What the Dr. Biden editorial says about its writer and the Wall Street Journal
Sometimes, an article says as much about the author as it does about its subject-matter. A case in point is the column published in the Wall Street Journal written by Joseph Epstein. And what it says about him, and the editorial board of the Journal, isn’t pretty.
To be fair, I had never heard of Epstein until I saw critical tweets on Twitter. I couldn’t believe what people were saying, so I had to follow the link and read the column myself. If anything, the tweets were tame.
For those of you who missed it, Epstein argued in the Journal, that Dr. Jill Biden, who legitimately earned a doctorate at a legitimate American research university, should not call herself “doctor.” Most of the tweets focused on the blatant misogyny displayed by Epstein, questioning the earned qualifications of a woman when he would likely raise no such objections for a man. He also disrespected Dr. Biden, calling her “kiddo,” and concluded by telling her that she should be satisfied being the First Lady rather than pursuing her own career. I’m not exaggerating.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this blatant sexism given what a quick Google search revealed about Epstein’s prior writings. For example, in October 1970, he penned the following words in Harper’s:
“There is much my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make me ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I should know them condemned to a state of perpetual niggardom among men.” — Joseph Epstein
I can assure you that even back then, such language was not acceptable.
In response to the outcry over Epstein’s latest, his former employer Northwestern University condemned his article. But the Wall Street Journal stood firm, opining that the criticism was just a political hit job orchestrated by Democrats playing the race and gender card. Ah yes. Fake news combined with conspiracy. The refuge of modern conservatives.
What most struck me upon reading the column, however, beyond the sexism, is just how bad an editorial it is. Epstein is described as an “essayist,” which based upon my high school training should indicate a capacity for crafting written arguments based upon facts. But Epstein’s column includes few facts, and spends most of its space making an argument with little relation to Dr. Biden’s qualifications.
Epstein’s criticism of Dr. Biden’s qualifications is based upon her dissertation having the “unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.’” Did Epstein bother to read the dissertation, which is publicly available online, in which case he might have been able to raise some critiques of her methods or scholarship? No. He arrogantly assumed that the subject matter of student retention at community colleges is a topic not worth studying.
As a graduate of the University of Chicago who later worked at Northwestern, Epstein might not appreciate community colleges. In fact, community colleges create opportunity for many to achieve higher education who might not otherwise have that opportunity. Given that many community college students are the first in their family to attend college, and that many work while attending, retention at community colleges is a major issue. In fact, Hanover Research published a report on the subject in 2014 that included an extensive literature review section examining the prior scholarship on this matter. So much for a topic not worth studying. If anything, Epstein only displayed his own laziness, arrogance and ignorance by so blithely dismissing Dr. Biden’s dissertation.
Epstein similarly implies that her doctorate is somehow worth less because she earned it at the University of Delaware in the field of education. Yet the Carnegie Endowment classifies her alma mater as an R1 school, the same level as his alma mater and future employer.
Finally, he critiques modern doctoral education because it does not require “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.” Once again Epstein reveals his ignorance. While we are no longer required to demonstrate proficiency in Greek or Latin to earn a doctorate, a doctor must defend one’s thesis and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field. Indeed, at least in my program, we must also pass a two-day written examination. As someone who passed both the Bar exam and the PhD comprehensive examination, I can vouch for the fact that the doctoral exam was more difficult and more stressful. Dr. Biden also had to accomplish these tasks.
Aside from these baseless critiques of Dr. Biden’s qualifications, the only other argument Epstein makes as to why Dr. Biden should turn her back on the qualification she earned is the old trope about Dr. being reserved for M.D.s. That argument is such a cliche that the TV show Friends had an on-going gag about Rachel’s disdain for Ross calling himself a doctor. And yet, as the grandson of two M.D.s, I can vouch for the fact that I’ve never met a physician who did not believe those who completed doctorates were entitled to be called doctor. In fact, a doctoral degree like Dr. Biden’s requires the production of an original piece of research, something that was once required of all doctoral candidates but was since dropped by the more professional degrees such as M.D., J.D., or D.O.
Most of Epstein’s article, however, decries the awarding of honorary doctorates to unqualified individuals. He may have a point here. But this argument has nothing to do with Dr. Biden, since she actually earned her degree; it is not honorary in any sense. Epstein, by the way, admits that he was the recipient of one of these honorary degrees he so disdains.
Ultimately, what this article reveals about the author is that he is jealous of Dr. Biden and others who have completed the difficult task of writing and defending a dissertation. Anyone who has done so deserves to be called “doctor,” and the fact that Epstein is not entitled to that prefix clearly grates on him.
Ironically, I discovered that one of Epstein’s books is called “Snobbery: the American Version.” In his introductory chapter, Epstein critiques those who he perceives as looking down on others. From his Wall Street Journal column, Epstein reveals his belief that those who earned doctorates look down on people like him who haven’t. I think his sense of inferiority is misplaced. Doctors I know don’t look down on those who haven’t completed a PhD; they simply respect those who have. There is a big difference. But in defending himself from the perceived snobbery of legitimate doctors in his column, Epstein reveals himself to be an utter snob, bragging about his attendance and employment at elite universities while looking down on those such as myself and Dr. Biden who attended state schools. Again, among doctors, no such snobbery exists.
But what this column reveals is even more damning about the Wall Street Journal and its editorial board. Apparently, this newspaper will publish poorly argued editorials without factual basis if they help advance their ideology. That ideology has come to include an unhealthy disdain for academics and women, both of who Epstein supposedly skewered. And when people criticize such poor editorial choices, they defend themselves with the Trumpiest argument of all: those liberals are out to get us.
No, we’re not out to get you. You just published a crappy editorial, and you deserve whatever criticism you get as a result.