Put A Sock In It, Joseph Epstein

By Leila Kalliel

Several days ago, the Wall Street Journal released an article titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D,” criticizing first-lady-elect Jill Biden for including the honorific ‘doctor’ in her name because apparently, that title only really applies to medical doctors.   

     In said article, Joseph Epstein (author) made several derogatory comments regarding the legitimacy of Dr.Biden’s Ph.D. degree primarily on the basis that:

  1. Dr.Biden should be more proud of her new title, First Lady Jill Biden, than her other honorific, ‘doctor.’
  2. Professors outside of the traditional sciences should not label themselves ‘doctor’ because it is considered to be ‘bush league’
  3. The prestige of a Ph.D has declined due to increasingly ‘relaxed standards,’ rendering all degrees earned since the days of impossible oral exams essentially fraudulent

     With those things in mind, I would like to dissect Joseph’s article focusing on these three specific assertions in order to discover whether or not he actually has a point.

     Joseph begins his article by suggesting a few alternate names for Dr.Biden to call herself, stating, “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo…’ Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”

   All of these, coincidentally, identify Dr.Biden in her relation to her husband. This is reflective of the deep-ingrained sexism in American culture, that for centuries has categorized women as mere extensions of their male counterparts. I mean, even the word ‘woman’ is literally an extension of the word ‘man.’ What is that about? And Joseph’s choice of words perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. 

     He initially suggests a name attributed to Dr.Biden because of her husband’s political career. Although ‘The First Lady’ is obviously a very prestigious and respected title, it is not one centered around Dr.Biden herself. ‘The First Lady’ is not an elected, or earned title. In this way, it is just another extension of her husband’s role. 

     Then, he proceeds to suggest another inherently sexist title — ‘Mrs.’ Now, I don’t want to go on too much of a rant about gendered language in English as a whole, but this one deserves some discussion. Why should a woman need to include her relationship status in her name? And why is it that when a woman marries, she has to surrender her entire name, but a man’s remains unchanged? To me, it seems indicative of a culture that determines a woman’s worth by her availability for other men.    

     The next name Joseph suggests is a little more subtle in its misogyny, but definitely still present. You may have noticed that throughout this article, I’ve been acknowledging Joseph Epstein by his first name only. And I’ll admit, while writing, it has even been difficult for me not to resort to the more respectful ‘Mr. Epstein’ out of habit. Yet for some reason, Joseph easily came to the conclusion that Jill is a more ‘fitting’ name for Jill Biden than Dr.Biden. It seems interesting that despite Dr.Biden’s many accomplishments, Joseph Epstein feels entitled to address her by her first name, as if they were friends. I wonder if he would do the same when addressing her husband, Joe Biden. My gut says no. 

     This last one should just be obvious. Kiddo? No. Just. No.   

     Then, following his initial sexist comments, Joseph proceeds to go on a long rant about how it is considered ‘bush league’ of Professors in the social sciences and humanities departments to call themselves ‘Dr.’ because “no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.” 

     Ignoring Epstein’s obvious prejudice here in only associating male pronouns with the word doctor, the etymology of the word reveals that his assertion it should only be associated with medical doctors is just plain wrong. While the word ‘doctor’ today is mostly associated with the medical field (unless you’re in academia), the origins of the word suggest a stronger link to education than anything. A simple Google search will reveal that the word is derived from the Latin ‘docere,’ meaning ‘to teach,’ and later the Old French, meaning ‘learned person.’ Nowhere in this definition is medicine even mentioned. 

     Further, Joseph’s comment propagates an extremely harmful stereotype that the value of subjects like arts and humanities is less than that of ‘serious’ subjects like math and science. There’s a reason that all lower levels of education have general requirements. Without exposure to english, art, history, psychology, and all other divisions of humanities and social sciences (in addition to that of STEM fields), we wouldn’t all be the well-rounded, empathetic people that we hope to be.  

     So, regarding Joseph’s assertion that the word ‘doctor’ should be reserved for those with M.D’s; no. He does not have a point. The honorific, ‘Dr.’ belongs as much to those with Ph.Ds as it does to those with M.Ds. 

     Lastly, I would like to touch on Joseph’s final point: that the general quality of university instruction has declined to the point of being illegitimate. 

     It should be obvious how incorrect this statement is, especially coming from a man who self-admittedly never earned more than a Bachelor’s degree. But more importantly, by making a broad claim like this, Epstein is essentially saying that no student can ever live up to the imaginary standard of education that he created. It’s a tactic that can be used to undermine the legitimacy of all things, and men like Joseph Epstein make use of it all the time. 

     “Oh, you go to community college? That’s great, but wait until you go to a real university.” 

     “Oh, you got a job as a cashier? That’s cool, but wait until you get a real job.” 

     “Oh, you got a doctorate? That’s great, but back in my day we had real education.”    

     How is one ever to truly live up to the standard of education that Epstein expects if a real degree is no longer a reliable measure of success? Oh, that’s right. You can’t. And you aren’t supposed to if men like Epstein want to continue to run things. 

      Joseph Epstein’s entire article is honestly a little hard to read because it almost seems silly that a man with such obvious bigotry in his heart should have such a large platform to project it on in the literary world. The whole things seems to me like an excuse for Mr. Epstein to complain about the general decline of a world that suited him best; one that praised white men with honorary doctorates for meager accomplishments, but tore down younger women with brighter minds and very real accomplishments out of pettiness and small-mindedness. 

     So, in conclusion, the fact that a man who was only ever awarded a B.A. degree should speak as an authority on the legitimacy of doctoral degrees for accomplished women and people in general seems sexist, and… ‘fraudulent, to say the least.’ Think about it, Joseph, and forthwith — lose the entitlement.  

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