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What’s up, Doc?

The controversy over whether Jill Biden should be addressed as ‘doctor’ is a sign of the importance of educational credentialing as a social sorting mechanism

Nicholas Clairmont
December 18, 2020
Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images
Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images
Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images
Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images

One of the biggest changes in American life is the elevation of higher education credentials to a badge of belonging in what we artlessly call the “knowledge economy.” Expertise, technical training, and knowledge are all things of great value. But in the “knowledge economy,” the value we are most truly oriented toward is “educational attainment”—that statistician’s term for degrees acquired, signifying membership in the guild of the highly credentialed. As these credentials have become more significant as class signifiers, men have gone from the overwhelming majority of graduate students to being underrepresented. According to the American Enterprise Institute in 2018, “Women earned a majority of doctoral degrees in 2017 for [the] 9th straight year and outnumber men in grad school 137 to 100.”

It is in light of these developments that an uproar was caused over an issue of linguistic correctness surrounding a Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Epstein, who somewhat obnoxiously suggested that Jill Biden should stop bothering with the honorific title “doctor.” Biden has a doctorate of education, and Epstein wishes, in line with AP Stylebook preference, to reserve the title of doctor for medical practitioners. Epstein also addresses Biden as “kiddo,” which made me gag—his defense being that Mr. Biden does the same. But I’d avoid calling her “babe” or “honey” even if Joe does too.

The Epstein piece took over Twitter and got a worrisome reply from the incoming administration itself along with volleys of umbrage-taking think pieces. Yet almost everybody missed the reasons why academics were so angry, why we use the honorific “doctor” when we do, and how to think about whether the Journal did something deeply wrong.

The very simple reason style guides hold a preference against calling non-M.D.s “doctor” is not to diminish other holders of higher degrees. It is that most ordinary users of English hear “doctor” and think stethoscope. Referring to someone as “doctor” was less of an honorific than a handy utilitarian distinction to use in case someone in the room was having a heart attack.

My read on the social dynamics of the “doctor” issue is the same read that I often have about language policing issues: that it is only tangentially about language. The Epstein piece is, after all, by no means the first one to grapple with the way the press makes a special exception for Dr. Biden. And the same press outlets which diverge from their normal style for Jill Biden, whose Ed.D. it is not rude to point out is really not the equal of a Ph.D., are not always accommodating for other degreed public people, such as the neurosurgeon Ben Carson—an actual doctor.

So, well, OK, let’s look into this. Is Jill Biden a doctor like Dr. Sebastian Gorka is, or a doctor doctor?

The reason that you get a “philosophical doctorate” in almost any nonprofessional field in which you obtain a terminal degree is because it is understood that all the fields gradually broke off from philosophy, originating spiritually and somewhat literally with the organized teaching that took place in a garden north of Athens where Plato set up shop, the Academy.

An Ed.D. degree is 90 or so years old, as a concept, and it is not really comparable to a Ph.D. It’s not a welding certificate, but it is perhaps closer to welding than comparative literature. It’s an occupational license, the possession of which allows teachers and education administrators to become about a third better paid. It is a professional training certification, not a scholarly project committed to enlarging the scope of human knowledge. None of this is invective or meant to take Jill Biden down a peg or anything like that. It is simply a description of what an Ed.D. program in educational leadership is for, and how it is meant to function.

Epstein’s piece garnered the reaction it did because it was a brazen reminder of a finding that the highly educated among us already know but wish were not true.

If this sounds snobby, don’t blame me. These distinctions come from academia, which is itself a snobby place. Just as it is simply not the case that most people think of a Ph.D. in the classics or comparative literature when they hear a kid say, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” it simply is not the case that an Ed.D. is supposed to confer high scholarly status. If it is rude to say this, it is rude because it contains the impoliteness of acknowledging a reality that is unnecessarily harsh to put into words—namely that Jill Biden is not a Ph.D. stealing the valor of physicians. She is a technical school student stealing the valor of Ph.Ds.

If the snobs who inhabit academe read the “dissertation” (in the Ed.D. program it is actually called an executive position paper) that Dr. Biden produced in order to earn that moniker, the Ph.D.s of America might be less eager to identify with the first-lady-in-waiting. The document, available online, features some screamers—basic arithmetical errors, redundancies and other grammatical blunders, and misspellings. It is generally not of the caliber of work that we associate with the projects that represent such gargantuan achievement in fields of knowledge that we have decided as a society that people might be addressed as “doctor” for having completed them.

