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Month: December 2020

What is the Value of Academic Titles?

The recent op-ed by Joseph Epstein deriding Jill Biden’s credentials and right to use the title “Doctor” rekindled the debate surrounding the use of such titles for doctorates and medical doctors alike. His article is “ostensibly a foray into an ongoing debate over whether only medical doctors can claim the title.” This is certainly an interesting question, especially from a journalistic perspective, but upon further read, it becomes clear that this piece is not a logical argument, but is in fact a personal tirade against the way that academia has modernized and progressed through the years.

Putting aside the misogynistic and elitist views for a moment, Epstein complains that “getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding” where a secretary would sit outside the room with a pitcher of water “for candidates who fainted.” He goes on to say that dissertation defenses are now akin to friendly, social gatherings. The fact that academia in days past was lauded for putting students through abuse, mistreatment, and elitism for the purpose of “building character” shows just how much it has changed.

This antiquated view on the education system is partly to blame for the continued challenges that women and people of color face in academia. For them, “an academic title can be a tool to remind others of their expertise in a world that often undermines it.”

Weirdly, rather than creating a sound argument predicated on logic and reason, Epstein simply regresses into attacking Biden’s credentials. Instead of engaging in debate on the merits of using academic titles, perhaps arguing that it might seem arrogant, he dismisses her degree and dissertation.

On the first day of class, Debbie Gale Mitchell, a chemistry professor at the University of Denver, introduced herself to her students, telling them about her Ph.D. and her research. She told her students they could call her either “Dr. Mitchell” or “Debbie.” A male colleague had told her that he went by his first name and that students were friendlier as a result, so Mitchell decided to try it. Many students chose to call her “Debbie.”

Then one day a student asked if she thought she’d ever get a Ph.D.

“I discovered that for me, the use of my title is VITAL to remind students that I am qualified to be their professor,” Mitchell wrote on Twitter.

Allie Weill


“Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” by Joseph Epstein, December 11, 2020.

“A Wall Street Journal op-ed about Jill Biden pairs virulent sexism with academic elitism,” by Cameron Peters, December 12, 2020.

“Professor FLOTUS: How Jill Biden would redefine what it means to be first lady,” by Kate Andersen Brower, November 7, 2020.

“Whom does The New York Times consider a doctor?” by R.J. Lehmann, October 27, 2015.

“Is There a Doctor in the House?” by Mariana Grohowski, March 26, 2018.

“Should All Ph.D.’s Be Called ‘Doctor’? Female Academics Say Yes,” by Allie Weill,

“Today’s College Classroom Is a Therapy Session,” by Joseph Epstein, August 28, 2020.

India is Losing its Soul

The astonishing diversity of people and cultures in India is one of the defining characteristics of the nation. People with various cultural backgrounds, including language, customs, music, dance, food, and even religion, all coalesce together in big cities. They attend one another’s weddings, celebrate one another’s achievements, grieve with one another during funerals, and support one another through hardships. The fact that people from many different cultures live together creates a sense of appreciation for others and their stories. This, I believe, is the soul of India.

I relay this sentiment through the stories that my parents told me of their upbringing in Bombay. These stories greatly informed my own outlook, especially in light of the vitriolic rhetoric we face in both the U.S. and India. There are so many similarities between the two countries, and while certainly the two are not perfectly analogous, I think it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the two to gleam insight into how each grapples with the issues surrounding diversity and discrimination in all aspects of society.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, 2007

There are clearly a number of parallels between the two nations. Both were once British colonies that have since developed into secular, constitutional democracies. Although 170 years separate their independence, the histories of each were shaped by one another. The secular ideals of the U.S. Constitution heavily influenced its Indian counterpart. Civil disobedience and the non-violent protests first championed by Mahatma Gandhi were instrumental to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the civil rights movement.

These shared ties originate because both nations are built from a mosaic of diverse cultural heritage, with significant minority populations. While today some celebrate this diversity, others use it to sow discord into society, magnifying the differences between people to turn them against one another. Catalyzing turmoil is a tactic is used by tyrants to advance their own agenda at the expense of society. Pitting friends against one another allows them to hide their true intent and act with impunity. Dehumanizing the “other side” lends them the necessary credence to act with impunity.

Whether through policies such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, or by revoking the statehood of Muslim-majority Kashmir and Jammu, it is increasingly clear that Modi and the BJP thrive on pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another to rally support for their own personal agendas.

However, the Hindu-Muslim rivalry was not always this fervent. For the majority of Indians, religion was not nearly as much a defining characteristic as other factors such as language, customs, music, and food. India was mosaic of “dizzyingly diverse” and multicultural communities. Completely ignoring this concept of an Indian identity, the British decided hastily to separate the country into two, sowing the seeds of discord for decades to come.

This brutal process, called the Partition, separated families and communities on the basis of religion, which had little to do with how people distinguished themselves. Two families from across the border may have more in common with one another—from language to customs to food—than one family from Eastern India and another from Western India. This is especially true between North India and South India, where languages and customs are markedly more important to identity.

