Joseph Epstein Is Right about the ‘Dr.’ Problem

The education degree is mediocre, and blocks school improvement.

In his now-infamous piece of snarky commentary, Joseph Epstein criticized the proliferation of doctorates over the past half-century, reserving special derision for honorary doctors such as entertainers, and for doctors in education such as Jill Biden.

Perhaps more important than how we or the media may choose to refer to Dr./Mrs. Biden, the outsized focus on whether to use the honorific for a doctor of education helps explain why the past 30 years of public-education reform have underperformed. It is not teacher unions, but educational administrators with doctorates in education (the Notorious Ed.D.) like Jill Biden who run American public schools. That means we cannot substantially reform schools while leaving the Ed.D. program as it is intact. And so, to question the inherent value of that degree is to tease at this dilemma — and will invite the kind of backlash we have seen over the last several days.

Incidentally, I am a party to this fight by association, just not on the side with which I agree. My own American Educational Research Association (AERA), like all professional associations, is essentially an interest group. We are education professors in the business of producing degrees in education — so an attack on the Ed.D. is an attack on our jobs. Within 48 hours, AERA’s executive director issued a statement calling Epstein “misogynistic,” while advising other newspapers to have “second thoughts” about publishing such ideas.

I find it concerning when organizations representing professors advocate censorship. Indeed, the fact that the AERA seeks to silence Epstein rather than debate him is telling. What’s more, within days of the Wall Street Journal commentary, Northwestern University erased lecturer emeritus Joseph Epstein from their website, in order to support “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

While Epstein is acerbic like H.L. Mencken, incoming first lady Jill Biden does seem to truly care about her students and profession. (Back in 2012 we each wrote essays for Academic Questions about how to improve colleges; Biden’s addressed mentoring.) Yet in a free country, impolite gadflies play important roles in improving society. And on this matter regarding doctorates in education, Epstein is quite right. Other professors consider the Ed.D. a marginal degree, whose very mediocrity and ubiquity block school improvement.

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Epstein seems grouchy, and Jill Biden herself may have been an ill-chosen target for his scorn. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the Ed.D. is an academically weak degree whose holders limit school improvement. If we want to make schools more academic, the Ed.D. must reform or die.

Source: Joseph Epstein Is Right about the ‘Dr.’ Problem