Doctor? My Eye.

December 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice... Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” So begins Joseph Epstein’s WSJ op-ed of this weekend “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.”
Many on the left got upset. They disliked the tone. Smugness has long been a chronic, perhaps unavoidable, flaw among right-wing intellectuals, and Epstein is not as bad as most of them on that score. His opening descent down the ladder of formality of terms of address seems more friendly than condescending. The article is, after all, about what to call the First Lady, and he’s trying out several possibilities.  Even so, he seems to be trying to trigger the libs, and triggered they were.

Some people accused Epstein of sexism. You wouldn’t have done that if it were a man — that sort of thing. Counterfactuals like this are hard to prove, but the critics may be right. Epstein’s main argument against “Dr.” Biden is that this honorific should be reserved for medical doctors (“A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child.”) Jill Biden has no medical degrees. She as an Ed.D.

However, six years ago, Epstein wrote, “One teacher I do remember fondly was Dr. Branz, a German émigré who taught a course called Commercial Law. He must have been a refugee from Hitler, with a doctor of laws degree...” Yes, Dr. Branz, a law professor. I doubt that this juris doctor had ever moonlighted as an obstetrician.

The WSJ has no objections to using “Dr.” for non-physicians in the White House —  among others, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and of course non-M.D. Henry Kissinger, who insisted on on being called “Dr. Kissinger.” As far as I know, Epstein never gave Rice or Kissinger the same friendly advice he’s offering Jill Biden.                                                         
Why shouldn’t we use the same honorific for advanced degrees both medical and academic? Is it confusing? Or does calling our teachers “doctor” cheapen the value of medical doctors? Epstein implies that it’s both. Equating physicians and professors does not fit with a value system that accords teachers much less prestige than they might have in other cultures.

Once long ago, I taught English for one semester in a high school in a small town (pop. 3000) in Japan. My students addressed me as Jay-sensei, sensei being the Japanese word for teacher. I lived with a Japanese family. One day, I had some stomach problems. My family insisted that I go to the doctor — Kimura-sensei. Hmm, I thought, we call our teachers “doctor”; the Japanese call their doctors “teacher.” A commentary on their values?

Doctor originally referred to theologians,  explainers of doctrine — closer to teachers than to physicians. Dr. Webster explains:
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The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

The 14th century was the birth of the Renaissance, and lots of teaching and learning was afoot. By the century's end, the word doctor was being applied not just to a select few theologians, but also to qualified and/or accomplished academics and medical practitioners.he word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

I don’t know the history of sensei. Maybe in Japan, as we speak, some Epsteinian curmudgeon is complaining about all these physicians who insist on being called sensei even though they have never taught even one student how to interpret a multiple regression.


David J. Littleboy said...

"Maybe in Japan, as we speak, some Epsteinian curmudgeon is complaining about all these physicians who insist on being called sensei even though they have never taught even one student how to interpret a multiple regression."

Hmm. My sense is that sensei is more about respect for the bloke's knowledge and seniority than about teaching vs. doctoring. The Chinese characters with which it's written, 先生, are about being born first, i.e. seniority. Also, it's use is mainly in spoken language (it isn't a formal title). So it would be hard to translate that article or the response to it into Japanese using "sensei". (I have teacher friends who don't tell people that they're teachers in their private activities, since "sensei" is such a loaded and off-putting term. (I.e. you don't want to be "senior and erudite and powerful" with your peers you swim, play table tennis, work out with.))

One of the lefty sites I read argued that bent-out-of-shape male readers were less concerned with the sexist aspects than female readers were, and, true to form, it really pissed my off something fierce that he deprecated education research. Getting kids through the program is incredibly important, especially for community colleges, and Professor Biden's PhD. thesis speaks to that critical social issue. So the whole rant is dead wrong (and incredibly stupid) on the facts, let alone the rudeness and sexism.

Of course, with the NYT paying David B.D. Brooks Maureen F. Dowd, and it's other bedbugs, it's hard to complain about the Wall Street Journal...

Jay Livingston said...

"more about respect for the bloke's knowledge and seniority"

That's the point Epstein's critics were making. He and the WSJ were saying that Jill Biden does not merit the respect they would accord Kissinger and other White or male or Republican holders of doctorate degrees. Epstein says that it generalizes to all such academic degree holders, but since he's been hanging around the academy for the last half-century, why is he moved to express this sentiment publicly only now?

As with ,sensei, among Japanese, doctor is a title we use only in less formal settings. At faculty meetings, we don't address each other as Dr.