That Wall Street Journal op-ed about Dr. Jill Biden isn't just sexist — it's classist, too

There's nothing "unpromising" about caring for community college students. Prestige-chasing is drowning us in debt

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 14, 2020 7:00PM (EST)

Jill Biden (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Jill Biden (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

When the Wall Street Journal ran a recent opinion piece criticizing incoming first lady Jill Biden for daring to use her honorific "Dr.," the pushback was swift and entirely justified. Of course, Joseph Epstein's tone deaf pronouncement that it's "fraudulent, not to say a touch comic" to call her "Dr. Biden" is easily shot-down sexist garbage that should never have been given a platform. But Epstein's tantrum over her form of address was only the second worst thing about the piece. What's even more offensive and dangerous is the WSJ's casual endorsement of the author's hostility to equitable, affordable higher education.

It's distracting, I agree, to sift through all the layers of condescension and offhanded misogyny at play in the story to get to the raging classism. But it's there! Get a load of this horse dung: "Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education," Epstein writes, "earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title 'Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students' Needs.' Epstein thinks he knows what Biden's degree is, but a man who concurs with the notion that "No one should call himself 'Dr.' unless he has delivered a child" can't be expected to know how to Google. (Wait till Epstein finds out how few Nobel Prize recipients in medicine are even clinicians, let alone obstetricians.)

He pointedly mentions that Biden studied at the University of Delaware, shortly before announcing that he taught at Northwestern, like the mean girl in a high school comedy pointing out the heroine's sweater is from Old Navy. Then, to twist the knife, he describes the dissertation he obviously didn't bother to read as having an "unpromising" title, because perhaps words like "retention," "needs" and — most damning of all — "community college" somehow don't say "Dr." to him.

We're all tired of having to say things that shouldn't still have to be said because some snowflake nobody ever heard of is offended that women can hold jobs and stuff. Plenty of others — including Michelle Obama and Jill Biden herself — have already weighed in on that point. Yet entrenched in Epstein's screed is also a snotty, shockingly ignorant example of exactly why we are in the urgent crisis in higher education we now find ourselves.

We are a nation that is as of this year carrying a stunning $1.6 trillion in student debt, on the shoulders of 45 million individuals. This debt affects their parents, their children, their spouses; it kneecaps their career dreams, their ability to own a home, their access to adequate healthcare. Back in February, Forbes reported that the "average student loan debt for members of the Class of 2018 is $29,200." That's before interest, which can easily add another fifteen grand to the total.

The economics and the mind games of higher education make for one of the most toxic institutional systems we have in our nation. As a parent, I've watched my daughters lured by what Thomas Frank calls "academic capitalism," the false promise that a name-brand college diploma — whatever the cost — will assure a prosperous future. I've attended state university college fairs where financial aid officers reassuringly boasted that their graduates could expect to pay "only" $250 a month on their debts, pointedly oblivious to an unemployment crisis that was battering young adults even before the pandemic. I've opened "award" letters enthusiastically alerting my family to how much money we could borrow for tuition at a $67,000-a-year university. I've watched otherwise rational friends sign off on loans far beyond their expected incomes. I've observed, as we all have, exactly how easily manipulated and corrupt the prestige university admissions process can be. And then someone like Dr. Jill Biden comes along and chooses to focus her academic work on community colleges — our most affordable and flexible educational option — and on helping students stay in school to get their degrees. 

My spouse has been an adjunct instructor at both private and community colleges, and would gladly choose to work with those motivated community students — who are often older and already in the workforce — any day of the week. My elder daughter started taking community college classes in high school, spending her early Saturday mornings with working adults looking for, as Biden wrote in her dissertation, the promise of "equal opportunity and fulfilling the American Dream." I, meanwhile, recently completed a certification program at Columbia University, which offered courses like "Social Justice: Narratives of Inequality" but no financial aid. It is entirely unsurprising that higher ed in America is often far more comfortable examining injustice in an abstract and cerebral way than in changing it.

I am fed up with self-appointed arbiters of female achievement like Joseph Epstein making sweeping pronouncements about the "few doctoral examinations I sat in on during my teaching days, where candidates and teachers addressed one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembled a kaffeeklatsch." Yet I also recognize that while this clownish op-ed pitches its primary fit over the semantics of a woman's doctoral work, the larger insult is to all those GED holders and immigrants and working parents and recent high school grads staying at home and helping their families. It's in Epstein's repugnant dismissiveness about making the path to an associate's or bachelor's degree smoother for those students who aren't studying at a university that costs nearly $80,000 a year.

It's that word "unpromising" that sticks with me. The contempt in it, the echoes it carries of those cynics, ranging from Betsy DeVos to Lori Loughlin, who believe that education is a luxury good, not a fundamental right. I only wish that attitude was exclusive to out-of-touch men, but it's everywhere and it is killing us. It is burying us in debt; it is destroying academic innovation and curiosity; it is making us poorer in every possible sense of the word.

Fortunately, Dr. Jill Biden has said she intends to keep her day job teaching English — you know, one of those "worthless" liberal arts that everyone says offer no ROI — after she moves into the White House. Fortunately, she remains a tireless advocate for the power and potential of our community colleges. Fortunately, the incoming administration is already talking seriously about making college affordable and eradicating student debt. And fortunately, you don't have to read terrible takes by irrelevant dinosaurs. If you're in quest of an expert opinion on a topical subject, you can always read Jill Biden's dissertation instead.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams