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Nothing unites like a common enemy. In that spirit, Joseph Epstein’s piece in The Wall Street Journal this weekend -- which I will not link to, for fear of encouraging them -- was unifying. Folks from across the world of higher education reacted as if we had tasted sour milk. For once, we could all agree.

The piece is remarkable, in the same sense that a train wreck is remarkable.

The “hook” for the piece is a request that Dr. Jill Biden stop using the title “Dr.” According to Mr. Epstein, the title “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” That’s not a bad description of the piece itself.

As many critics have noted, it starts by addressing Dr. Biden, who is 69 years old, as “kiddo.” It disparages contemporary scholars generally, though it holds scholars of higher education in particular contempt. Although he denigrates Dr. Biden’s dissertation title as “unpromising,” he never actually explains why. We’re just supposed to know.

The “we” in that sentence becomes clearer as the piece goes on.

“We” are supposed to be medical doctors, according to what “a wise man once said.” Yet Epstein quickly shifts to dissertation defenses, which are not characteristic of medical degrees.

“We” are supposed to be old. Dr. Biden’s doctorate was awarded 15 years ago, or, as Epstein put it, “long after the terror had departed.” He notes approvingly that at Columbia University many years ago, a “secretary” would sit outside a dissertation defense with a glass of water on “her” desk, in case a candidate fainted from the stress. Epstein never explains how he knows that, given that he never got a doctorate himself, but never mind; the right sort of people just know these things. If you aren’t hazed, apparently, you don’t belong in the frat.

Judging by the use of Columbia as an example, “we” are also supposed to have attended Ivy League (or Ivy-adjacent) schools.

Strangely, Epstein then shifts to bashing honorary doctorates, even though Dr. Biden’s doctorate is not honorary. Other than guilt by association, the move is tough to parse until he gives the game away, as follows, in a line that I swear I am not making up:

“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.’”

It’s hard to get much more obvious about the “we” than that. Also, that’s not a simile.

Although Epstein seems utterly unaware of it, there are plenty of good reasons for Dr. Biden to insist on using her title. For one, people who are not part of Epstein’s “we” often receive messages, subtle and not, undermining their authority. Invoking titles can be a way to claim that authority. Relatedly, community colleges often get disparaged as “less than” in any number of ways. Reminding people that many community college faculty have impressive academic backgrounds serves a purpose. The #EndCCStigma movement has to exist precisely because people who “just know” that they’re inferior too often go unchallenged in public. The stigma doesn’t survive a vigorous challenge.

Finally, for those keeping score at home, the title “doctor” applied to Ph.D.s before it applied to M.D.s. As Merriam-Webster pointed out, the word “doctor” comes from the Latin word for “teacher.” It may or may not always be appropriate, but people with doctorate degrees are entitled to refer to themselves as “Dr.” if and when they want. They’ve earned it.

The one annoying nugget of truth in the piece is that professors at elite research institutions are generally less likely to use the “Dr.” title. I think that’s because it’s largely assumed at that point. At community colleges, it’s less likely to be assumed, so there’s more point in stating it. But that’s less about putting on airs and more about claiming respect that has been rightly earned.

Still, it has been heartening to see people from across higher education speaking as one, pointing out that Epstein’s piece reads like a cross between Allan Bloom and Archie Bunker, and should be treated accordingly. We may have our internal disagreements, but on this, we can unite. I look forward to Dr. Biden fighting the good fight for community colleges, and using her title as much as she damn well pleases.

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