A Rare Moment of UnityRoundup
tags: Jill Biden, honorifics
Matt Reed is a community college dean.
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.
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