The self-importance of names and titles

Published: May 8, 2012

The writer is a political economist and his degrees acquired many years ago and where he studied and teaches now, are inconsequential to the substance of the arguments made in this article

Reading op-ed columns these days, including in The Express Tribune, is like examining the contributor’s curriculum vitae. Some contributors go to a lot of trouble to give, either themselves or with the help of eager and creative copywriters or editors, a twist to a simple university graduation degree, sexing it up into something well beyond what the university may have taught them.

This trend, which has now become almost a rule for all the English newspapers in Pakistan, including those which were considered more staid and ‘serious’ and didn’t subscribe to this policy earlier, reveals a great deal of the pomposity of the writer more than anything else. Why should one be impressed by a bad article which says little, or is a rehash of many other pieces, whether the contributor got a Master’s degree at Harvard or Karachi University? Of course it shouldn’t matter, but for our elite and its culture, the social location of an individual or the group they belong to, matters far more than what one says or does. Or, equivalently, always dress smart, and have nothing of any consequence to say.

Numerous contributors write about their academic achievements at the end of their column, and for the reader this is supposed to certify their qualifications or expertise to write on a subject. When lawyers write articles, perhaps it makes sense for them to state that they are advocates of the Supreme Court of Pakistan — although this might not always help their case — but it makes no sense to state that they studied at Harvard or that they were called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. The reference to the Supreme Court only endorses their credentials to be able to speak on a subject on which they may have some authority, competence or comparative advantage, but university degrees are quite unimportant. Many of the readers of these columns themselves have children or may have themselves studied at many prestigious universities — or even less-prestigious ones — so may not be impressed by such credentials which may have been acquired some decades ago. For a fresh 21-year-old graduate it matters where she got her degree from, something that she might be proud of, but not for someone in his mid-40s who has been practising law for two decades or more.

Another serious ailment which some writers have, is to be obsessed with the title ‘Doctor’, or ‘Dr’. This is most pronounced amongst some economists who suffer from this problem and always introduce themselves as follows: “My name is Dr so-and-so” (first name only). This is also repeated in their columns and others also refer to them as “Dr so-and-so”, but first name only. Numerous economic publications produced by their own departments or institutes, especially in government, also carry their names as such. One can cite a number of examples, but the references should be fairly obvious to all. One is supposed to be impressed by the fact that they are PhDs, not by the arguments they make.

There are also at least two such individuals who are referred to, probably not by themselves, for sure, but by some overzealous copy editor trying to please, as “former finance ministers”. Some who are called “former finance ministers” have been advisers to the Ministry of Finance or advisers on finance to the Prime Minister or some other high office. While they probably themselves do not write that they are “former finance ministers” when they have not been that, the fact that this issue is repeated each time their name is mentioned, even at the end of the columns which they write regularly, suggests either complicity or incompetence on someone’s part. Once or twice, it could be a mistake, but every week? Moreover, these former non-finance ministers are not alone at fault in having their former positions incorrectly stated. There are a few others, usually based abroad, who clearly overstate their professional position and titles. An easy website check at the university where they supposedly ‘teach’ reveals that they are research assistants, or something less glamorous. Of course, this does not affect the arguments they are making, but this is precisely the point.

Clearly, we try to impress by who we are and where all we have studied or been, and by all that we think we have achieved, but not by the substance of what we are arguing. Often delusions of a past grandeur seep in to such self-characterisation. Perhaps, those who do this feel that their titles — real or false — make a difference to how the reader perceives their piece, and they are probably correct in assuming so. Ours is a society where such false credentials matter more than substance. It matters more who you know rather than what you do. Perhaps, it is time to look at substantive issues rather than at mere gloss.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (40)

  • Khan jr
    May 8, 2012 - 11:34PM

    What would you expect from a society where artifice is now the established norm rather than an exception…

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  • Falcon
    May 8, 2012 - 11:46PM

    Zaidi Sahab – Good to see you on ET. I specially liked the intro under your photo. It is interesting you picked up on this issue. Between choice of some sophisticated and mysterious English words, attempted British / American accent, degrees from prestigious institutions, names of powerful connections, size of their house, and flashiness of their cars, our elite hardly has an intellectual identity to bank on. Having seen different cultures, surprisingly enough, I have found Pakistan’s elite as well as upper middle class as one of the most materialistic in the world.

