Dr Jill Biden should absolutely keep her 'Dr' title

Who should be allowed to call themselves doctor?

America's next first lady will be Dr Jill Biden. The qualification is also referenced in her Twitter handle: @DrBiden. She has good reason and the right to use it, having received a research doctoral degree from a legitimate US university 13 years ago.

On November 7, the day the 2020 presidential election was called for Mr Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, Dr Biden’s Twitter feed bore a photo of the future president and his wife holding up a sign in their living room. It read: Dr and vice president Biden live here.

The strikethrough of the word 'vice', Mr Biden’s second-string job in the two-term Obama administration, was the point. More than 30 years after Mr Biden first ran for the highest office in America, he finally prevailed.

His loving wife was recording a proud family moment, as well she might.

The photo was jokey and all too true. Indeed, it was Dr and President Biden who lived in their house in Wilmington, Delaware.

Soon, the doctor and her presidential spouse would move to a different residence, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, otherwise known as the White House.

Except that the conservative curmudgeon of the human species won’t have it. Joseph Epstein, 83, BA and an essayist of long-standing, recently advised Dr Biden, in a patronising opinion piece, to drop the title because it “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic”.

Mr Epstein even referred to the 69-year-old soon-to-be US first lady as “kiddo”. He went on to question her right to the medical-sounding qualification: “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’,” Mr Epstein wrote. “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.”

The rebuke drew widespread academic angst and accusations of sexism, but it is hardly new or original, which is to say it might not serve as the ideal doctoral research topic. Mr Epstein's gripe against the doctor heading to the White House reprised a 2013 complaint by Charles C W Cooke in the conservative magazine National Review.

Quote
But is Dr Biden really pretending to something to which she has no right?

At the time Dr Biden was America’s second lady, which led Mr Cooke, who mockingly revealed having a BA and MA, to diagnose her “credential snobbery”. He also cast doubt on her “doctorate in ‘educational leadership’, whatever the hell that is”. Dr Biden, Mr Cooke concluded, is “not alone in having recognised the virtue of pretending to be a doctor in public”.

But is Dr Biden really pretending to something to which she has no right?

epa07537178 Jill Biden, wife of former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during her husband's first campaign event, at the Teamsters Local 249 Banquet Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 29 April, 2019. Biden is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 2020 US presidential election.  EPA-EFE/DAVID MAXWELL

The question has particular resonance for me as I received my non-medical doctorate three months ago. It is in creative and critical research and the topic was a mouthful: 'A critical investigation of the Platonic influence on early Arab philosophers’ notion of creative control'. People like Mr Cooke and Mr Epstein might respond, “whatever the hell that is”.

Sections of the medical community too, as happened in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2016, might question “who should be allowed to call themselves doctor?”

But the Canadian kerfuffle was not about non-medical doctoral degree holders such as Dr Biden. Or me.

At the time, an Ontario audiologist, a healthcare worker who wasn’t the type of doctor you see for a bad back, had asked for the legal right to use the title “Dr” on the strength of her research doctorate.

The Canadian view eventually veered towards laissez faire so "long as there is no intent to mislead patients, and all professionals are aware of their abilities and boundaries".

That seems to be a sensible way to look at the matter of who gets to use “Dr”. It is discretionary if you are not a medical doctor, the title being used mostly in academic settings.

A doctor of philosophy degree derives from the original Greek 'philosophia', meaning love of wisdom and from the Latin word 'docco', which means to teach.

In a sense, Dr Biden has a license to teach, something she has done for years, the last 11 of which were as a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College.

That is exactly the sort of academic environment where a doctoral degree is recognised for what it is. Anyone who has earned a doctorate has the right to use the title as they see fit.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a columnist for The National

Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a contributor for The National