Last night on Twitter I commented that I think that the rote insistence that Jill Biden be referred to “Doctor Jill Biden” is kind of silly (that’s how President Obama referred to her). This elicited a remarkable amount of anger. I then made things worse by explaining that Jill Biden isn’t a “real” doctor. She holds a doctorate in education. That invited even more bile.
Some came from academics who insist that the title “Doctor” is commonplace on American campuses, even for people with doctorates in education, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with the president’s use of the honorific. Others chastised me for a lack of respect for Mrs. Biden. And, naturally, there were the odd personal insults as well.
I find it all so odd. For starters, I never claimed she wasn’t entitled to the honorific. If anything, it’s out of respect that I think people should drop the habit. Washington is teeming with people with Ph.D.s (never mind law degrees!). Among my friends alone, I can count at least a dozen people who are technically entitled to be called “Doctor.” But if I caught, say, Shannen Coffin insisting that people call him “Doctor Coffin” (a great name for an evil scientist by the way), I would mock him mercilessly.
In my experience inside the Beltway, insisting on being called “Doctor” when not being addressed by students is a sign of vanity or some other insecurity (I’m of course talking about non-medical doctors). And people who insist on calling other people “Doctor” do so for similar reasons — out of an over-compensating need to show respect. That need itself exposes an obvious double standard. I don’t recall Lynne Cheney being called “Dr. Cheney” very often. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature. Her dissertation was titled “Matthew Arnold’s Possible Perfection: A Study of the Kantian Strain in Arnold’s Poetry.” That sounds at least as worthy of respect as Jill Biden’s dissertation: “Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs.”
P.S. I gather that within academia there are even more rules and competing snobberies on such matters. Physicists think they deserve the honorific but maybe English professors don’t. I’ll leave all that for the commenters below.