by Zoe Alsfine
The title “doctor” originally came from the Latin word for teacher. In 1861, Yale declared the first-ever official Ph.D. in the United States, and since then, 50 distinct categories of PhDs have emerged, one of them in education. Surprisingly, given the authenticity of higher degrees, specifically non-medical doctorates, going by the title of doctor is still up for debate today.
On December 11, The Wall Street Journal published “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.,” a controversial op-ed written by author and former Northwestern University adjunct lecturer Joseph Epstein. The article questioned the current universal respect given to educational doctorates and struck a chord within the academic community.
Joseph Epstein directed the piece at new first lady Dr. Jill Biden. He wrote: “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.”
Epstein preferred that she use the title first lady; he continued on to disparage Biden’s decision and explained his reasoning for degrading PhDs, EdDs, and honorary doctorates: “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…such degrees were once given exclusively to scholars, statesmen, artists and scientists.”
Epstein claimed that all the respect and distinction that once corresponded to PhDs and honorary doctorates have been filtered by the infiltration of rich men or undeserving minorities to add inclusivity and money to the programs.
Within our school community, many educators have received doctorates in their fields.
Head of School Dr. Michael Kay received his Ph.D. in education and Judaic studies through a joint program at New York University in 2009. His initial thoughts on the article were that Epstein was trying to provoke people and launch an unnecessary conversation about personal titles.
“I thought that he was being intentionally provocative, meaning I can’t read his mind, but it felt to me as somebody going out of his way to make an issue out of something that did not need to be an issue,” Kay said.
Kay said that the tone of the op-ed was more controversial than the substance of the article itself. Whether the tone or topic inspired immense opinion from media outlets, the piece has received
many comments about the provocative language that Kay highlighted.
“If Jill Biden were a medical doctor, I don’t think he would have written the article,” Kay said. “The question is would he have written the article if she had a Ph.D. in a research field, or some readers who saw evidence of misogyny, say that he would not have written it if it were a man who had the same credentials as Jill Biden. I don’t know if he was calling more the degree itself into question or whether it was about gender dynamic tension.”
Holding a Ph.D. in special education, Upper School Chair of Student Learning Dr. Renee Holtz was taken aback by the potential underlying misogyny surrounding Epstein’s harsh criticism of Biden’s preferred title.
“It seems to me that Epstein believes that—beyond the overt dismissal of Dr. Biden’s degree [and, therefore, use of her professional title]—she is not entitled to have an identity outside of being the hostess of the White House,” Holtz said.
Holtz saw the article as a modern-day representation of a male’s need to conform women to out-dated traditions. While none of the past first ladies had doctorates, Biden should not be forced to remove it from her title because none of them had her qualifications.
Epstein, however, sought out all PhDs to join an unrelenting debate of current intellectual adequacy. Director of Engineering and Design Dr. Daniel Aviv has a Ph.D. in genetics. He simply called the article uncalled for.
“I think that by calling yourself a doctor I hope you have earned a specific level of academic achievements,” Aviv said. “If you have a Ph.D. or Ed.D. like Jill Biden, I assume you have that, and your title should not be debated.”
Readers reacted to Epstein’s article in multiple ways. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, called out the misogyny surrounding Biden’s involvement in the article. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., compared her father’s degree to Jill Biden’s in a tweet to announce how an argument surrounding PhDs is nonsensical. On the other hand, Paul Gibot, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor, came to Epstein’s defense, claiming that the overt criticism to the op-ed on Twitter is unneeded.
No matter each individual’s opinion, the debate has continued, as the op-ed is still prevalent in media outlets including the LA Times, the Daily Northwestern, and even The New York Times.
For over 100 years, universities in America have
offered doctorate programs, ranging in subject, all of which qualify a graduate to call themselves a doctor. Epstein did not create the debate on PhDs in non-medical fields not deserving to call themselves doctors but rather used Biden’s new position to resurface the conversation.
“I believe that his need to attack Dr. Biden was a distraction from what could have been a very interesting article on two worthwhile questions,” Kay said. “Should these universities be granting these honorary doctorates, or is all just a money grab? Have the academic standards of universities gone down over the past 100 years? Both interesting questions that have nothing to do with Jill Biden.”