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  • John B
    May 9, 2012 - 12:01AM

    University degrees are certificates of learning of the past. They never add credibility to the present and future achievements and certainly do not shape the individual thinking and learning from the world around us.

    A classic example we can see in our everyday world is this. All business schools teach in a methodical fashion what an average trader in the street market learns from experience. An MBA student of such institution may be well versed in financial structure and economic principles but he or she is ill equipped by the business school to start or create a business.

    All businesses of our world are created by creative individuals who never been to business schools and the business schools played NO part in creating any segment of economy. They merely manage to learn from the creative individuals and pass on that information to MBA graduates.

    Will Harvard or Warton educated MBA graduate make a good finance minister of a country over an individual who employs 1000+ workers in various industries he or she founded? The answer is no, and one just have go look at PAK economy to understand that.

    University education are achievements of the past. Well said in the article.

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  • Syed Ali
    May 9, 2012 - 12:21AM

    @Author! I do not understand your point of being so opposed to portraying some body’s school of education latter on in life. Yes what matters most is the substance of an article not the place from where some body graduated. But still, you want to know whom you are dealing with when you are reading an opinion of some body. Example, if somebody who has been ambassador to china as well as a former foreign secretary, his insight of the current issue of human right activist might be very different from somebody, who is a self styled expert of foreign policy after pleasing his limited readers of evening news papers. Besides that, every westren news paper incluing NY times, Washington post, Gaurdian etc also give a brief intro of their writers. you can find there that writers are introduced as such with their field of expertise and their current or former designation. More importantly, you may not like it but I think its good for school going and college students, who might get inspiration from some body who is an excellent writer and studied at Harvard or Princton and decide to follow his or her foot steps. Even if they, are not impressed, it increases their general knowledge about intelligensia of this country and keeps them well informed. So english papers and ET should continue their current practice. It is valuable and without it, many a times, we will be deceived by “Heresay” kind of scholars who have been predicting dooms day kind of things in Urdu press for the last 60 years.

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  • Nauman Khan
    May 9, 2012 - 12:24AM

    Something, I wish someone had said earlier and for future editors to take a note of.

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  • Mustafa Kamal
    May 9, 2012 - 12:46AM

    Brilliant Zaidi sahb. Absolutely right.

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  • Sandy
    May 9, 2012 - 1:02AM

    Hats off!

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 9, 2012 - 1:38AM

    I agree with you. For what it is worth, we are asked about our “qualifications” and the more glamorous and elongated, the better.

    I asked the celebrated Akbar S Ahmed many years ago why he wrote that he was educated at Cambridge when he was educated at Birminghan and only got a diploma at Cambridge. He said his publisher insisted on it.

    So, it is not Pakistan. It is a world-wide malaise and in this case it was a matter of money (sales). .

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  • Zain
    May 9, 2012 - 1:54AM

    this practice is not limited to ET or writing articles. If you look closely its become very much part of our society and it wouldn’t take any rocket science to figure out that this stems as a defense mechanism adopted to overcome our intellectual, personal and individual complexes. Maj ABC to Dr XYZ…u hear it all day…

    with reference to journalists I’ve noticed a ‘lot’ of fellowships being mentioned,suddenly … as pointed out by the author, is that your way of trying to make an impression on the reader; with your pre-fellowship mundane ideas? get a life!!

    Dr Zain :p

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  • Prof. Historico Materialism
    May 9, 2012 - 1:58AM

    I believe Zaidi Saab has some weight in his argument, but most of this weight can be attributed to the ivory tower he’s thought up. Well, I am going to refute, and there is objectivity in my argument. As a senior Professor of Economics at the university where Zaidi Saab teaches at, I’d like you to analyze this situation from by applying Rational Economic Theory.

    a) Credentials are a market signal.
    b) Market signals affect pricing strategy, and bargaining behavior.
    c) A credible signal to the market, results in favorable outcomes.
    d) Marketing is exactly that, playing with words to overstate ones real value or price.
    e) Overstating ones real value results in an apparently credible signal, that results in favorable outcomes.
    f) Who doesn’t like favorable outcomes?
    g) This is pure capitalism, and capitalism works in the land of pure.
    e) Hence proven, Pakistani’s are too good at practicing capitalism.
    h) Hence proven, regular rationality prevails over regular rant.

    Thank you.

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  • Max
    May 9, 2012 - 2:02AM

    @Falcon:
    I agree and can relate to your experiences, but the gentleman is blowing hot-air for no reason. If someone writes their educational qualification with their name or mentions their past experience, it is fine with me. I have read his articles at other places and was quite impressed by his analytical skills, but am disgusted to see this one. The author needs to get over petite jealousies and live a life.