Many Muslim families split over whether to leave for this imagined separate homeland or to remain in India, where, despite the brutality of partition, the ardently secular Nehru reassured them that they had a home. He articulated his ideal of a composite Indian citizen, who was enriched and shaped by all the heritages that flowed through the world’s most diverse society.

As a child of the neighboring Islamic republic (and a steady consumer of Indian popular culture), I grew up admiring that multilingual, kaleidoscopic country. Later, I pursued my education at American universities, in classrooms led by the children of Nehruvian India, and my professors’ stories of religious coexistence inspired me to want to visit that alternative version of South Asia. From afar, India always seemed to be a symphonic banquet of possibilities, in contrast with the monochromatic vision of Pakistan’s religious leaders.

Bilal Qureshi

This is the same vision of India that I grew up with. The stories that my parents told me of their own upbringing in Mumbai, where people of all different cultures, languages, and backgrounds mix were instrumental in shaping my own understanding of the “melting pot” culture of the United States. Looking at the U.S. through this lens, the role of multiculturalism and tolerance seemed to be a big component of American growth and rise to power. Importantly, it was fascinating to be at the intersection many different cultures, including living in a mostly-white and Protestant suburban town and going to public school, then going to Catholic school for two years, then a public STEM school, and having friends from throughout India and Pakistan.

This perspective was invaluable to my understanding of the world. It was important to me that I connect to people who are different from me and learn from them and their stories. Whether that difference was in culture, religion, or viewpoints on political issues, speaking with other people taught me the immense nuance that is required to effectively develop an opinion on any given topic.

Creating a society where people are tolerant of one another is an important part of this process. The history of India has shown just how successful a government that encourages multiculturalism and social discourse can be. Today, a secular government that protects the civil liberties of its people is absolutely critical.

[In] recent years Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have systematically dismantled Nehru’s vision for India. This month, India’s Parliament passed a new bill that enshrines in law a religiously inflected definition of who belongs in India. The Citizenship Amendment Bill provides a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who are Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsees and Buddhists, but explicitly excludes Muslims.

[. . .]

The law is more than just the latest in a series of Hindu-nationalist and Islamophobic policies. In a nation that is home to the largest Muslim population outside Muslim-majority countries, the bill extends an ideological project that breaks the very promise of India.

Bilal Qureshi

The very promise of India is written in the preamble of its Constitution, just like the U.S., being a secular democratic republic. However, unlike the U.S., there are no explicit guarantees of a separation of “church and state.” Therefore, it is paramount that Indian citizens continue their fight against an oppressive government that insists on a religious basis of citizenship. Take examples of other religious states—Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, even Pakistan—and the serious flaws of state-sanctioned religion become obvious.

The Constitution is meant to be a protector of rights and a protector of people. When first introduced, the Indian Constitution was “regarded as some as an elite document drafted in an alien language.” While that was true, having been written in English and not comprehensible to the vast majority of Indians, its promise became a beacon of hope for countless Indians, looking for an escape from the brutality of the Partition and solidifying a multicultural and tolerant society.

Today, Modi is starting a siege on the constitution. Rohit De reminds us that “the Constitution was ‘not just dull, lifeless words . . . but living flames intended to give life to a great nation, . . . tongues of dynamic fire, potent to mold the future.'”

Modi’s sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India — a union of dizzyingly diverse states — that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhi’s thumb in the name of “unity.”

Those who believe that such a day will never come — that India’s democratic institutions and minority protections will assert themselves — also never thought that someone like Modi would one day lead the country. Modi once seemed destined to disappear into history as a fanatical curio. As the newly appointed chief minister of Gujarat, he presided over the worst communal bloodletting in India’s recent history in 2002, when 1,000 Muslims, by a conservative estimate, were slaughtered by sword-wielding Hindus in his state over several weeks. Some accused Modi of abetting the mobs; others said he turned a blind eye to them. The carnage made Modi a pariah: Liberal Indians likened him to Hitler, the United States denied him a visa, and Britain and the European Union boycotted him.

Kapil Komireddi

The erosion of norms by both Trump and Modi is a stark reminder that despite the protections afforded by the Constitution or by political norms, it is up to the people to maintain their own government.

Muslims in India “have faced lynchings, lethal riots, and social and political disenfranchisement,” especially in recent years. The response of both Black Americans during the civil rights movement and Muslims in India today have been similar: a strengthened commitment to the ideals held in the Constitution.

When minorities are pushed to such walls, they may retreat into a siege mentality that breeds radicalization. But India’s Muslims have not come up with calls for violent jihad, nor chants for Shariah law. Instead, they have embraced and emphasized the blessings of liberal democracy by placing their faith in the Constitution of India and insisting on their constitutional rights as citizens.

[. . .]

The B.J.P.’s propaganda machine depicted Muslim protesters as “traitors” and “anti-nationals,” but they were wearing headbands saying, “I love India.” waving Indian flags, and repeatedly singing the national anthem.

Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

It is important that protesters not fall into the trap of violence. Relying on civil disobedience may not seem to work, especially in the face of tyrants that thrive on bigotry and division. But, the struggles, and victories, of both Gandhi and King showed that non-violence and unity create a force of good that simply cannot be reckoned with in the long term.

This is fundamentally why both the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement were so successful.

BJP leaders, in addition to marginalizing religious minorities, are erasing Nehru’s secular vision. They have crafted an alternative national narrative that recasts the country’s Hindu majority as victims and its era of Muslim empires as one of loss and shame. In the words of historian Sunil Khilnani, they have “weaponized history,” rewriting a period of composite Muslim dynasties such as the Mughals, who built the Taj Mahal and governed with multicultural courts, as a time of conquest by outsiders.

Bilal Qureshi

The whole point of India is that it is a secular nation. I find it quite odd that the Hindu nationalist government is instituting religious ideals in their policies. Isn’t that what Pakistan is for? His policies and vision for India are turning a once secular democracy into a plutocratic, “ethno-religious state.”

India’s story could hold lessons for Muslims elsewhere. Across the border, Pakistan long ago established what India’s B.J.P. seeks: an ethno-religious state dominated by the majority. In Pakistan’s case, this means the hegemony of Sunni Muslims at the expense of minorities such as Shiite Muslims, Ahmadis or Christians.

Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

If India continues on this trajectory, Modi will have devolved India into the equivalent of Pakistan. India will then have lost it’s soul.


“Why India’s Muslims Reach for Liberalism,” by Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, October 30, 2020.

“India once welcomed Muslims like me. Under Modi, it rejects us as invaders.” by Bilal Qureshi, December 17, 2019.

“The Kashmir crisis isn’t about territory. It’s about a Hindu victory over Islam” by Kapil Komireddi, August 16, 2019.

“We are Witnessing a Rediscovery of India’s Republic,” by Rohin De and Surabhi Ranganathan, December 27, 2019.

“What is Article 370, and Why Does It Matter in Kashmir?” by Vindu Goel, August 5, 2019.

“India’s Muslims: An Increasingly Marginalized Population,” by Lindsay Maizland, August 20, 2020.

Stimulating Happiness

Studies have shown that people that take meaningful action with the people around them became more satisfied with their lives. Meaningful action like playing a game of football or having a virtual party with friends directly correlates to a more enjoyable life.

Nearly 1,200 Germans explored this question in a recent study—and then Julia M. Rohrer and her colleagues followed up with them a year later to find out how happy they felt. The researchers found not all roads lead to happiness.

In surveys, study participants first identified how satisfied they were with their life on a scale of 0-10, and then wrote down their ideas for maintaining or boosting their life satisfaction in the future. After a year, they reported their life satisfaction again and answered some questions about how they had spent their time.

Analyzing the data, the researchers could distinguish between two different types of happiness strategies: social and individual. Some goals—like seeing friends and family more, joining a nonprofit, or helping people in need—put participants into contact with other people. The other type of goal includes staying healthy, finding a better job, or quitting smoking—things that don’t necessarily involve spending time with people.

Ultimately, people who wrote down at least one social strategy tended to follow through and spend more time socializing that year, and they (in turn) became more satisfied with their lives. They were the people who committed to teach their son to swim or be more understanding of others, to go on a trip with their partner or meet new people.

Meanwhile, people who focused on individual goals didn’t improve their life satisfaction over the year. In fact, the self-focused road to happiness was even less effective than having no plans for action at all, which was the case for about half the participants. Those people were either relatively content—writing “Everything is fine” or “I wouldn’t change much”—or they hoped for changes in external circumstances, like the country’s politicians. They actually fared better when compared to people who pursued individual strategies.

Kira Newman

There is a common belief that helping others makes us happier, written about in numerous papers and articles in the past few decades. Although this is partly true, Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, tells us that helping others makes us feel better when we are able to see the results of our actions. She reports that when people donate to a cause where they can easily envision the results of their efforts, they have a happier reaction to their donations. 

The human connections we have are not always long-lasting friendships but include the kind acts we do toward the people we care about. You may not know the person to whom you gave a few bucks, but you care about that person. A connection to that person or a specific story moves us past the hurdles of psychic numbing, in turn making us better and happier people.

The ability to at least understand how you are making a difference makes you happier because there is a social connection formed in the process. Our minds are built to favor helping others in our small groups and when we know who or what we are helping we feel a greater sense of happiness.


“Is Social Connection the Best Path to Happiness,” by Kira Newman, June 27, 2018.

“Helping others makes us happier— but it matters how we do it,” by Elizabeth Dunn, May 20, 2019.

“7 Ways to Maximize Misery” by CGP Grey, May 31, 2017.

The Value of Good Air Traffic Controllers

I can only say that I am incredibly impressed by the controller and his professionalism, guidance, and calmness. Wow!

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