Herr Doktor

A couple of years ago, I wrote an oped for the Wall Street Journal about doctors, “doctors” and such, and I got a fair bit of reaction to it. This past Saturday, the brilliant Joseph Epstein wrote a column along the same lines but putting focus on Jill Biden, soon-to-be First Lady of the United States. It’s worth your time, but here are a couple of paragraphs:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences. Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field. At Columbia University of an earlier day, a secretary sat outside the room where these examinations were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted. A far cry, this, from the few doctoral examinations I sat in on during my teaching days, where candidates and teachers addressed one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembled a kaffeeklatsch. Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, or long after the terror had departed.

I think it’s terrific, but even those who disagree should recognize that the reaction to this column is sheer silliness. Northwestern has apparently removed any mention of Epstein from their site – sheesh. Revisionism, anyone? How about some defence of free speech, oh respected university? I guess that is asking too much. Of course, the Twitter mobs went bonky and Biden herself stupidly reacted to it, opening herself up to dissection of her actual dissertation. Unfounded accusations of sexism met the oped – as though criticism of a woman is necessarily based on gender – as well as pearl-clutching about Epstein’s use of the word “kiddo.” I guess those who were upset about that word don’t know any older people. This is a common term of familiarity – and even affection – used by pre-boomers. Heck, Joe Biden uses it A LOT.

In my own family, there are several PhDs, and I have noticed that those who are the most huffy about insisting people use it, and insisting people respect their “accomplishment,” are a) the most insecure and b) the most left-leaning. There’s an elitism and a love of credentialism and an obsession with class and status among the left that you won’t see matched on the right (though yes, it exists there).

The most surprising thing – at least for me – about the reaction to the column was that so few people seem to know who Joseph Epstein is. I had to explain to several people I know that he is a brilliant literary critic, essayist and fiction writer. He is also a gentleman: I sent him a note saying how much I liked his column and I also included a link to mine. He responded almost immediately with a very positive, kind message.

(The title of this post is indeed a reference to Sylvia Plath because a) I am a woman and there is always room for a Plath reference and, b) I just finished this book, so she is on my mind.)