What it really means when the Journal asks Jill Biden to drop the “Dr.”

On the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Joseph Epstein published an op-ed advising first lady Jill Biden — who has a doctorate in education — to drop the “Dr.” in her name. It’s dumb, sexist, and an insult to anyone who’s ever earned a university doctorate.

Dissecting Epstein’s screed

Here’s what’s in the op-ed — and what Epstein is really saying.

Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.

Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.

By Joseph Epstein
Dec. 11, 2020 5:56 pm ET

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. 

Translation: I’d like to show my lack of respect for First Lady Biden by calling her “kiddo” and “Jill.” I’ll also randomly mention the word “fraudulent” to remind you of Trump’s claims about the election. And I’ll disrespect the 10% of university graduates who get a doctorate by calling their credential “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.

Translation: I looked up Dr. Biden’s thesis, but I’ll pretend I’m not sure what her actual degree is. Then, to avoid taking responsibility for my own anti-elitist bigotry, I’ll put the words about medical doctors and and other doctorates in the mouth of “a wise man” rather than myself. Finally, I’ll gloss over the simplest explanation for people’s assumption that doctors are M.D.’s: the fact that, outside of academia, the only doctorates we encounter regularly are in medicine.

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.”

Translation: Hard work and military service is the only effort worthy of recognition. Honorary doctorates don’t deserver to be called “doctor” (which, course, is irrelevant to Dr. Biden’s legit doctorate).

I was also often addressed as Dr. during the years I was editor of the American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. Let me quickly insert that I am also not a member of Phi Beta Kappa, except by marriage. Many of those who so addressed me, I noted, were scientists. I also received a fair amount of correspondence from people who appended the initials Ph.D. to their names atop their letterheads, and have twice seen PHD on vanity license plates, which struck me as pathetic. In contemporary universities, in the social sciences and humanities, calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league.

Translation: I’ll talk about reflected glory from my wife’s credential, because that will get you thinking that Jill Biden doesn’t actually deserve credit when her husband won the election. And I’ll ignore the fact that in professional life, Ph.D.’s put those initials on their letterhead and business cards all the time, to indicate an earned credential. I’ll toss in a dig at social sciences and humanities to denigrate whole fields of study that I don’t understand or respect. To top it off, I’ll use the passive voice — “calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league” — so I can make an unsupported statement without identifying who said it.

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.

Translation: I’m so old and out of touch that I remember when Greek and Latin were relevant and college classrooms weren’t air conditioned. I’ll remind everyone that I have very little experience in actual academic practice. I’ll also randomly mention that Dr. Biden (er, “Dr. Jill” — wouldn’t want to mistakenly be respectful) earned her degree late in life, as if that indicates some sort of lesser accomplishment.

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 Meyers. 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.”

Political correctness has put paid to any true honor an honorary doctorate may once have possessed. If you are ever looking for a simile to denote rarity, try “rarer than a contemporary university honorary-degree list not containing an African-American woman.” Then there are all those honorary degrees bestowed on Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose and others who, owing to their proven or alleged sexual predations, have had to be rescinded. Between the honorary degrees given to billionaires, the falsely intelligent, entertainers and the politically correct, just about all honor has been drained from honorary doctorates.

Translation: I hate honorary doctorates. So I’ll ramble on about them for three paragraphs, even though they have nothing to do with Dr. Biden’s legitimately earned doctorate.

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.

Translation: If you’re a woman in one of the most visible positions in the world, you need to hide your credential and try to appear small and unassuming. But please don’t call me sexist.

The Journal’s response was clueless

The Journal’s editorial page, facing withering criticism, published a rebuttal. It included the following:

In this case the Biden team was able to mobilize almost all of the press to join in denouncing Mr. Epstein and the Journal. Nearly every publication wrote about the Biden response, reinforcing the Biden-New York Times line: “An Opinion Writer Argued Jill Biden Should Drop the ‘Dr.’ (Few Were Swayed.)”

The reason there was universal opposition was not that the Biden campaign mobilized it.

