Today, Sorohan adds his voice to the discussion. You can read earlier guest Get Schooled columns by Sorohan here and here.
By Bryan Sorohan
The current controversy over Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the title “Doctor” because she earned a doctorate in education at a major university is actually a reprise of a smaller one that arose in 2008 when her husband was elected as vice president under Barack Obama. There are a number of issues raised by the use of academic term “Doctor,” some of which speak to expertise and some of which speak to status and politics. However, Biden’s insistence on being called Doctor should be uncontroversial in relation to her chosen field.
The origin of the term “Doctor” has been explored numerous times, and unequivocally supports the right of academics outside the narrow field of medicine to use it. The origin of the word in Latin is “docere,” meaning “to teach.” The first doctorates were awarded to academics in the 13th century, nearly 800 years ago. By contrast, there was controversy as late as the 1860s over the use of “Doctor” as a title for physicians, primarily because so many medical quacks and charlatans had tried to call themselves by that title to gain unearned credibility (the Latin word for “to heal” is “sana,” which might be more appropriate in medicine).
Education professor Bryan Sorohan
It must be said, however, that any perceptive person who holds an academic doctorate should understand, more clearly than most, the limitations of what it means. The degree is called a “terminal” one because it is the highest degree possible in a given field (many graduate students will attest that it feels as if it will be terminal in other ways, too). Earning a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree such as Biden’s Ed.D. requires a person to immerse themselves in years of intensive learning, then write a dissertation that constitutes a new and worthy contribution to the knowledge base of their academic field.
Practically, the dissertation process involves becoming virtually obsessed with a given limited topic for a matter of several years while your family and friends look on with a combination of pity mixed with irritation at hearing about it all the time. My diploma from the University of Georgia says Doctor of Middle Grades Education, with “all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto,” but I’ve generally found those rights and privileges to be fairly limited. At the end, most people with doctorates basically earn the right to be held responsible for the decisions and whims of the group of 18- to 22-year-old students under their tutelage and the privilege of being underpaid for it.
I personally do not use the title “Dr.” under circumstances outside academia and my discipline for the most part. Many of my friends were surprised, even a dozen years after I graduated, to learn I have a Ph.D. because I certainly don’t insist on using it socially.
But earning the title should be treated as a matter of accomplishment and respect. It really only means you are an expert in a given and usually limited field, but a person with a doctorate is supposed to be a person who has demonstrated the ability to think, reason, and carry out original research in an academic discipline and that title demands respect as such.
I think the controversy over Biden’s use of the title “Dr.” has more to do with factors outside the preceding discussion, though. For example, it is notable that conservatives do not seem to oppose the use of “Dr.” by academics who support conservative ideology. The criticism of Dr. Biden’s academic field of education relates as much to the unreasoning contempt people with certain ideologies express for education in general, I believe. I also think the criticism stems from an attempt to discredit a powerful woman who happens to be a Democrat.
But in a larger sense this uninformed and anti-intellectual criticism casts doubt and disdain on the hard-earned accomplishments and valuable contributions of a whole segment of society. It should be treated as another manifestation of the overall contempt for expertise and learning that has characterized much of our political rhetoric in the past four years.