I have an unusual addiction for an academic. I enjoy drinking my morning coffee with the “Morning Mika” and “Morning Joe” crew. In part, this stems from my role as the only woman at the table in many contexts throughout my life. As I once told Ms. Brzezinski after a speaking engagement, I use her as a model for young women in high-pressure interviews. Subtle pricks to over-blown male egos work wonders to transform tension into laughter and what may feel like persecution into conversation. Brzezinski mastered that art at her parents’ political power-broker parties as I did at my parents’ academic dinners.
Last week, Dr. Newt Gingrich’s presence as a Republican candidate inspired a conversation between Rich Galen and Joe Scarborough about doctors in Congress that I think merits further meditation from those of us who seek to understand the academy’s perception and potential within the broader public sphere. Galen wondered why PhDs in Congress, like Gingrich, always have to prove they are the smartest person in the room. In his estimation, only MD members of congress have a similar need. Galen took a swipe Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, for her use of the title, “Dr. Biden.” Ms. Brzezinski noted that her father is “Dr.” Brzezinski. Squirming ensued. Scarborough, an attorney and former Representative, expressed his preference for community college graduates to PhDs in Congress.
Academic historians obsess over Gingrich, because he holds a PhD in history from Tulane and once embarked on an academic career. Gingrich taught as contingent faculty before he entered Congress. Academics wonder whether he fled failure or pursued the public good. I think the answer less meaningful than the question in terms of the purported phenomena Galen described.
Those who take the time to train within highly specialized fields, whether cardiothoracic surgery or medieval political theory, have only their degrees to demonstrate the value of their achievement. We don’t get to trot out numbers of employees, or profits as do businessmen. We don’t have a litany of budget-cutting and program production as do long-time politicians. The closest academics can come to a numeric evaluation of our worth is an average teaching evaluation score and articles per anum. Voters are unlikely to find either a persuasive decision rule. Without tenure, we have one less gauge as to whether we are ‘good enough.’
The title, “Dr.” (whether PhD or MD), says something immediately. I am an expert. I spent a lot of time learning something. Other experts acknowledged my ability. I’m smart. I’m really, really smart. I can’t fix your car, build your house, write your will, or file your taxes, but I could teach you something (PhD) or save your life (MD) if I hadn’t decided to become Dr. Candidate instead.
When people who are told their main value to the world is their brain enter a new situation, they fall back on what they know best and set out to prove their smarts yet again. I haven’t noticed any signs that read “Dr. Gingrich” or “Dr. Paul” for President. Their assertion of ‘book smarts’ comes in a different form. “Dr. Biden” didn’t pick the political arena. I suspect she wishes to avoid the label as Joe’s “Mrs.” more that she clings to the claims implicit to “Dr.” She seemed a red-herring in Galen’s swipe at Gingrich’s fragile academic ego.
PhDs’ perception as pretentious show-offs desperate for approval (which I suspect far outstrips that of MD “Drs.” and increases if the PhD fell afoul of tenure) illuminates much popular attack on the academy and teachers from kindergarten to college classrooms. Who do we think we are anyway? Who are we to judge the ability of others? Gingrich’s overblown persona - the man who forged a contract with America but failed to honor his marriage contracts - puts fuel on the fire of popular ambivalence about academia. We televise teaching awards while we badmouth teachers’ unions. We pay fortunes for college degrees while we scoff at ‘professors’’ claims to superior ‘smarts.’ The conversation served as a reminder that no matter where we are, we do best to check our egos at the door.
Evanston, Illinois in the US
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com.