Last December, controversy swirled when a Wall Street Journal op-ed argued Jill Biden shouldn’t go by “Dr. Jill.” The same debate occurred a century prior, when in 1921 a group at UVA formed the Society for the Rationalization of the Title of Doctor.
The New York Times Sunday Magazine covered the story:
“It may be that the hovering spirit of Thomas Jefferson, renowned, whether justly or not, for conspicuously democratic habits and behavior, moved the professors at the university which he founded to declare that all men were not only free and equal but should show it by wearing the same title.”
So should the title “doctor” be reserved solely for physicians? The article also quoted Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who argued that even physicians shouldn’t:
“I see no reason why the disagreeable habit of addressing certain persons by the title of doctor should not be done away with entirely,” he said to an inquirer the other day. “And there is no more reason for addressing a doctor of medicine as doctor than for so addressing a doctor of philosophy, of laws, or of theological. In fact, in England it is not done.”
The other side of the argument was that everybody who earns a doctorate should be called “doctor,” including Ph.D.’s and others.
How about the horn-rimmed-spectacled young man who has just won his degree by presenting the world with a thick volume entitled “The Intensive Use of Skylights in the Monasteries of the Thirteenth Century,” with voluminous footnotes abounding in Latin on each page? And the other young man who has been similarly rewarded for his thesis on “The Declining Prestige of the Preposition ‘Ab’ After the Second Punic War.” And he who has chased the parts of speech all the way from H.G. Wells back to Chaucer and is off the press with a tome demonstrating beyond a doubt that Pope was more fond of intransitive verbs than was Francis Bacon? What of these? And of thousands of others like them? Is it not cruel and unusual punishment to deprive them of the glory for which they have so faithfully labored?
The debate continues today. Conservative author Joseph Epstein published a December 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that incoming First Lady Jill Biden shouldn’t call herself “Dr.”
The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences. 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. A far cry, this, from the few doctoral examinations I sat in on during my teaching days, where candidates and teachers addressed one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembled a kaffeeklatsch. Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, or long after the terror had departed.
Jill Biden defended herself on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:
That was such a surprise. It was really the tone of it. He called me ‘kiddo.’ One of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I worked so hard for it. Joe came when I defended my thesis. But look at all the people who came out in support of me.”
I won’t wade into the debate over whether Jill Biden should call herself “Dr.” but hopefully we can all agree that Dr. Dre never received his doctorate. That man has been inflating his academic credentials since the late ’80s.
Doctor by Any Other Name
Published: Sunday, April 24, 1921