Saturday, December 12, 2020

Sexist Nonsense in the Wall Street Journal

 I really wish this were satire, but Joseph Epstein's recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal is, sadly, a completely earnest bit of mansplaining and suspicion of the intellectual elite:

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.

Epstein goes on to explain that he holds no higher degrees, other than an honorary doctorate. He talks of the hilarity of people referring to him by the title Dr. Yes, it is hilarious, because honorary doctorates are merely a beefed up way of thanking someone for speaking at a university, not recognition following years of hard work to demonstrate that one has earned a title that allows that person to be considered an expert. You see, that's what doctor means - expert. An M.D. is an expert in medicine, a person with a PhD is an expert in the subject of that PhD, and so on. Epstein's honorary doctorate is really more like the prize in a box of cereal. Yeah, he had to do some work for it, but nowhere near on par with the work Dr. Jill Biden did for hers.

Epstein also laments that doctoral requirements have gotten lax in recent years, which is rich coming from someone who has never attempted to earn a doctorate.

Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field. At Columbia University of an earlier day, a secretary sat outside the room where these examinations were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted.

Is he correct that the doctoral examination no longer looks like this? Yes. There is no exam in Greek or Latin, nor an oral exam of general knowledge. But that's because the structure of doctoral education has shifted. In the past, doctoral education was very self-directed, with candidates choosing a course of study and pursuing it mostly on his (or her - but let's be real, back in the day mostly his) own. Candidates might spend years lurking around dark, dusty libraries, looking for some groundbreaking thesis to pursue. At the end, it was necessary to show that time hadn't simply been spent trying to write the most off-the-wall contribution to general knowledge, but that the candidate had also learned enough about the field of study to recognize how their contribution fits.

Today? Anyone interested in pursuing a doctorate must complete a certain amount of coursework, some elective but much of it required to establish the requisite knowledge in the chosen field. After that, they must also complete candidacy exams, which may be oral, as Epstein describes above, or written, or some combination. The point is to ensure the candidate has the foundational knowledge necessary to become an expert in the field. Then - and only then - can the candidate propose a dissertation. Other than Greek and Latin, the requirements are much the same, and in some ways, more stringent.

Honestly, not only do I think Epstein's dismissal of Dr. Biden's doctorate is ridiculous coming from someone with a Cracker Jack Prize of a doctorate, but I also suspect that if Dr. Biden were a man, using the well-earned title of Dr. wouldn't be an issue.

Seriously, WSJ? It's these kinds of articles that make me question whether I should keep subscribing to you. It's 2020. Do better.

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