It was because the op-ed was transparently sexist and idiotic, which was instantly visible to anyone with an ounce of sense.

If everyone’s against you, the reason may not be a conspiracy. You may just be wrong.

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  1. Hello,

    Again, as usual, you hit the nail straight on the head.

    It almost reads as one of those “unawarely leftist” tweets.

    Keep well.


  2. Really? They blamed it on the Biden team mobilizing the press? The WSJ editorial team is clearly completely out of touch with the realms of professional women tired of being told to stay in their lanes (“kiddo”).

  3. Thank your I for this. My head catches fire every time I think about it. The WSJ has no shame. If I had a subscription, I ‘d cancel it. I hope someone calls Epstein “Buster.”

  4. With any good luck, the WSJ is circling the drain along with the GOP. That editorial was inexcusable. Thank you for your adroit translation.

  5. Epstein must be related to the head waiter talking on the telephone at a fancy restaurant in a 1990 Handelsman cartoon: “Certainly. A party of four at seven-thirty in the name of Dr. Jennings. May Iask whether that is an actual medical degree or a Ph.D.?”

  6. Where I come from, insisting on being called “doctor” if you are anything other than a physician or a dentist is considered affected and a bit obnoxious … but nowhere near as obnoxious as Epstein’s sententious rant. It’s a topic that called for the pinprick of a needle, not the flailing of a sledgehammer.

    1. So you would deny the title to someone who holds a Ph.D. in Epidemiology or Hematology? To a podiatrist? An optometrist? A chiropractor?

      1. Official policy of National Public Radio, FWIW: “Longstanding NPR policy is to reserve the title of ‘doctor’ for an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, or veterinary medicine.” So you’d win on at least 2 counts!!

        1. I do not find NPR the standard by which I or anyone else, except an employee of NPR while speaking on NPR, should decide the appropriate use of an honorarium. A current example is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. I think even NPR will be addressing her as Dr.

  7. I used to read WSJ daily. It is a shame that WSJ seemed to struggle to get meaningful opinions about things that are important. The alternative is that WSJ assessed this opinion as important which is even more worrisome.

    As for Mr. Epstein, I feel sorry for all the men and women who he may have taught. Education starts with morality, ethics, and first principles. Mr. Epstein’s opinion article neglects this foundation.

  8. I can’t resist mentioning here that unlike my father, Ph.D. in chemistry and my brother, Ph.D. in mathematics (Oxford), I never completed my doctorate. My most advanced degree is bachelor of science.

    When I recently contributed to an article in a medical journal, they wanted my degree to list as my credential. So I ended up listed as “Josh Bernoff, BS.” Seemed quite fitting . . .

  9. Reminding you, Jill Biden in not the First Lady. We still have a First Lady in the WH.
    Most with doctorates only use them in educational surroundings, not insist they be used in public so as to not confuse people. Noticed many people like Goldberg, erroneously referred her to be tapped as Surgeon General…NO THANKS…..I have often heard what are suppose to be knowledgeable people, Reporters and Anchors assume she has a medical degree…particularly in this PANDEMIC…I laughed to have heard a CNN Anchor incredulously attack a person about Bidens” Mask wearing outdoors, which in NOT NECESSARY btw, saying, “she is a doctor she knows what she is doing”…not hardly…I find it so hypocritical of the outrage for this writers opinion for her to drop the “DR.” when these same perpetual OUTRAGE people disrespectfully refused to call Ben Carson, DR.BEN CARSON , who is a PHYSICIAN OF NEUROSURGERY AND RENOWNED PIONEER IN PEDIATRIC AND IN UTERO NEUROSURGERY IN THE WORLD…Yet Lefties get all bent out of shape because Jill Biden was asked to defer her ED.D Doctorate in Education when being referenced…. DOES ANYONE ON THIS BLOG SEE THE ANSURD HYPOCRISY?…It is difficult to read these comments and entertain seriousness from prior comments. K.T, B.S.N, MSN

    1. KT, I’d normally take down a comment as rambling and incoherent as this, but I think it’s instructive to leave it up. Your typos (“in not the first lady”, “ANSURD HYPOCRISY”) and random capital letters undermine your case. And you’re all over the map. Who is Goldberg? Who cares what reporters make errors about Biden — is she responsible for other people’s errors? What does Ben Carson have to do with it?