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  • Abid P Khan
    May 9, 2012 - 3:28AM

    I agree with the idea, at times if the writer’s field of expertise in a particular area helps evaluate the intimacy with the subject or its mastery, can be helpful if described.
    .
    In the Paki culture most of the persons themselves are keen to advertise the degrees or jobs they have been associated with. It is the article writer’s name not a Curriculum Vitae, for Gods sake.
    .
    As the author points out he finds some false claims which the subeditor must take up with the article writer. There are enough of false degree holders around us.
    .
    Partly the feudal value system has to be blamed for this attitude. To show off is second nature to many. Every one claims to be someone important, a Syed. Does it signify the same in Arabic culture. When I asked an Arab about this, .he did not quite understand me. After a lot of explaining, my Arab friend finally caught on to the idea, which I was trying to get through. He said, “Oh, you mean Sadat? Who cares about them?” Khomeini always said, Syed Carter or Syed Reagan.
    .
    Whiskey is known as Saiyyad ul Mashrubaat, among diplomats of some Arab countries.

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  • Muqarrib
    May 9, 2012 - 4:20AM

    @Syed Ali:

    ” It is valuable and without it, many a times, we will be deceived by “Heresay” kind of scholars who have been predicting dooms day kind of things in Urdu press for the last 60 years.”

    Is English press any better in depth and substance of reporting, news analysis, editorial and commentary than the Urdu press? I don’t think so. It’s not the medium of language, but the standard and accuracy, fair and unbiased reporting, and the fabric of commentary and insight, makes a newspaper worthy of journalism. The English press is not any better than the Urdu press in the true essence of journalism.

    In my opinion, something worthy of journalism is still struggling to be born in Pakistan.

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  • non-conformist
    May 9, 2012 - 6:58AM

    Its not only in Pkaistan; the world over, what matters most is who you know; not what you do!

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  • Shahzad Chaudhry
    May 9, 2012 - 7:01AM

    Amazing! Some staid and serious journals insist on giving you an intro that you do not want. I had a hard time convincing one that their invitation to me to write for them could not have been based on what I had been in my practical life, rather on the quality of argument one made. Soon enough the staid ones wanted me to cycle my contributions to a pre-qualification check with an individual who after being the keenest to get me on board found himself out of the frame when work began. But then this is a strange country. Of course, I politely moved on.

    From the readers perspective too the responses by most usual suspects on these Blogs are also much linked to the Background of an individual rather than the content of his argument. One could say anything yet the remarks are but primal.

    I once did an exercise where the points that I wished to make on a particular subject were fed to another contributing colleague under whose name the material appeared. The remarks and comments were as if for a Socrates. Perhaps in some ways the Institution that you may have passed by does matter.

    Artifice is a kingdom where pretense reigns. On the pages of Journals to the evening talk-shows. I have seen enough of those in my life.

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  • Max
    May 9, 2012 - 7:46AM

    @Meekal Ahmed:
    I won’t bother about Akbar S. Ahmed.He is quite a character. You might have missed his interview on NPR a few days back where he mentioned that as a young boy he attended Burn Hall school The story did not end there but also gave a full description of who attends that type of schools. The interviewing lady was trying to move but he kept going giving all details.
    A couple years back he was being interviewed on PBS on the same issue and he went on giving details about his marriage in Swat’s royal family.
    His scholarship, I better not say anything. I see a little Mansoor Ijaz in him.

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  • Shahzad
    May 9, 2012 - 8:09AM

    Is it a case of a simple witness trying to be an expert witness

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  • Asad
    May 9, 2012 - 9:26AM

    I, also, do care whether you are political economist or dentist as mentioned in your introduction. Please such useless introduction or accept others right to display whatever they want. You are also trying to signal something. Zaidi Sb, who told you Karachi University or Harvard are same when comes to having credibility !

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  • Farhan Shah
    May 9, 2012 - 9:51AM

    Sir thank you for this article. Let me share my experience with ET.
    I have contributed a few articles here and i have no idea how did they choose my introduction which appears in my every article. All that happened was in the beginning i was asked to give a complete description of myself in an e-mail and from there onwards they chose my introduction themselves with me having no say in it. I have literally pleaded with them to change my introduction and make it more appropriate in light of what i say and how i say it but it falls in deaf ears. So let me say quite openly here that other than some pompous individuals who like to blow their own trumpet in their articles, it’s a complex ET suffers from not the contributors.

