Politics & Policy

Diagnosing Dr. Biden

The second lady exemplifies a bloated class of people with irrelevant, unimpressive titles.

Doctor Biden has joined Twitter as @DrBiden. The account is “run by Dr. Jill Biden’s Office,” and it tells us absorbing things about Dr. Biden — things such as “Yesterday, Dr. Biden hosted an education roundtable” and “Yesterday, Dr. Biden honored the nation’s top teachers.” It retweets praise, too: “Thank you Dr. Biden for your work as an educator and as a voice for all educators in our nation,” reads one tribute. If a tweet is signed “Jill,” the doctoral bio informs us, this indicates that it is a “tweet from Dr. Biden.” “Jill,” if you’re wondering, is Dr. Biden’s nickname. Her formal name is “Dr.”

Wherever she goes and whatever she does, Dr. Biden is always referred to as “Dr. Biden.” “Is Joe Biden married to a physician?” wondered the Los Angeles Times in January. “You might have gotten that impression while watching television coverage of the inauguration.” Yes, you might have indeed.

Dr. Biden isn’t a physician, of course. She has a doctorate – in “educational leadership,” whatever the hell that is. This Ed.D gives her the right to call herself “Dr.” in much the same way as my Master’s degree gives me the right to put MA after my name. Perhaps my Twitter handle should be @MA(Oxon)Charles?

Or . . . perhaps not. It’s not @MA(Oxon)Charles because I’m keenly aware that my non-vocational education really isn’t that important to anybody other than me. (And, perhaps, my mother.) Dr. Biden has made a different judgment about the value of hers, and in doing so she has become another symptom of our Potemkin aristocracy, to which only those who have letters after their name may belong.

Titles of nobility be damned; as a means of signaling that one is a person of general acceptability, an advanced degree now works wonders. No doubt many will look at the second lady’s splendid moniker and think, “Gosh, Dr. Biden must be smart! She is definitely not a mechanic.”

Dr. Biden is not alone in having recognized the virtue of pretending to be a doctor in public. The L.A. Times has identified a “select group of non-medicos who are routinely referred to as ‘Dr.’” The most prominent of these are Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Maya Angelou. Given his leveling views, quite why Cornel West insists upon describing himself as “Dr. West” is beyond me. Still, whatever the reason, at least he actually uses his Princeton doctorate, in academia. Maya Angelou’s title is derived from the more than 30 honorary doctorates that she has been awarded. Why does she add the “Dr.”? “The Ph.D. system,” complains the renegade British-American physicist Freeman Dyson, “is the real root of the evil of academic snobbery. People who have Ph.D.s consider themselves a priesthood.” Ah, that’s why.

It’s somewhat by chance that the recipients of Ph.D.s may even presume to call themselves “doctors,” the unfortunate product of a thousand-year-old liberal-arts tradition’s being seized upon by technocratic Prussians in the age of Bismarck, transformed into a paradigm of German authoritarian efficiency, and then exported back into Western faculties, including many in which it simply does not belong. “Ph.D.” stands for “Philosophiae Doctor,” a Latin term that (rather obviously) means “Doctor of Philosophy” in English. The “Philosophy” bit was intended loosely, in the classical sense of “love of learning”; the “Doctor” bit derives from “docere,” which simply means “to teach.”

Yet in most countries now, one requires a specialized “research” Ph.D. before one is allowed to teach in one’s specialized field. This makes a lot of sense when it comes to, say, biology but not so much when it comes to English literature; nevertheless, whether you are a research chemist or a student of English literature, you are termed a “doctor” if you reach a certain level.

It is appreciable why a medical doctor might advertise his skill set to the public. But there is no solid reason whatsoever why someone with a Ph.D. would need the wider world to know that he is possessed of the necessary credentials to teach in a university. American etiquette books tend to mark this dichotomy, holding that it is acceptable for Ph.D.s to use “Dr.” within the context of their business but inappropriate everywhere else.

One can only wonder what Dr. Biden’s response would be to the urgent question “Is there a doctor in the house?!” Perhaps “Yes! Don’t worry, I’m here! I’m not too sure how to do a tracheotomy, though . . . ”

In 2011, the New York Times reported that credential snobbery was causing real-world problems:

With pain in her right ear, Sue Cassidy went to a clinic. The doctor, wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope in one pocket, introduced herself.

“Hi. I’m Dr. Patti McCarver, and I’m your nurse,” she said. And with that, Dr. McCarver stuck a scope in Ms. Cassidy’s ear, noticed a buildup of fluid and prescribed an allergy medicine.

It was something that will become increasingly routine for patients: a someone who is not a physician using the title of doctor.

Urged on by the American Academy of Family Physicians — which is concerned that, as more nurses like Dr. McCarver join the ranks of the highly and often uselessly credentialed, they will create confusion among patients — some states have moved to clear things up. New York State is considering blocking nurses from describing themselves as “Doctor” altogether. In Delaware and Arizona it is illegal for a non-medical doctor to present himself as “Doctor” in a professional context without explaining explicitly that he isn’t one. Congress, too, has considered legislation.

“The average Ph.D. thesis,” swiped the newspaper columnist J. Frank Dobie, “is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another.” Nobody who has read the average Ph.D. thesis could disagree. Nonetheless, there are more theses, more bones, and more graveyards than ever. By brazenly encouraging the education bubble and prioritizing the collection of trophy credentials, our elites are creating a steady stream of future Dr. Bidens. The Not-a-Dr. Biden, Joe, likes to joke to fellow Ph.D. holders that his wife’s advanced degree has not greatly increased her salary. True. But, as the quip implies, it has increased her prestige, and that’s just as important.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. “That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps so. But whatever you call it, it remains a rose. Medical doctors are indisputably useful; perpetual liberal-arts students are quite the opposite. Until the bubble bursts there appears little that we can do about our great education fetish, but, if we can’t stop the grad students from multiplying, at least we can stop the multiplication of their honorifics.

— Charles C. W. Cooke, B.A., M.A., is an editorial associate at National Review.


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