What Jill Biden’s EdD shows about how we view teachers

Should the first lady elect be allowed to refer to herself as ‘Doctor’? Of course she should, says Lucy Rycroft-Smith – does her educational doctorate not count?
15th December 2020, 1:50pm
Lucy Rycroft-Smith


What Jill Biden’s EdD shows about how we view teachers

Dr Jill Biden: 'i Will Continue To Teach As First Lady'

There's a meme currently doing the rounds on social media about calling (yourself) a doctor. A balding, overweight man collapses to the ground; a woman, frantically signalling, asks, "Is there a doctor here?" 

Someone appears - a saviour, a white knight. "I'm a doctor," that person says. "What's going on?" 

"A heart attack," says the woman, dead-eyed with fear. 

"I'm a doctor in [insert something distinctly non-medical here]," the saviour replies.

"He is going to die!" says the woman, her face frozen. 

"So, what you're saying is [insert academic-area related joke here]," concludes the format.

What makes this joke funny is that academics in any field - it's ludicrous - can in fact call themselves by the title of "Doctor" even if - I'm sorry, it's just, haha - they aren't a fully qualified medical doctor. 

You might meet someone who is introduced as Dr Qualified. But, when you casually inquire as to what her specialism is, rather than "paediatrics" or "oncology", she might actually say something like "potato-farming" or "Reformation literature". Fat lot of good she'd be if you need an emergency tracheotomy, am I right? 

Education academics: The right to call themselves 'doctor'

You may have also noticed my choice of sex here. This was wholly intentional because the people who get by far the most questioned on their credentials in this way - who are ridiculed and questioned, and whose doctoral titles get dropped in the bin with the frequency of used swabs at a Covid-testing site - are overwhelmingly women.

This week, we were treated to this point of view being given an international platform, via author Joseph Epstein's tellingly insecure opinion piece on Dr Jill Biden in the Wall Street Journal, no less. 

"Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific," he writes, "which feels fraudulent, even comic." Silly little laughable women without medical degrees, he goes on to say, should not assume that most sacred mantle of medical masculinity, the title "doctor".

This title should be reserved, presumably, for those who have performed life-saving brain surgery in Latin with one hand, while groping sexy little nurses with the other. And smoking a pipe. If you think I'm going a little heavy on the "real doctors are men" angle, try reading Epstein's piece.

What - and I say this with all the weight of my own doctorate degree currently in progress at the University of Cambridge - the fuck is wrong with this man?

Telling Dr Jill Biden that her doctoral work in education isn't worth the title, and that the "greater honour" is to stand by her man as he assumes the US presidency, is evidence of a pathetically fragile masculinity.

Real doctors are teachers

For a man who spends a good deal of his article discussing his own qualifications in English, the line of reasoning made by Epstein here is astonishingly illogical. It goes something like this: because honorary degrees get handed out like candy these days, Jill Biden is not entitled to use her title of "Doctor". I know. I'm baffled, too. 

The word "doctor" comes from the Latin verb docere, which means "to teach". Originally reserved for the clergymen, it began to be used as an indicator of someone who was qualified to teach, usually after a long period of study and original research. 

Reserving it for medical practitioners - sorry (checks article) those who have "delivered a baby" (midwives? Paramedics? Partners who are taken by surprise in the hospital car park?) puts Epstein in the company of a whole bunch of angry old men bleating at the sky. Doctoral titles are more often than not earned with a huge amount of work: work that often - and especially in education - has the potential to make a real difference to what happens in the classroom. 

I have no idea if Joseph Epstein has read Dr Biden's doctoral thesis, but I have. (Just another thing that I have learned during my doctoral studies: to read my sources properly.) It's thought-provoking. In it, she explores student needs in the community-college classroom. It could hardly be more humble and less removed from an academic ivory tower.

Discussing students with particular special needs, she says simply: "The hard truth for this student is that he/she cannot intellectually compete at the college level." 

The hard truth for Joseph Epstein is evidently that women can do powerful, meaningful work in fields other than medicine, and can be recognised for it. Perhaps even worse: there is more to Dr Jill Biden than just a president's wife: with her dirty, dangerous little ideas about "caring about student needs" and "promoting educational equity", she might even be influencing policy. 

But, more than anything, Epstein's article reminds us - as if we needed it - that educational work generally is hugely undervalued - so frequently placed in the shadow of its preferred sibling, medicine, that it has grown accustomed to the dark. 

Work in the classroom is the new work in the kitchen. NHS workers - even those without titles - got claps and cheers, and the title of "heroes", if only for a time and if only as an empty gesture. Those working in education, many of whom have had no break all year, continue to be vilified in headlines and trashed in the media as lazy, lacking and lounging around at home. 

Well, some of us see that work, and we salute it - whether you're a professor, a doctor, a mum or dad (biological, adopted or step). Or that most precious, hard-earned and meaningful of titles: Sir or Miss. 

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a PhD student, former teacher and writer. She tweets as @honeypisquared

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