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  • A
    May 9, 2012 - 11:22AM

    Honestly I didn’t read your intro at first place, But after reading this article, I read it twice and really liked it ! I believe I never ever read such kind of writer into before.

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  • Pragma
    May 9, 2012 - 11:24AM

    Credibility does matter. I’m sure a layman on the street will always make more sense than a lot of people featuring on 8 pm on news channels, but no one will care what an uneducated chap has to say, but will miss their meals to hear gibberish of their dear analysts.

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  • Razi Azmi
    May 9, 2012 - 11:26AM

    Did you get what I emailed in this space a few hours ago? If not I can re-send it. I cannot imagine that I said anything that was not fit to print.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 9, 2012 - 1:57PM

    @Max:
    I generally don’t watch/listen to him but on the few occasions I have, he is very smart and excellent at self-promotion. A master at pushing himself forward.

    He was a civil servant (old CSP) an anthropoligist, a diplomat, a movie-maker (on Jinnah) and now an expert on Islam here at American University. He has many published works to his credit.

    My point was that in some cases, there is deliberate falsification of credentials. In this case it is not falsification per se since he DID study at Cambridge but there is never any mention of what he studied and what degree he earned. The answer is no degree; just a diploma.

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  • May 9, 2012 - 2:37PM

    How true. Never read any mention of a degree from Gujranwala or Chhatisgarh. Reveals our colonial mindset and, dare I say, adds weight to the publication’s reputation. ET could probably have a roll-call of Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard types, all with halos. If they can take global roundabouts and quote Greek mythology in Latin phrases with a slight nod to desi lingo, then chances are that more people will notice because snob and blob value go together. They are like the always-open KFC outlets.

    The other peeve regarding “X is a former something or the other” reveals our absolute obeisance to the past. Instead of wondering why s/he even at the prime has been rendered redundant, it imbues the individual with the gravitas required of a know-it-all. Much like a divorce might make a discussion on marriage legitimate. If the ‘formerhood’ has been achieved after much toil, then it works like a tiger’s head poking out of the wall.

    Now, Mr. Zaidi, chances are that if you were not a “political economist” and just another bloke with something to say, this piece would have gone through the thinker’s pose of editorial discretion!

    ~A former ET columnist with several degrees of separation

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  • M. Ahmed
    May 9, 2012 - 3:11PM

    Let us be honest and admit that Vasu for the moment is drawing more attention than Shahazad Roy. What you are saying is more important than who is saying!

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  • nameless
    May 9, 2012 - 4:45PM

    after considering your argument I have decided to revise my bio:

    My ability to write the following article is influenced only partially by my Ivy league education as the C minus in English was a wake up call, and affected me deeply, although I understand any reference to Yale would be affirming market based capitalism. But the pathos and urgency in my writing is influenced also by a bad relationship with a cocaine addict, a controlling mother, a father who was emotionally unavailable, constant financial insecurity, load shedding, my average looks and dark skin, my angst about religion. My expression and style is also attributable to an Irish catholic lady who methodically edited my work for seven years. Who are we but the net sum of our infinite experiences. And due to space constraints, I will not be listing all and infinite brain cell activity.

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  • Zahid Ebrahim
    May 9, 2012 - 5:37PM

    Bohut khoob Akbar sahib. Agree with you 100%.

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  • Razi Azmi
    May 9, 2012 - 6:28PM

    Zaidi Sahib, if you practiced what you preach, the byeline of your article should only have mentioned your name (probably minus the photo). I now know from the byeline that you are “a political economist” with multiple “degrees” (most certainly Ph.D if you are a political economist) and you presently “teach”. My curiosity aroused by your ostentatious humility, I decided to google your name and was impressed by your credentials. Henceforth, Dr Zaidi, I will definitely read anything you write on “political economy”. I may not agree, but it is good to know that the writer has expertise in the field.
    Readers cannot be expected to read every article, which is why it helps if they know something about the author, whether he is (or was) a lawyer, a professor, a journalist, a retired military officer, etc. The perspective and the training matters. But I agree with you that a newspaper byeline is no place for pompous and lengthy introductions.
    By the same token, is it OK for authors of books to have most detailed (and sometimes irrelevant) introductions, such as their family size, their hobbies, where they live and even their beloved dogs’ names. Why, for that matter, should books be dedicated to beloved ones?

