Joe and Jill Went Up the Hill
Joe and Jill went up the hill, and who knows when they’ll come tumbling down. The nation may careen well before they do. Much has already been said about the devastating policies and tenure of Joe Biden. Simply put, he is unarguably the worst president the U.S. has ever suffered, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama notwithstanding. Here I will focus on the other half of the Biden tandem, a woman of scholarly pretensions without foundation, the ineffable Dr. Jill.
The adulation Jill Biden has received for so flimsy a dubious accomplishment as a paper doctorate in a derelict field like Education Studies is utterly misplaced, whether it is the mentally impregnable Whoopi Goldberg thinking that Jill Biden was a medical doctor and should be considered for Surgeon General or a sports announcer for an NFL game, as Megyn Kelly notes, ingratiatingly remarking that “Dr. Jill Biden” was in attendance. I watched that game between the Eagles and the 49ers and nearly turned off the set when the fawning announcer asserted his bona fides.
The title of Dr. linked to Jill Biden certainly seems inappropriate. Recently, my wife Janice Fiamengo posted a Substack article critical of the First Lady’s doctoral thesis from the University of Delaware, Student Retention in the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs, a document running to a risible 80 pages, not counting reference pages and appendices. Additionally, the Literature Review does not identify disagreements and contrary viewpoints in the education literature, as is standard practice, nor does her Methodology section indicate the limits of her analytical procedure, also standard practice. These, as well as thin citation, inadequate research, and generally poor writing, as Wall Street Journal film critic Kyle Smith has shown, are crucial problems.
Formerly an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan and later at the University of Ottawa, Janice chaired and administered dozens of doctoral candidacies, professional and academic, over the years and has also served as an external examiner. She knows her business. In her Substack entry, which I would urge the reader to check out, Janice made it vividly clear that Mrs. Biden’s doctoral thesis does not pass muster. Indeed, in my estimation, it would not qualify even for a Master’s Degree.
Look it up. Biden’s second sentence already contains a verbal howler: “The needs of the student population are often undeserved” when she means “underserved.” A few pages later, “The community college became a multi-faceted divergent institution” when she means “diverse.” Again, we find that “student retention rates skyrocket” when she obviously means “nose-dive.” She confuses “elusive” with “illusive.” It goes on. To remark on such blemishes is not pedantry or mere caviling. Academic diplomas and degrees must by protocol be error-free. The point is that Biden is either verbally challenged or lacking in simple attentiveness, surely prerequisites for professional performance.
Biden’s questionnaires and surveys are rhetorical exercises, often posing proleptic questions that have only one answer, such as “Would a Wellness Center be something you would like to see on campus?” Homer Simpson has the answer. We learn that “If students feel closely aligned with their institutions, even before school begins, the chances of student retention increase dramatically.” Another bit of self-evidence, scarcely meriting mention. She seems to believe in extraneous solutions, as if a brand-new gym, a Wellness Center, and a Student Center will improve the ability of students who do not read and have never been trained to write throughout K-12, to identify the main idea in a paragraph. She does not indicate what a reasonable retention rate would be and assumes that failures in student retention are largely the responsibility of the college, not the students themselves.
This seems moot. Delaware Tech College where Biden taught has an open-door policy, but there is no assurance that applicants have the intellectual wherewithal and commitment to succeed. Practically anyone can enroll, including high school dropouts. Unsurprisingly, we find that “62 percent had never taken advantage of the help offered at the writing center” and that “Fewer than 10 percent had ever requested help from a tutor.” Three-quarters of the surveyed students had never used library services, which may not be so bad since “students are capable of doing research on the internet” — a tendency that, as any able instructor knows, does not inspire confidence but plenty of plagiarism.
The issue here is that such results have been common knowledge across the board for at least a generation, probably two. They do not constitute pioneer or ground-breaking research but an inventory of redundant observations and reports stating the painfully obvious. Indeed, innumerable books have been written on the problem, going back at least to 1988 when E.D. Hirsch released Cultural Literacy. Only a radical lowering of standards, as in so many colleges and universities today, could change the retention rate, an unsavory truth nowhere acknowledged. The only positive solution to the dilemma, however remote, is the struggle to restore the traditional values of an increasingly decadent culture or to build a new educational institution from the ground up, such as Jordan Peterson’s online start-up university based in Miami and Nashville and involvement in Ralston College in Savannah, Ga., or inaugural president Panos Kanelos’ new University of Austin in Texas.
Biden’s manner and presentation are disarmingly superficial, seeming to prompt assent while offering nothing new nor making important inroads into her subject. As George Devereux contends in From Anxiety to Method, researchers try to minimize subjective parallax or clinical triviality by interposing filtering screens — questionnaires, interviewing techniques, scoring and metric surveys, operational jargon, and heuristic artifacts — between themselves and their subjects. But such experimental and statistical filters inevitably produce little but what the researcher wants to find in the first place and rarely lead to a novel or quality study.
