At the risk – nay, the certainty – of fuelling an already stupid argument, I would like to comment on whether the president’s wife, Jill Biden, should be using ‘doctor’ as a title.
The frivolity of this topic should probably be confined to a blog of the Right Dishonourable’s low esteem, but such is the nature of American journalism that the debate has spread from the Wall Street Journal to Vox via the Atlantic, the New York Times and the Washington Post. In Britain the Telegraph and the Independent are even now discussing it.
The basic argument, as made by Joseph Epstein in the Journal, is that Biden’s degree is too crap to warrant her calling herself a doctor. “Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education,“ he writes, “earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs’.”
Epstein’s critics contend that his opinion piece was sexist – inevitably, since a woman was criticised. Others charged him with academic elitism, or dredged up the historical record to dispute Epstein’s contention that, “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr’ unless he has delivered a child.”
History aside, I’ve sympathy with the last view. More than once I’ve snorted at a Twitter academic with a thesis in the queer theory of Lego bricks, or some such, whose only contribution to public life is furthering stereotypes about academics and ivory towers.
But my problem with academic honorifics is that I don’t see why such work merits a special title. Those with PhDs will of course say that it is hard to earn them or that their research might contribute to social or technological progress, but there are plenty of unglamorous jobs that are hard, and plenty of endeavours that are worthwhile even if they don’t contribute to human progress.
Does the average academic really believe they work harder than the people who clean their campuses? What about the untitled nurses in hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic? Or the social care workers with caseloads that require a time-turner to fulfil?
None of these jobs are esteemed highly enough to qualify for a special title, which is partly the point. Academics squabbling over who should be called doctor is much like nobles competing for titles in the medieval era, whatever the progressive tilt of universities.
My proposal to the squabbling Americans is that nobody should be addressed as doctor, save as a job description. Professorships can likewise be kept on resumes, military ranks left to barracks, and post-nominals ditched entirely. Anything else is try-hard and inegalitarian.
Of course, in a country where even middle initials are flaunted and sons collect numerals like English monarchs, I don’t hold out hope. Perhaps I shall distract myself by starting a PhD in hopeless causes.