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  • Abid P Khan
    May 9, 2012 - 6:43PM

    @non-conformist:

    “Its not only in Pkaistan; the world over, what matters most is who you know; not what you do!”

    Sure it does open doors. Yet, it is a disease some suffer more from it than others, which can be noticed.

    Any time Tony Blair has written to newspapers, there was no mention of degrees he obtained! Recently I read about a rising Hollywood star, before taking up acting seriously, she had obtained a PhD in some field with no links to the theatre world.

    One never sees her name suffixed with a “PhD”.

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  • mrk
    May 9, 2012 - 7:46PM

    It’s pakistanis that Pakistani elite have acheived so little in their lives that they need to prop up and repeat ad nauseum the degrees that they have. It’s not the means but the ends that you need to work on. A master’s or PhD doing nothing vs a creator of something.

    Congrats to most ET writers, you are much more educated than Steve Jobs, a mere first smester drop out of Reid college. You are really taking Pakistan places.

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  • mrk
    May 9, 2012 - 9:17PM

    Pakistan: a nation of ‘educated illiterates’.

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  • Farooq Bashir Butt M.Phil(Pharmacy)
    May 10, 2012 - 12:02AM

    Writer has given good idea how people advertise by writing articles.

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  • Abid P Khan
    May 10, 2012 - 12:39AM

    @mrk:

    “Pakistan: a nation of ‘educated illiterates’.”

    What do you mean by that? We have a dime-a-dozen PhDs crawling all over the place. Don’t be so choosy.

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  • Uza Syed
    May 10, 2012 - 4:10AM

    @Meekal Ahmed: Sir, let’s face it——Akbar Ahmad is one of those very few Pakistanis who’s recognized internationally as a great scholar and this he earned himself and we must respect him for it. He’s a great son of Pakistan who has served it in many capacities. Let’s be generous and forgive him for, what some of us consider, his certain weaknesses. I would rather have many many of Akbar Ahmads among us, even with self-promotional inclinations, than let’s say so-and-so Khans or so-and-so-Sharifs or so-and-so-Zardaris.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 11, 2012 - 2:00PM

    @Uza Syed:

    I agree. He has done incredibly well in life and he is in great demand by the media here in the US. And, yes, especially on Islam, we need many more like him: articulate and balanced.

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  • Pathan Khan
    May 11, 2012 - 2:36PM

    Well done Dr.Akbar

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  • Haroon Ahmad
    May 12, 2012 - 2:55AM

    Mr. Zaidi: I totally agree with you. In Pakistan people really love show off their academic credentials; I would say one should always show off his informed knowledge about the subject not where someone went to get a degree…

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  • May 16, 2012 - 8:10PM

    Newspapers are full of articles by ‘experts’ but I have noticed that only if the article is of interest will a reader look for the name of the writer (I do) – unless of-course it is an ‘in your face’ format . Who cares anyway? As has been rightly pointed out by some readers, many people like to be known as Dr and Prof or former So and So so let them enjoy their little claim to fame. It does not matter one way or the other.. Recommend

  • mrk
    May 17, 2012 - 12:12AM

    If you show humility then you will gain respect. We should, principally, respect our teachers and those who pass on knowledge/info. However, when the said group becomes too cocky, then they’ll get a pushback also.

    If the writers are going to show arogence then you’ll be asked whether you, through your accomplishments and achievements, have earned the right to be pompous. If it turns out that the writer has never even worked in a proper job or created something useful, then your arogence is unfounded by any stretch and you open yourself to fair ridicule. We are a nation of extremes; Where on one hand a large number of Pakistanis don’t attain any education, whereas on the other hand, we overdo our qualifications with double or tripple Master’s and Ph.D’s – so much so that we end up becoming professional students. Either we are totally illiterates or ‘philosophers’. Hence, the result falls far short of demonstrated results.

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  • Rashid
    May 24, 2012 - 4:34AM

    I agree with sir Zaidi. During my student life I came a cross many of them who have burdened and marketised himself /herself with high degrees and also with high positions, but they were unable to deliver in real sense. Many students impressed by title name…. when someone starts his lecture or speech as … I am the DR…. and Head of the……I feel personally, some times these types of persons leave no room for students or audience to criticize or analyze the words of them…. Sir we live in a society where names matters not arguments as many of the seasoned politicians wins elections regardless of party affiliations.

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