      Who are these “Lefties”? You are assuming we all understand what you’re discussing when you are just shouting random things in random order.

      The point of this blog is that coherent sentences taken together in logical sequence make an argument, not random outbursts punctuated with “…”

      There may be a point in there, but you haven’t made it.

      1. Ben Carson is an MD who is routinely referred to by progressive media — inc. The New York Times — as “Ben Carson,” even as many of those same folk insist on referring to Jill Biden as “Dr. Biden.” The white supremacist underpinnings of much of our MSM are becoming increasingly transparent. We saw a similar double standard decades ago when media elites covered for Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton when both were credibly accused of rape while viciously attacking Clarence Thomas for allegedly talking dirty to a woman.

        Maybe if Ben Carson were a white woman NPR and The New York Times would take his medical degree as seriously as they do Jill Biden’s doctorate in education.

        1. As someone who doesn’t track the baseline media coverage for any of these people, I wonder whether this is apples to apples? It would be unsurprising if media frequently referred to Carson as “Secretary Ben Carson”, which is his current(?) official job title; it would be irregular to include Dr in that reference as well, I think. Likewise it would be reasonable to say “First Lady Jill Biden”, and if the transition team are fussing about that, they shouldn’t be.
          If media is saying “Mr Carson” or just “Ben Carson” without a title, that would be denying him the MD recognition, and saying “Mrs Biden” or “Jill Biden” without a title, would be denying the EdD recognition.

          The media critique feels a bit off-center also – the Senate convened a special for Professor Hill’s harassment allegations against Justice Thomas, the Senate did not do this for the assault allegations against Kennedy or Clinton, that is a simpler explanation for the disparate coverage? Media coverage of much stuff including allegations against those men was/is super flawed, don’t get me wrong, and it reflects systemic racism. But “we don’t have enough initiative to pick stories ourselves, we will allow other structurally/passively racist institutions to do that for us” is probably the mechanism at work here, rather than “we are racist so we prefer to muffle criticism of white guys and amplify criticism of black guys”?

          1. The New York Times has generally referred to him as Ben Carson and Mr. Carson. One study I read about was done in 2015, as he was running for POTUS. Jill Biden had fewer mentions but was more often referred to as Dr. Biden than Carson was Dr. Carson, proportionally. Most likely they referred to his job title after 2017, given that doing so is often necessary to put his words into context, and because few people know what his actual title is (Housing Secretary). I just read an Axios story on him that didn’t use the Dr. title at all.

            Regarding Thomas — a GQ exposé published one year before the Thomas/Hill hearings revealed an attempted rape Ted Kennedy had then-recently perpetrated, as well as other misconduct he routinely engaged in. When he stood in judgment of Thomas the following year, it was often mentioned that he had woman problems of his own but the MSM did not go into details what those were, other than his having affairs while married. To make such a huge issue out of Thomas’s alleged behavior, and also favor Hill over him, while looking the other way at Kennedy can’t simply be explained by the fact that Hill accused Thomas on live television. Kennedy stood in judgment of Thomas during those hearings and no media people I recall ever referenced specific allegations of illegal behavior on his part.

            Bill Clinton was sued for sex discrimination, committed perjury and obstruction of justice, was impeached, and lost his license to practice law. He was known to have launched smear campaigns against women he had affairs with in order to silence them. More than a dozen women accused him of misconduct, inc. rape and making threats. How did media narrative evolve into “Bill Clinton was impeached for having an affair”? It was people in his own party and supporters who claimed a superior having a sexual relationship with an employee constituted sexual harassment due to the power imbalance and the relationship creating a “hostile work environment” for women. Yet, his relationship with Lewinsky was not reported as an act of harassment, but instead as Clinton having cheated on his wife. That skewed opinion in his favor because it made it look like he was being persecuted over private matters. Since he was POTUS, there was ample opportunity for the MSM to address these matters, but it’s Thomas who has become the poster boy for sexual harassment, not Kennedy or even Clinton. I doubt most Americans are even aware that Clinton committed perjury or obstruction of justice.

