John McIntyre

Yes, there is a doctor in the house: Dr. Jill Biden | COMMENTARY

In an op-edit article in The Wall Street Journal Joseph Epstein, an essayist whom I once admired, suggested that President-elect Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, should drop the use of the honorific title “doctor.”

I do not have a subscription to the Journal, but the article opens like this:


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. 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.

There are a number of things at work here.


The first is the belief, supported by the Associated Press Stylebook and some other style guides, that only people who hold some kind of degree in medicine (medicine, chiropractic, optometry, osteopathy, podiatry, or veterinary medicine) deserve the title doctor, lest the credulous public be deceived about the nature of authority. This despite every undergraduate who has attended a university knows that the title is bestowed promiscuously on nearly every member of the faculty.* Perhaps in time the AP will ponder updating the entry into the current century.

The second thing is the scorn freely applied on certain academic disciplines, in this case education, as being inferior. Once when I was a graduate student at Syracuse, the provost remarked publicly that the university could not hire a professor of physics for what it paid a Spanish teacher, a remark whose impact in the Romance Languages department you may imagine.

The third thing is Mr. Epstein’s condescending jocularity about a woman who purports to make use of the sacred title. That is contemptible.

Here’s the thing. Americans, a generous and upwardly mobile people, like titles. Anyone who has been a president, a senator, an ambassador can confidently expect that the title will be applied long after the term of office has ended. People who have earned a doctorate are generally accorded the same courtesy. It reflects achievement, and if Mr. Epstein was not on the dissertation committee or has not read the dissertation, he has no business sneering at Dr. Biden’s discipline or degree.

We’ve given up the generic masculine, but there is a good deal more we could shed.

* I did know a professor at my time in Syracuse who scorned the title of doctor, because it was for people who spent their time poking into other people’s orifices. He preferred professor.