WSJ Guy Takes Brave Stand Against Dr. Jill Biden Calling Herself Dr. Jill Biden

WSJ Guy Takes Brave Stand Against Dr. Jill Biden Calling Herself Dr. Jill Biden
Jim Greenhill from McLean, USA

Joseph Epstein, some random guy whom I have never heard of in all my life, wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal today imploring Dr. Jill Biden to pretty please stop calling herself by her own name, which is "Dr. Jill Biden." Certainly, this is an issue of great consequence and it must be taken just as seriously as it was intended.

"Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.," is the title of the screed. This is true. Jill Biden is not a medical doctor. She has, however, earned her doctorate in Education, which also makes her a doctor, just a different kind of doctor. But according to Epstein, she "should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic."

It is, of course, entirely appropriate for Dr. Jill Biden to call herself Dr. Jill Biden. She earned a doctoral degree, and has earned the title. Etiquette experts, including Letitia Baldridge, Emily Post and myself all agree that those who have earned doctoral degrees, including Ph.D.'s and Ed.D.'s like Dr. Biden have a choice on whether or not to use the title. I do not know what Amy Vanderbilt's stance on the issue was, because my collection of Amy Vanderbilt books is at my apartment in Chicago, but I'd like to believe she would agree with me. She is, after all, my favorite.

Here is what Emily Post has said on the subject:

Socially as well as professionally, medical doctors, dentists, and other professionals are addressed by, and introduced with, their titles. People who have earned a Ph.D. or any other academic, nonmedical doctoral degree have the choice of whether to use "Dr." both professionally and socially. If, when meeting people with doctorates, you're unsure how to address them, "Dr." is always correct. If they'd rather the title be dropped, they will let you know.

It's more common for women to use the title "Doctor" socially as well as professionally than in the past. When a married woman uses the title "Dr." (either medical or academic) socially, addressing social correspondence to the couple is a little trickier. If her husband is not a doctor, address letters to Dr. Sonia and Mr. Robert Harris. Her name comes first because her professional title "outranks" his social title. If her husband is also a doctor, the address is either The Drs. (Doctors) Harris or Drs. Sonia and Robert Harris (the order of the names doesn't matter).

I don't know about you all, but I'm going to defer to Emily Post here, please and thank you. I am not checking in on what Miss Manners thinks, because I don't care. She knows what she did.

But perhaps Epstein can convince us all to change our minds on this very important issue! Let's dive in!

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.

Ooh! It's an open letter! An open letter which he opens by acknowledging that Dr. Jill Biden — whom he feels comfortable calling kiddo — has earned a doctor of education, meaning that she is in fact a doctor. He then, however, mocks the dissertation she wrote to earn that doctorate and implores her to not use the title because no one should call himself "Dr." unless he has delivered a child. No subtlety there, eh?

I wonder if he has written a similar letter to Julius Erving. I would venture to guess he has not.

This logic does not track very well! There are lots of medical doctors, even, who have not delivered babies, because that is not their area of expertise. I doubt that few, if any, oncologists have delivered babies. And yet they are doctors. Medical doctors, with M.D.s and everything! You know who has delivered a baby? Zack Morris.

Zack Morris getting ready to deliver the future Zack Belding.

It's true! There was an earthquake and Zack and Tori got stuck in an elevator with a pregnant Mrs. Belding and had to deliver her child ... who Mr. and Mrs. Belding of course ended up naming Zack. There was also an episode of Punky Brewster wherein Punky Brewster and Cherie had to deliver a baby in an elevator, but I mostly forget what happened with that. Are we to believe that Zack Morris, Punky Brewster and every other sitcom character forced to deliver a baby in a stuck elevator is more of a doctor than the many thousands of doctors who have not delivered babies? That is preposterous.

Epstein then goes on to explain how he, graciously, tells his students not to call him doctor. This makes sense, because unlike Jill Biden, he has not earned a doctorate.

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."

Oh boy, this man who is not a doctor certainly is very fancy. Henry James! That is ... definitely a person people casually bring up in conversation when they are not being super pretentious.

Epstein then goes on to describe the many, many people he knows with "honorary doctorates" who do not go around calling themselves doctor, because of how humble they are. Of course, having an honorary doctorate bestowed upon oneself is not exactly, or at all, the same as earning a doctorate. "Honorary" traditionally means "not literally." Like if he were made an honorary member of The Spice Girls, he would not be asked to join them on their reunion tour.

The prestige of honorary doctorates has declined even further. Such degrees were once given exclusively to scholars, statesmen, artists and scientists. Then rich men entered the lists, usually in the hope that they would donate money to the schools that had granted them their honorary degrees. (My late friend Sol Linowitz, then chairman of Xerox, told me that he had 63 honorary doctorates.) Famous television journalists, who passed themselves off as intelligent, followed. Entertainers, who didn't bother feigning intelligence, were next.

At Northwestern, recent honorary-degree recipients and commencement speakers have included Stephen Colbert and Seth Davis. I sent a complaining email to the school's president about the low quality of such men as academic honorands, with the result that the following year the commencement speaker and honorand was Billie Jean King —who, with the graduating members of the school's women's tennis team, hit tennis balls out to the audience of graduating students and the parents who had paid $70,000 a year for their university education, or perhaps I should say for their "credential."

If you are still unclear as to how Epstein is equating honorary degrees with degrees that people earned ... well, I am too! His reasoning is that while a Ph.D. might once have been fancy and difficult to obtain, it's not any more. By his personal standards.

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.

OK, so in order to be a doctor you either have to deliver a baby or faint during your examination? These are very unusual standards! Standards that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with earning a doctorate in anything other than obstetrics or the use of smelling salts.

Epstein concludes his little essay by imploring Dr. Jill Biden to think of him, his wants, his needs, his whims, and consider dropping the title — which he believes she holds onto just for the thrill of it.

As for your Ed.D., Madame First Lady, hard-earned though it may have been, please consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now. Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.

What? Why? What is it that Joseph Epstein believes this will accomplish? Where does he get the idea that he ought to be able to tell Dr. Jill Biden — or anyone — what they ought to call themselves? I cannot imagine having that level of entitlement, and I tell people what to do all the time!

And so, I hereby implore Joseph Epstein to forget the small thrill of going by the name of Joseph Epstein and settle for the larger thrill of being called an absolute fucking shithead. It feels less fraudulent.

Anyway, this is now your open thread. Enjoy!

[Wall Street Journal]

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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