            Anita Hill was hailed as a hero by The New York Times, among others, and given the benefit of the doubt, even when she supported Clinton based on his political bent. Could that not have been done for any of Clinton’s accusers, none of whom had opposed him politically as Hill did Thomas? Personal, ideological, and partisan biases plays a very big role in who gets sympathetic coverage and who gets vilified.

            Would calling Jill Biden “First Lady” without the Dr. title be acceptable? While the title Dr. is used for both a medical degree and a doctorate in education, they are by no means equally significant titles. In order to be a good MD, you have to adhere to objective standards and your effectiveness can be judged in part by your success rate in treating patients. I’m not aware of a comparable means to measure the quality of Jill Biden’s dissertation. The offense so many in the MSM have taken to criticism of her use of the title strikes me as hyperbolic and selectively (and opportunistically) relativist.

        2. It appears that you have forgotten to call Secretary Carson by either of his titles. It light of your opinion on the subject I find that remiss of you.

          1. Did not forget. It’s not my policy to do so, that was not the opinion I expressed. I hate hypocrisy, and if someone is screaming sexism and misogyny because Jill Biden isn’t getting the Dr. treatment, that person better be consistent. Ben Carson is far more deserving of the Dr. title than she is. The New York Times (among many others) has pretty extreme double standards, to say the least.

      2. The title Dr should be used for a medical doctor only in my opinion.
        Dr. Biden is in the limelight now. She will have to have thick skin for all the attacks she will receive. Not an easy gig. Good luck kiddo.

        1. Sure, that’s a fine opinion, but “lists of honorary doctorates all now include black women” is
          a) not a justification for that opinion, and also
          b) objectively bigoted

          Epstein could have written a non-bigoted argument that supported his claim, if he wanted it to be treated like respectful discourse.

    2. Let me remind you that the current First Lady posed for nude photographs before she became First Lady. And you’re criticizing Dr. Biden for using her hard-earned academic title?

  10. One must consider the source when reading anything. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation purchased the Wall Street Journal in 2007. At that time, the News Corporation agreed to to preserve the editorial independence of the WSJ. Unfortunately, Murdoch has a long history of of expressing his personal, political and business biases in his publications. The afore mentioned commitment of independence is worthless.

    The reading of the editorial in question actually lowered my already very low opinion of News Corporation/Fox News, which is quite a feat. I believe that his brand of journalism is a cancer on this world.

  11. Just an observation… if I slightly paraphrase Mr. Epstein’s comment: “Only those “persons” who’ve delivered a baby can be called a doctor”.

    If I follow this, then everyone who’s given birth should be called Doctor. Then there’s a boat load of medical ‘doctors’ that don’t qualify and every mother on the planet is one.

    I don’t have a Ph.D, but in my field it might have helped with the misogynistic men I deal with and definitely would have shut up the annoying women who were obsessed that I only have a BA & BS + 20 years work experience while they have only have a freshly acquired MBA and 0 years of experience.

    I’ve known people since primary school who’ve had Ph.Ds. Never confused them with my physician in any way, shape or form. It’s a simple concept. But then, I also watch Doctor Who.

  12. I totally get everything your saying, I just wanted to correct one thing. Jill Biden’s doctoral degree is honorary, just like Epstein’s (which I believe was his point in that particular paragraph – in his opinion, drop the Dr. when its honorary, as opposed to completing the courses to obtain a doctoral degree). Her masters are all legit though so far as I know.

    That said…like, come on dude. You literally couldnt find anything else to write about, dude? Seems like a stupid argument to make under any circumstances.