You’re nobody nowadays until you’ve been canceled. It’s the new new thing. To be stripped in one fell swoop of every degree, title, honor, award, or citation you’ve ever earned, in retaliation for having written or said something that, only a few years ago, would have been regarded as innocuous or self-evident or, at most, provocative, is where it’s at in 2020.
The other day it was Joseph Epstein’s turn. The Chicago-born Epstein, 84, is a former editor of the American Scholar (where, let me acknowledge, he frequently published my own work a million years ago) and a writer of countless essays on diverse topics that make you laugh while also making you think.
On December 11, the Wall Street Journal ran one of those essays, headlined “Is There a Doctor in the White House?” Addressing Jill Biden, the soon-to-be First Lady, Epstein suggested that perhaps she should lay off calling herself “Doctor Jill Biden,” given that she is not an M.D. but rather earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.
Epstein’s piece triggered the now-usual chorus of outrage. It was widely decried as sexist, which is ridiculous: Jill Biden’s sex has nothing to do with Epstein’s argument. One sharp observer noticed that the Washington Post, which in 2017 mocked Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka, a Ph.D., for using the honorific “Dr.,” was now sneering at Epstein for criticizing Jill Biden’s use of it.
A sometime teacher at Northwestern, Epstein held the title of emeritus lecturer there. His name and title have now vanished from the website of the university, which issued this statement: “While we firmly support academic freedom and freedom of expression, we do not agree with Mr. Epstein’s opinion and believe the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a Ph.D., an Ed.D. or an M.D. Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.”
In other words, we support academic freedom and freedom of expression, but—well, not really.
The English department at Northwestern also posted a statement: “The Department is aware that a former adjunct lecturer who has not taught here in nearly 20 years has published an opinion piece that casts unmerited aspersion on Dr. Jill Biden’s rightful public claiming of her doctoral credentials and expertise. The Department rejects this opinion as well as the diminishment of anyone’s duly-earned degrees in any field, from any university.”
If he hasn’t taught there “in nearly 20 years,” then why make a big deal out it? And note how the department’s statement doesn’t even include Epstein’s name. Is he such a non-person now that even mentioning his name would be offensive?
By contrast, an honest commentator at Hot Air made what seemed like an important admission: Jill Biden’s habit of calling herself a doctor had caused real confusion. Last March, Whoopi Goldberg suggested on The View that, in the case of a Biden victory at the polls, Jill should be named Surgeon General because she’s an “amazing doctor.”
As it happens, I have a Ph.D. in English. I’ve never used “Dr.,” except on a few occasions when I was ordering airline tickets online and noticed that I could click on “Dr.” when filling out my name. I figured maybe there was a slightly better chance of getting bumped to first class if I went with “Dr.” (It didn’t work.)
But generally speaking, the idea of calling myself “Dr.” embarrasses me. It feels like subterfuge. My father was an M.D. He was Dr. Bawer. If I called myself Dr. Bawer, I’d feel like Leo DiCaprio getting himself hired as an emergency-room supervisor in Catch Me If You Can. I’m fine without it. As someone who grew up seeing my father run off in the middle of the night to save lives, and who associated this activity from earliest childhood with the magical word “doctor,” it rankles a bit to think of applying that label to someone with a diploma in some hogwash like gender studies.
Which brings us, as it happens, to the real thrust of Epstein’s essay. At bottom, it wasn’t a dig at Jill Biden. No, that was just Epstein’s way of introducing his actual, and serious, subject. And that subject was the increasing meaninglessness of advanced degrees in the humanities and social sciences.
“The Ph.D.,” Epstein lamented, “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.” As the author of a 2012 book entitled The Victims’ Revolution, about the rise of such ridiculous academic “disciplines” as (yes) gender studies, I heartily agree. Epstein pointed out that Ph.D.s once had to jump through some major hoops, becoming genuine experts in their subjects, to earn their titles; now, in all too many departments at all too many universities, the doctorates are handed out like free-drink tickets outside of strip clubs.
On this matter, Epstein was, quite simply, right. Unfortunately for him, he decided to use Jill Biden as a hook for a thoughtful piece on an important issue. In retribution for that politically inadmissible choice, he’s now a non-person—at least in the eyes of Northwestern University.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images