the good doctor

The condemnation this weekend of a vile editorial about whether Dr. Jill Biden should retain her academic title when she becomes First Lady was gratifyingly swift, and its defense has been predictably toothless. It is not the first attack Dr. Biden has endured for her education commitments, and it certainly won’t be the last. Maybe it is not worthy of more attention. We shouldn’t feed trolls more eyeballs. Perhaps there’s nothing more to say.

But I think there is. Because the degree in question is the Ed.D., the Doctor of Education. And it seems that both Dr. Biden’s attackers and her defenders are unwittingly re-enacting the same pernicious story that has long afflicted that particular degree. And the women who hold it, and education generally. Alongside the misogyny within this attack lies the systematic devaluing of education as a serious field of study and a worthy object towards which to tilt one’s life. And no one seems to be talking about it. Allow me to try.

A trip down the Wikipedia page that elaborates the history of the term “doctor” is a dizzying tour of the history of ego and power tied up in a term of address. The boundary maintenance around who can and can’t use the title has long been the hallmark of the integrity of several fields — academic integrity, sure, but also economic integrity. If everyone is a “doctor,” then who gets to say who are the real experts, and who are the quacks? A lot of influence — and money — hangs in the balance around that question.

Fascinating and important history notes the American Medical Association’s role in both asserting their own scientific seriousness and, in the same gesture, dismissing those who weren’t “scientific” in their ways as dangerous charlatans. It includes the dramatic recasting of medical education a century ago as requiring specific scientific and clinical training that decimated caregiving in other traditions, especially those that had thrived for generations in historically Black medical schools. Who gets to be a doctor, and who doesn’t, is not merely a question of getting a maitre’d to secure you a desirable table, or whatever other social pretensions with which Biden is currently being impugned. The question of who is a doctor is has been life-or-death, to entire disciplines of care as well as the communities they serve.

Moreover: as academic Ph.Ds have been maligned as “not real doctors” by holders of the allopathic M.D., so has the Ed.D. been historically maligned as a “less than” degree within the academic community. Distressingly, there remains a tacit bias in many universities that what happens in a school of education is essentially preparation for the twin trades of teaching children and supervising those teachers. That there is nothing further to think about, research, or explore in the field, since it is foremost a practical one. If this is the case, then their salaries can be lower, and their representation in university affairs can be muted. A caste system can be maintained, if not acknowledged.

Part of this situation might be correctly placed, we must note. The Ed.D. has the distinction of being among the first “professional doctorates” widely offered. A preparation that develops expertise in practice, not theory and research — that is outwardly focused on the world in all the same ways that the Ph.D. might be considered inwardly focused on the basic science of its the field. The rise of the professional doctorate in many fields alongside its research-driven counterpart in some cases may be an example of “credential bloat,” as its detractors have held. Many other caring fields are making the reckoning that education already has, about whether there is a specific training that fits the needs of its practitioners better than a purely academic one. The market “needs” more doctors — or at least can make money from their preparation. (Whether or not those doctorates in fact increase quality practice in the field, or simply contribute to the proliferation of “more letters,” is another important question.)

And it must be acknowledged that some Ed.D. programs have perhaps been less rigorous than their Ph.D. counterparts. For years, an ill-conceived notion of what a “clinical doctorate” should be — coupled with the economic boon for universities that came of offering one to a previously-untapped market of upwardly-mobile educational administrators — created a perfect storm for “fluff” degrees to thrive. (It should be noted that the provision of the same Ed.D. degree that has been sometimes maligned by arts, science, and humanities departments has, in many cases, funded their own faculty lines.)

The Ed.D. has been among the first in the “clinical doctorate” field to address these existential questions of identity and purpose, as well as the concomitant issues of rigor, relevance, and appropriateness. For nearly a generation, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has led a consortium of Ed.D. programs (my own among them) in doing this essential work. CPED doesn’t exist to counter the criticism of the degree: it exists to reconcile and make it equal to the crucial work its holders must do. But it also stands as an indicator of the seriousness with which this field takes itself, and a counter to thoughtless critics who seek to dismiss it.

This all probably seems like the insidest of baseball.

Until we also consider that education has rarely been taken seriously as a field of endeavor to which to dedicate one’s life, academically or otherwise. As I have detailed elsewhere, our nation’s commitment to public education turned from the beginning on the assumption that it was piecework, to be done by those who could be had on the cheap to do it. And the assumption that most of them would not make a life of it, and eventually would clear the lane for others who would continue to do it for less money than experienced practitioners would demand. When the holder of the Ed.D. is dismissed as a less-than-serious academic, she is also dismissed as someone devoting her life to a less-than-serious pursuit.

Such dismissal perpetuates the cynical fallacy undergirding the policy and social measures which today ensure that educators are treated as less-than professionals. Compensation: low. Autonomy: nascent, and vanishing. Respect: broadly offered as free burritos on teacher appreciation days; scant in ways that actually sustain careers and livelihoods on all others.

That’s one of the reasons that the way many of Dr. Biden’s defenders have gone about it stings a bit, to my ears. They have affirmed how hard she, and all holders of the Ed.D. or any legitimate doctorate, had to work to get there. They note that she, like so many Ed.D. holders, did it around the edges of a busy career, in early mornings and late nights and weekends stolen from the rest of their lives. Moreover, like so many women who disproportionally carry the emotional labor of family-making, she did it around the repeated litany of “making lunches and getting kids to school.” The argument is: respect Biden, and her degree, because she earned it, by working hard in ways you aren’t seeing. All of which is undeniably true of the majority of Ed.Ds, as I can intimately attest.

But only respecting what an educator has visibly worked for — and works for, even now — is part of what maintains the second-class status of the profession. Educators can then only be provisionally respected. Only if they are actively opening a vein for the young people they selflessly serve. How much of the Biden campaign messaging about Jill Biden has focused on how she constantly has a stack of papers to grade in her bag? How selflessly and doggedly she intends to continue her essential community college work, because it is a part of her, as a teacher with a deep sense of vocation and commitment to those she serves? If she had to do, she would do it for free, runs the message.

Show me another field that only respects their practitioners when they are doing more with less — before and after the rest of their lives each day, at great physical and emotional expense.

The greatest strength of the field of education is also its greatest vulnerability.

I do not denigrate the sacrifices that medical doctors and other health care workers make on behalf of their patients’ care, especially in our COVID time. I do note that medical doctors are respected even when they are not constantly, visibly, performing their duties unto exhaustion. Educators are not.

And ultimately misogynist stories about the unpaid and unseen labor that women perform are echoed and reinscribed every time it is stated that the reason a woman with a doctorate deserves respect is because of how hard she worked for it.

It seems to me that these are some of the deeper reasons why the holder of an education doctorate deserves respect. Because historically she hasn’t been respected — neither by the academy she joins, nor by the world she serves. And if she wishes to be respected, however tentatively, she must constantly enact the suffering and sacrifice that is required of any educator who wishes to join the ranks of the professionally honored.

That isn’t good enough. I honor Dr. Biden — and all the holders of the Ed.D. degree, including those we hooded in the Ed.D. program I serve just last week — as scholars and colleagues in full. Others who have consecrated themselves to the deep meanings behind terms like “doctor” and “professor.”

Teachers — of essential truths to those who will come next. Professors — of values and wisdoms and dispositions that are worthy of a life’s devotion.

Please join me in respecting them. Period. Full stop.

Image of the wall of my own program, where we honor each year’s finest work with the Alice Phoebe Naylor Outstanding Dissertation Award.

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