doctoring the record

The outcry over the recent WSJ op-ed on Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “Dr.” is laughably out of all proportion to the offense. The author took the no doubt painful occasion of having to recognize that Joe Biden has actually been elected president of the United States to unwind one of his typical witty denunciations of academic life. Joseph Epstein’s aspiration to be a pimple on the ass of academia popped a long time ago. He has written so many outré essays in a long career of synthesizing, often quite eloquently, the snide and the stuffy, the reactionary and the impish, the self-deprecating and the self-aggrandizing, that the only explanation for the outcry over this one is that that same election has for many instantly elevated the First Couple-elect to the status of beyond satire. For that is all that Epstein’s address to Jill Biden—“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo”—is. It’s the occasion to satirize the pretensions of academics who want to be addressed as Doctor when they’re not an M.D. (a view with which many academics, myself included, largely agree), the supposed lack of rigor and discipline to acquire a Ph.D. today (a view with which I heartily disagree), and the doling out of honorary degrees to celebrities and potential donors (a practice that might more fruitfully lead to an interrogation of state legislatures’ disinvestment in the education of young Americans).

Northwestern University’s response is especially hyperbolic and hypocritical, turning Epstein into a target of symbolic violence (to use a term he would undoubtedly find leftist gibberish). The English department, in which Epstein ended a three-decade stint almost twenty years ago, now denounces his views without naming him; meanwhile, the university has removed the Emeritus Lecturer from its website, erasing his decades-long contribution to the institution. Namelessness and erasure. Because of this op-ed?!? Nothing about the op-ed is any more egregious than the various homophobic, racist, misogynist, and anti-intellectual things Epstein has written over the decades—always of course in the name of the highest moral and intellectual values. For two decades, overlapping his time at Northwestern, he indicted the dogmatism of academic political correctness while dogmatically editing The American Scholar. His prose, like his persona, is soft-spoken, lighthearted viciousness in a bow tie.

The one sentence in the controversial op-ed, embellished with a fake quote to boot, that most reveals how shallow and callow Joseph Epstein’s views of the contemporary university, Black people, and women are is a gratuitous add-on to his mockery of the honorary doctorate degrees Northwestern awarded in recent years to Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Billie Jean King: “Political correctness has put paid to any true honor an honorary doctorate may once have possessed. If you are ever looking for a simile to denote rarity, try ‘rarer than a contemporary university honorary-degree list not containing an African-American woman.’”

(Full disclosure: I was a colleague of Epstein’s at Northwestern, 1982-89; did not know him well; was obliquely alluded to in one or more of his diatribes against leftists in the university; and do not have, nor ever have had, any ill will toward him.)

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