Here’s a sample: “Three quarters of the class will be Caucasian; one quarter of the class will be African American; one seat will hold a Latino; and the remaining seats will be filled with students of Asian descent or non-resident aliens.” What remains when three quarters and one quarter are filled? Huh.

Epstein touched a nerve because we as a culture are nervier in 2020 about acknowledgment of status conferred by degrees, certificates, and other pieces of calligraphic scrip issued by institutions of higher learning than we were when a 55-year-old Jill Biden completed her program—perhaps because they cost much more and deliver much less in terms of worldly goods. Epstein’s piece garnered the reaction it did because it was a brazen reminder of a finding that the highly educated among us already know but wish were not true.

Some of this was also just the normal workings of online performative outrage, which flows reliably on Twitter like the tides. I saw a couple of lawyers, without apparent irony, adding “Dr.” to their profiles because they hold a “Juris Doctor.” But mostly it was the Ph.D.s casting themselves as a victim class in solidarity with the aggrieved president-elect’s wife in a country where two-thirds of citizens don’t have a college degree. The internet being the internet, and humans being humans, it is not all that surprising or worrying to me to see an objectively successful, upwardly mobile class of people lash out in anger at their perception that they are ill-treated by society or are the victims of a plot.

I don’t believe the butt of Epstein’s piece was women, but rather credentialism—which is the hornet’s nest one cannot kick today. Oh boy, do you not want to piss off the people whose sense of self hangs in a frame on their wall. People like that have no sense of humor at all, and they can’t imagine how anyone could dare to question the worth of the graduate degrees they took out large loans and delayed having families and alienated themselves from their friends and earnestly learned to speak seven different kinds of gibberish and apprenticed themselves to people who were objectively not terribly interesting or successful or beautiful in order to secure.

Epstein’s point is that the flaunting of educational credentials as part of one’s name is a sign that society at large is guilty of overvaluing those credentials as signifiers of anything really important. The point is correct, even though the conceit of addressing the piece of writing to Dr. Jill Biden is a bad one. So the joke sucks, but the thesis behind it is correct.

There was indeed a time when it would have upset the reigning social order for a mere commoner to fail to refer to a noble gentleman by the proper “milord.” And if he had, the reply might have sounded a bit like this quote from a Harvard graduate and consultant in a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the “doctor” issue: “The weaker minded and insecure would try to do whatever possible to either pull you down by making you ‘common’ or pulling themselves up by disavowing your achievement and thereby making themselves an equal.” Harrumph. Imagine seeing oneself as the equal to the holder of a higher degree!

The debacle of Doctor Jill becomes much more serious and worrying in the way it involves censorship, though. No norms will be left unturned in the guarding of credentialed status. Michael LaRosa, spokesman for the incoming first lady’s office, has the same right to criticize the press as the press does to criticize him, and he’s paid to flack for his boss. But American officials should not demand press outlets delete articles which offend them. To suggest that the Journal “remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper” crosses a line. If they still existed to serve any real purpose, organizations such as PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists would understand this kind of thing as the sort of attack on press freedom they exist to combat and condemn. But alas, they failed this test earlier this year when China kicked journalists out of its borders, just like they failed it when terrorists murdered the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

The idea that to neglect to use Jill Biden’s honorific is to deny her what she has earned is to believe that all she earned is the right to a title rather than the right to teach. (Impressively, she plans to keep teaching through her husband’s term.) Yet nobody thinks that it is odd if a high school graduate is not referred to by the newspaper in a way that notes the achievement (or fails to). Which is why the removal of honorifics has usually been seen as a democratizing and progressive force, and the insistence on honorifics as a way to uphold hierarchy.

There are reasons why we no longer record in the way we refer to people whether they are a landowner; it matters less now to how much respect and how many rights we think people should be accorded. The same should be true of doctorates, in whatever field. Even the London Times style guide considers it grossly continental: “There is little to be said for a German-style flourishing of doctorates in public life, and we should resist.” For most of American history, it was considered an important symbolic gesture in service of civic health to make sure that former office holders reverted to their previous titles and did not continue holding the titles of their offices in perpetuity.

Degrees function now in America a bit like titles of nobility once did in Europe. Some academic credentials do correlate with meaningful accomplishment, and they are not hereditary. But as educational institutions become title-granting institutions before they are places of any actual learning, this is getting truer. The controversy over the words “Dr. Biden” reveals that for some, educational attainment honorific titles are important precisely because they can play a stratifying role.

Nicholas Clairmont is the Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine and a freelance reporter and writer. Follow him on Twitter @nickclairmont1.