I suspect that parsing social niceties is, however, not what Epstein was getting at. Addressing Biden, Epstein wrote: “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.’” Epstein scarcely bothers to disguise his snobbery. I wonder whether he would have complained about calling Biden by her title if her degree were instead a Ph.D., and the dissertation a thousand-page brick, demonstrating mastery of archives, languages dead and living, and a century of secondary literature. His disdain here is, I think, at least as much for the field of “educational leadership” as for Biden’s use of titles per se.
In fairness, an Ed.D. is not a Ph.D., which requires a dissertation that typically takes several years to complete. The Ed.D. dissertation at the University of Delaware is an “Executive Position Paper,” which “identifies a problem of significance to you and your organization, analyzes the problem thoroughly, and develops a feasible plan to solve the problem.” If you spend seven years writing it, you are doing it wrong. Biden’s is 129 pages, including table of contents and footnotes. Many Ph.D. dissertations (ones made of words rather than numbers, anyway) are twice that long. Education schools are a frequent target of the types of writers who show up on the Journal’s editorial page, perhaps because of their role as incubators of wokeness. Maybe Epstein disdains Biden’s field. If that is the case, I wish he had said so, and made his case directly rather than boorishly impugning the first first lady to hold a research doctorate of any kind.
Many have noted that the senior Trump administration national-security official Sebastian Gorka goes by “Dr. Gorka,” because he somehow earned a Ph.D. from Corvinus University in Hungary, without raising the ire of the Journal. I have read his dissertation and other writings, and I do not think much of them. But he is Dr. Gorka—and if I had my way, he would be required to call himself “Dr.” Better that he be made to own the title. If I earned a Ph.D. by writing a dissertation like his, I would want to hide the degree rather than publicize it, and on my business card it would be a source of recurring cringe to me and others. (“Doctors” whose scholarship is risible tend to be particularly attached to the title, and to wield it because they think it provides the gravitas that their intellects do not.)
If Jill Biden wants to flaunt her Ed.D., who is Joseph Epstein to object? Those letters mean only what they mean. They certainly aren’t more embarrassing than other titles that people use in perpetuity. Ambassadors, I find, tend to call themselves “Ambassador” forever, even if they bought their sole ambassadorship by bundling political donations in Long Island, and the ambassadorship was a year on some speck of an island in a forgotten sea. Roald Dahl mocked people like this in his memoir about boarding school, where one of the cruelest teachers called himself “Captain Hardcastle.” “Even small insects like us knew that ‘captain’ was not a very exalted rank,” Dahl wrote, “and only a man with little else to boast about would cling to it in civilian life.”
When Michael Caine starred in Sleuth with Sir Laurence Olivier in 1972, Caine was 39—and not yet a Sir himself—to Olivier’s 65. “How should I address you?” Caine asked. “Lord Olivier,” Lord Olivier replied. “After that I am Larry, and you are Mike.” Life can be simple, if you want it to be.