Should an Ed.D. or Ph.D. Be Called “Doctor?”

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Essayist Joseph Epstein wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal insisting that Dr. Jill Biden should stop calling herself “Dr.” He objected to the use of the term “Dr.” for anyone who is not an M.D. The article reeked with condescension—towards her, towards educators, towards community colleges, towards women.

His essay set off a furor in the media. The topic “trended” on Twitter (meaning it was one of the most widely cited of the day), and it was written up in major newspapers. Epstein was not only rude but sexist. Northwestern University, where Epstein used to teach, disassociated itself from his views.

Epstein wrote:

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. 

I taught at Northwestern University for 30 years without a doctorate or any advanced degree. I have only a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago—in absentia because I took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the peacetime Army in the late 1950s. I do have an honorary doctorate, though I have to report that the president of the school that awarded it was fired the year after I received it, not, I hope, for allowing my honorary doctorate. During my years as a university teacher I was sometimes addressed, usually on the phone, as “Dr. Epstein.” On such occasions it was all I could do not to reply, “Read two chapters of Henry James and get into bed. I’ll be right over.”

I was also often addressed as Dr. during the years I was editor of the American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. Let me quickly insert that I am also not a member of Phi Beta Kappa, except by marriage. Many of those who so addressed me, I noted, were scientists. I also received a fair amount of correspondence from people who appended the initials Ph.D. to their names atop their letterheads, and have twice seen PHD on vanity license plates, which struck me as pathetic. In contemporary universities, in the social sciences and humanities, calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league.

Many years ago–back in the early 1960s–I worked alongside Joseph Epstein at a small magazine called The New Leader. He had a wicked sense of humor and was generally a “wise-ass” who was fast with a snappy wisecrack. Over the years, we lost touch, but I still remember the fun we had writing jazzy headlines for dull articles (“Five Minutes to Midnight in _____” [insert name of country]. Somehow he went from being a young curmudgeon to being an elderly and arrogant right winger.

His putdown of Dr. Jill Biden was impudent, and yes, sexist. If people have earned a doctorate, they can call themselves Dr. What’s the point of working for years to earn a doctorate if you can’t use the title? As for his sneering reference to her dissertation topic, I feel certain that he never read it and cannot judge whether it was or was not valuable. His words show how little he thinks of community colleges and their students and faculty.

To be sure, there was a political edge to his critique: Soon after the election, he wrote an article for the WSJ praising Trump’s accomplishments and chastising his anti-Trump friends. Knocking Dr. Biden is just another way of lamenting Trump’s defeat.

Dr. Biden is not a good target for ridicule. She is a woman who radiates integrity, empathy, and intelligence. She has earned the right to call herself Dr. Biden.

The best comment I have seen on this flap appeared on Fred Klonsky’s blog, quoting Glen Brown. The gist: 70% of instructors in higher education are adjuncts, not paid a living wage. That’s a true scandal.

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