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Jack Smith

From pugilists to pianists: What has happened in recent decades is a massive shift in our society from Ers to Ists

April 08, 1985

'Are you a writer," asks Walter M. Ross of Indian Wells, "or a columnist?"

What prompts Ross to ask this evidently meaningless question is an article in Modern Maturity (April-May), by Guy Daniels, called "Are You an Er or an Ist? A guide to deciding your place in society."

As you might infer from the title, Daniels holds that there are two kinds of people--the Ers, like butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and so on, and the Ists, like economists, psychologists, market analysts (the i is interchangeable with the y ) and otorhinolaryngologists.

The Ers, he points out, are the doers . They work in close contact with their materials and they get things done. The carpenter, the bricklayer, the plumber.

The Ists, on the other hand, work with things at a distance, abstractions, more likely than material things, such as statistics, equations, probabilities, things intellectual. The physicist, the scientist, the statistical analyst.

What has happened in recent decades, Daniels argues, is a massive shift in our society from Ers to Ists. "The field of medicine," he says, "has been covered with a rank overgrowth of special Ists and sub-special Ists, which has well-nigh choked out that hardy perennial, the family doctor (an Or is simply an Er who is clinging to an o that is rapidly disappearing).

"In industry, too, the Ers are losing ground to the Ists. Either they are displaced by them or they become their underlings. Thus computer programmers are merely the menials of the computer scientists who are redesigning much of our world."

Daniels complains that Ists, while they may be brilliant in conversation, tend to burrow further down in their specialties, until they can no longer communicate with the outside world, nor even with Ists in neighboring burrows.

"Such are the ways," he concludes, "in which 'the fabric of our society' has been changed by the Er-to-Ist shift. I scarcely need to point out that the Er/Ist dichotomy . . . is by no means a rigid one. It is merely a kind of shorthand notation for--or device for personifying--certain large-scale trends usually discussed in the refractory jargon of sociology . . . or the cliches of journalism. . . ."

Actually, I don't think Daniels is on to much. I don't see any very significant phenomenon in the so-called shift from Ers to Ists. Most of the Ists will be found in the field of medicine, which lends itself to Ists, since they are all one species of specialist or another, and in the end, when we get down to dealing with them, most of them are doctors.

As for the notion that Ers are in a more intimate relationship with their materials, while Ists are at a distance from theirs, what about dentists? How much more intimate can their work be? And how about astronomers (Daniels begs us not to bring them up)? How much farther from the objects of their study can astronomers be?

I suppose there is something classier about an Ist. Thus, the barroom piano player becomes a pianist when he moves to the salon. Or a keyboard stylist, or something worse. A fighter, when swells took up the sport in the 19th Century, became a pugilist. And how remote from the object of her livelihood is a manicurist? Of course there is no such thing anymore as a barber--except maybe for Rudy, the one I go to. They're all hair stylists--a specialty that takes no more skill and training but costs the customer more money. And what woman is content to be merely a typist anymore? They all want to be directors.

And not all doctors are Ists. There is the pediatrician and the obstetrician, who are no more pretentious and no farther from the objects of their expertise than the beautician and the mortician.

Of course the mortician used to be merely the undertaker, so even an Ian is a step up, evidently, from an Er.

I have a phalanx of doctors who are Ists. My internist. My cardiologist. My radiologist. My anesthesiologist. My pathologist. It is true, when they are talking to each other about me, they use a foreign language--the medical language that I discussed the other day. But my internist, at least, when he is talking with me, discloses that he reads the same books I do and has had the same experiences with human folly.

At about the turn of the century, it is true, painters were generally called painters. Then they became Ists. We had Cubists, and Dadaists, and Abstractionists. And Post-Expressionists. And Modernists. And Ists whose names I don't even know, much less their work.

If you asked any of these Ists whether he was a painter, though, he would undoubtedly say yes. Just as a pediatrician, if asked whether he was a doctor, would say yes.

The true test of what a person is, perhaps, goes back to the original Er-Or word. A person may be trained in all the technology of cardiology, for example, and yet not be, in the broadest meaning of the word, according to the Oath of Hippocrates and all that we expect of the profession, a doctor.

There are many newspaper columnists who are not writers. It is not too hard to throw a column together from bits and pieces, with the help of your friends.

But to write one you have to be a writer.

In my own case, I leave the answer to my readers.

By the way, I have an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Pepperdine University, so, whatever else you call me, remember--I'm a doctor.

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