For many years in my early adulthood I’d explain to my extended and very practical family that I only wanted to get an impractical Ph.D so I could get good tables at restaurants by calling in and making a reservation for “Doctor Hayward.” The family immediately got the joke. My grandfather, a man with an eighth grade education who went on to start what eventually became the largest GM dealership in the LA area in the early postwar years, actually used to phone restaurants and make reservations under the name “Dr. Schulz,” presuming that he’d get better tables and superior service.
He was a martini-drinking, chain-smoking, fancy silk suit man, so it may have worked in those days, though family lore doesn’t record whether he tipped appropriately. I suspect not. I know he used to put cheap whisky in Chivas Regal bottles, which never failed to fool party guests who’d go on and on about how Chivas Regal was the only whisky to drink, but who couldn’t detect the cheap hootch they had in their glass. (Some other time I’ll have to tell the story of gramps and my dad launching fabricated weather-balloon UFOs at a flying saucer convention held out in the California desert in the late 1960s. Lots of martinis those nights.)
I’d almost forgotten about all this until the dustup over the weekend about Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journal article chiding putative First Lady Jill Biden for insisting on being called “Doctor” on account of her Ed.D degree. You’d think a U.S. Senator and Vice President could get good restaurant tables without this pretension. Imagine what seats the Bidens will be able to get now. (If they can find an open restaurant.) While no one in academia will admit it, an Ed.D degree is regarded at about the level of an MBA, if that. And how many lawyers demand to be called “doctor” because their degree is actually a “Juris Doctor”? “Excuse me, your honor, but that’s Doctor Dershowitz to you!” Yeah—not even that guy.
The identity politics left—and the Biden inner circle—has gone to DefCon1 over this insult to Doctor Jill Biden. The WSJ’s Paul Gigot pushes back nicely in a column Monday. Good for him.
For the record, I’m still somewhat embarrassed merely to be called professor, and on the rare occasions when someones has presumed to call me “Doctor Hayward,” I usually disavow the term. Hypothetical: Suppose “Doctor Biden” is dining in a restaurant some time and a nearby diner is suddenly in distress. The host or hostess calls out, “Is there is doctor in the house?” Will “Doctor” Jill Biden answer the call? If I’d ever actually reserved a table under “doctor” and someone was choking, I guess I’d have to say, “Well, you see, I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, and as philosophy teaches that there’s a time to live and a time to die. . .”
For what it’s worth, my practice in the classroom is to emulate the old St. Johns/University of Chicago protocol, in which I am “Mr. Hayward,” and all the students are “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Jones.” Admittedly this is a little tricky now in the age of exponentially expanding pronouns, but the point is, this modicum of formality not only treats students with an unaccustomed respect, but keeps a baseline of seriousness amidst a sometimes chaotic and free-flowing dialogue (at least in small seminars), and also conveys a certain kind of equality which is the notional atmosphere of classical education. Students like it, by the way. It’s kinda chill, they might say. I know very few professors (actually none) who insist on being called “doctor.” (To be fair, Henry Kissinger, who insisted on being called “Dr. Kissinger” when he joined the Nixon White House in 1969, is one of the authors of this pretension. I’m sure being compared to Kissinger will be a comfort to Jill Biden.)
The insistence on Jill Biden being called “doctor” is of a piece with the insatiable neediness of many public figures. If that’s what they need to have self-esteem, well, the paradox is obvious. Why not just go all the way and demand to be referred to with the German form, “Doktor.” Fits with Joe Biden’s broader governing ideology. Also: I’ll bet the Bidens don’t tip very well when “Doctor” Jill and The Thing We Know are out to dinner.