Yes, Folks, Jill Biden is a Doctor


Joseph Epstein is getting dragged hard this morning. The WSJ (for reasons that shouldn’t be too hard to discern) on Friday published a smarmy, self-important, and ridiculously uninformed op-ed in which he demeans Dr. Jill Biden’s use of “Dr.”

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’m tempted to join the beatdown, but I actually feel kind of sorry for Epstein. He spent 30 years as a lecturer in English at Northwestern, one of America’s most outstanding universities. But he never earned a doctorate. Or an MA, for that matter.

This means he spent all that time (assuming NU is like every institution of higher ed I’m familiar with) laboring as a third-class citizen. PhDs are the elite. Doc students occupy the second tier. Everybody else is below that. I’ve sat in all three chairs, and if Northwestern is like most places, these class distinctions can be palpable, expressed in everything from salary to parking privileges to teaching assignments to … well, you’re just not treated like you’re in the club.

If he felt the chafe of his third-class status – and the gleeful bitchiness of his op-ed certainly hints at … status-consciousness – it would be natural were he to emerge with some resentment.

An op-ed that works to erode the cultural capital of scholars? That’s a nice parting gift.

Here’s the truth about that word “doctor.” Epstein isn’t the only one out there snickering up his sleeve when a PhD uses the honorific. But the basic fact is that the term evolved (as early as ancient Greece) to describe teachers and scholars.

The first doctorate was awarded in the middle of the 12th century. Early programs of study included the arts and letters, law, theology, and, yes, medicine. However, medicine remained a sometimes primitive practice even into the 19th and 20th centuries – feel free to Google terms like leeching, bloodletting, humors, and barber surgeons for more, and let’s not even get into eugenics.

In other words, for eight or nine centuries the doctorate of philosophy was eminently respectable, while the practice of medicine was still developing.

It would be absurd to deny physicians the right to call themselves doctors. The term is fairly applied to the most advanced level of study in any number of fields, from medicine to physics to history to theology to … education. And the achievements of modern medicine are so jaw-dropping that I’m honored to call these brilliant, committed professionals “Dr.”

So yes, Mr. Epstein, the soon-to-be first lady is, in fact, Dr. Jill Biden.

Being a PhD doesn’t make you a superior being, and many of the smartest people I know never pursued anything past the BA (some never even got that far).

But it’s disheartening to see a man who ought to know better, a man who chose not to do the hard work, taking pot shots at those who did. It’s ignorant, it’s petty, and Northwestern University ought to be ashamed of you.


Oh, wait – they are. As is the WSJ‘s own education reporter.

One comment

  • Kind of reminds me of a scene in What’s Up Doc? (one of the greatest comedies of all time)
    (lines spoken very fast)
    Hugh: I’m a doctor!
    Judge: What kind?
    Hugh: Musicology.
    Judge: Can you fix a Hi-Fi?
    Hugh: No.
    Judge: Then shut up.

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