If Jill Biden wants to flaunt her Ed.D., who are we to object?

By Graeme Wood

Joseph Epstein’s record of provocation and self-disgracing is long but not unbroken. To start with something positive: He revived the reputation of one of my favorite style guides, a book by F. L. Lucas that advises writers to avoid writing “in the weary monotone of a fretful midge.” Sure enough, he wrote with fearless gusto an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this weekend, advising Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, to stop insisting that people call her “Doctor Jill Biden,” which “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” She is the spouse of the president-elect and earned an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Delaware in 2007.

Do people with doctoral degrees have the right to call themselves “Dr.”? If they have the right, does exercising that right make sense, in all situations? If Epstein had wanted to investigate these questions, he could have done so without sprouting new feet like a centipede, finding ways to step in rhetorical dog turds in every paragraph. He called Biden “kiddo,” perhaps appropriate to a youngster like me but not to a woman much closer to his own advanced age; he demeaned her scholarship without bothering to read it; he suggested that only physicians merit the title, even though (as many, many people have pointed out) it comes from the Latin docere, “to teach,” and that is what Biden is: a teacher. And so on.

“Dr.” is the title Biden earned and prefers. What mystifies me is Epstein’s desire to police the use of the title, when he could instead just use it as requested, like a normal person, and contain his disrespect. Without hesitation I use religious titles (“Bishop,” “Dā’ī al-Mutlaq,” “His Holiness”) sacred in other people’s faiths. I call senior government officials by their titles, even if they are despots whose people would not only strip the titles but hang the officials by the neck if they had the chance. I know academics who are frauds, and I call them “Dr.” if they wish. Why not just use the title, even if you think it is bogus?