their way out of a run-on sentence.

During that time, I also attended the North East Ohio Fire Chiefs Association’s fire academy. My instructor was a veteran Cleveland firefighter. He was one of the best natural teachers I’ve ever had. He was eloquent and passionate and witty and knowledgeable and knew how to blend lecture, AV and student participation perfectly. And he had no letters. Not one.

This is one example of why I’ve come to question the value of letters over the years. Many of the best people I know have no letters, and some of the worst have many letters. So this must mean that I don’t value education, right?

That’s right, I no longer value education. I value learning and the attaining of knowledge. Education is a process, just as work is a process. Work can create good things, and work can create crappy things. Education can create knowledge, and education can foster foolishness—and education about education is probably the greatest contributor of foolishness of all. Case in point: my state’s EMS instructor requirement. Any buffoon can teach paramedics, but you have to be a primary instructor to teach EMTs, which means you have to take a course and pass a test on the minutiae of a variety of theories of education—a test that, when they tested it on the members of the state’s EMS Education Committee, no one could pass. You know the old saying: Those that can’t do, teach; those that can’t teach, teach gym; those that can’t teach gym become principals.

Because I now see the frequent disconnect between education and knowledge (let alone wisdom!), I care less for letters than I used to.

My EMS service is building a career ladder for its employees. I believe they’re relying too heavily on letters. I believe they would be better served by valuing knowledge and wisdom. I fear that knowledgeable and wise paramedics will be left out because they have no use for letters. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to count letters than experience, knowledge and wisdom.

Yes, yes, I know. I know that to advance as a profession, EMS has to strive to have as many letters as other professions. But as every EMT and nurse and doctor and firefighter knows, you can be book smart and street stupid.

So to put my letters where my mouth is, I’m asking my editor to drop all the letters from my name in future writings; let the value (or inanity) of my words speak for themselves.


Please call me Guy.


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