My MD sister-in-law messaged me Saturday night, upset that the man who slandered the First-Lady-to-be in the The Wall Street Journal claimed affiliation with my alma mater—where I now work, where my father spent his professorial career, and where my sons are students. She was surprised by my blasé response. I explained the snobbery leveled against EdDs by PhDs roughly parallels that of that against DOs by MDs. Remember when we discovered the White House physician was a DO?
The notion of a degree as a source of shame and inadequacy is steeped in toxic masculinity, but not necessarily in the way one might expect. In the UK system, acquiring a PhD (or DPhil if at Oxford) verges on an admission of failure. The VERY best (by some dubious definition), are plucked from Oxford’s undergraduates directly into All Souls College. Among the most influential historians in his generation, Quentin Skinner, levitated directly from undergraduate to faculty at Cambridge. One morning as a graduate student at the latter university, the BBC on our alarm clock radio awoke me with an interview of some luminary (I wish I could remember with whom) saying his undergraduate Cambridge adviser told him only those who could not do anything else stayed for a graduate degree. On the other side of the Atlantic, I remember being told that in the other Cambridge along the Charles River to use the appellation “Dr” was considered declassé, and one of the most prestigious academic journals in my field remained in accord with the practice of referring to authors as “Mr and Ms,” regardless of whether or not they held a doctorate.
I always interpreted this evasion as tied to the same pretense of gentility that made being a physician and touching other people’s bodies distinctly lowbrow in certain factions of the aristocratic English imagination. One had to traverse Hadrian’s wall to Edinburgh and Glasgow if one wished to receive the best medical education on offer in 18th Century Britain. In the late 19th Century, Edinburgh-educated Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional Dr Watson remained the intellectual inferior of the drug-addled and doctorate-free Holmes. If you wish to offend a surgeon in the UK, refer to one as “doctor.” (I only made that mistake once.) When they specialize, British surgeons are permitted to elevate themselves to Mr or Ms, which projects gentility while paradoxically harkening back to their origins as barbers.
Gentlemen don’t need degrees to assert their membership in the elite. Men of lower social standing (marked by accent, ethnicity, religion, or race) and ALL women do. For us, the degree is a necessity to assert our right to speak and write on topics about which we have hard won expertise that genteel patriarchs would prefer to dismiss. Just as aristocratic men can dress sloppily and enjoy feeling above materialistic pretense, those from the “lower orders” feel compelled to dress “up” to establish their right to be in certain rooms and behind certain podiums. Mark Zuckerburg interviews in hoodies; Cheryl Sandburg does not.
Mr Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr Chan, are useful examples of my point. Mr Zuckerberg, like Mr Gates, dropped out of Harvard. Their lack of education has never been held against them. This is more surprising for Mr Zuckerberg, because it demonstrates that some of the overt anti-semitism that demanded Jewish immigrants acquire titles to demonstrate their professional value has waned. Mr Zuckerberg found acceptance among the un-degreed elite without a WASP pedigree. Note, however, he married a “real” (ie MD) Asian-American doctor, who continues to use her title and prevent the world from thinking of her as merely “Mrs. Zuckerberg.”
I do not know a PhD, who has not had someone scoff about “real” doctors, who save lives, rather than “eggheads,” who engage in mental (fill in a term that rhymes with publication). At core, the embittered diatribe in The Wall Street Journal stems from the familiar insecurity of someone never admitted into the American academy’s tenured inner sanctum, who seeks retribution for his professional emasculation. To Dr Biden, you go girl! To the ranting relics of prejudice past, it is easy to access teletherapy during the pandemic.