Moreover, Biden’s summation of her argument, which she calls an “Executive Position Paper,” is, frankly, a pious cliché: “The key to student retention is a coordinated, cohesive effort by administration, faculty, staff, and students. A student retention plan requires diligence and effort — but most of all, leadership.” It reads like the famous Coca-Cola ad. Similarly, we might say a better world requires better people, better managers, better leaders, better plans for reform, and better weather. But this is only skimming the surface. The non-sequiturs, internal contradictions, verbal infelicities, and vacuous pronouncements are too numerous to mention here. Biden’s monograph makes for wince reading, and the subsequent award of “Dr.” is an embarrassment. I can only invite interested readers to consult the dissertation for themselves in order to determine if it is a valid foray into educational scholarship or adds even a jot to the sum total of human knowledge, as a Doctorate is supposed to do.
Equally to the point, most everyone knows or should know that a degree in Education is not worth much. I have lectured as visiting professor in various Education Departments and Teachers’ Training Colleges in Canada and the U.S. and written three books, Education Lost, Lying about the Wolf and The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods, in which the subject was put under the loupe. I came to the conclusion that such Departments and Colleges should be completely abolished. Like Gender Studies, they are a waste of time and resources. The Ed.D might have generated respect had it conformed to the conditions and implications of the title — “Dr.” should mean something. In this instance, it doesn’t.
The process of acquiring a Doctorate and the attendant justification of the title is a solemn affair and should resonate at every level of attainment. The descriptor “Dr.” is not a nickname. In a mildly critical and somewhat humorous 2020 article on Jill Biden for the Wall Street Journal, “Is There a Doctor in the White House?,” famed author Joseph Epstein argued that the title “Dr.” before the First Lady’s name “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” counseling her to “consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now.” (Jonah Goldberg concurs, commenting that “the rote insistence that Jill Biden be referred to as ‘Doctor Jill Biden’ is kind of silly.”) Epstein remembers what the doctorate once meant: “Getting a doctorate was an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field.” Of course, Greek and Latin are no longer at a premium, but two foreign languages should be de rigueur. “At Columbia University of an earlier day,” Epstein continues, “a secretary sat outside the room where these examinations were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted.”
As any serious student recognizes, an authentic doctoral credential is no joke. It is — or at any rate, was — a test of endurance, memory, writing and research skills, productive work, and, at least to some discernible extent, originality. In my wife’s case, her successful candidacy required three lengthy Comprehensive Examinations over a full academic year, a rigorous oral exam, and a 400-page dissertation several more years in the writing, later revised and published as The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada.
In my own case, my doctoral examination at Lajos Kossuth University in Hungary entailed three transatlantic visits to the city of Debrecen, demanded a book-length dissertation, and concluded with a full day’s relentless grilling at the Defense, perhaps the longest nine hours I have ever spent. The examiners comprised several major academic figures from top European universities, including one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars and culture critics, the late Peter Esterházy, (who in one of his texts memorably described Shakespeare as “the second son of God”). Debate was exceptionally vigorous. Following the ordeal, my principal assessor collapsed and took leave of absence to recover from a nervous breakdown. Clearly, the doctoral inquisition was not easy on anyone, neither postulant nor chief adjudicator.
As it happens, Epstein does not have a doctorate. He was gloatingly ridiculed in the comment section of the WSJ column not only for “denigrating women” and for ‘whining,” but for having merely a “B.A. in Absentia.” It didn’t stop there; the politically correct furor was all over the Internet. Epstein was ruthlessly savaged by the media mob and a gaggle of virtue signalers who could not hold a lighted match to his eminence. Northwestern scrubbed his profile from its website, alleging “misogynistic views.” We recall that Northwestern chose the shallow, late-night comic Stephen Colbert to deliver a commencement address, rather a blot on the university’s capacity to comment on Epstein’s insensitivity. In A Literary Education, Epstein reprints his letter to the university president at the time, remarking tongue-in-cheek: “[T]he choice of Stephen Colbert is pure public relations, and not in any way an educational choice. I’m not sure you will grasp this, but I thought it worth mentioning.” Meanwhile, people don’t seem to grasp that Biden’s accreditation is no different, really, from Colbert’s, who holds a degree in the university’s acting program (as well as an honorary degree). I strongly suspect that many, if not most, of the righteous defenders of Jill Biden and her thesis have not read a single page of the document, let alone its entirety, which would render their sense of outrage effectively null.
The attack on Epstein was both unfair and nasty, directed at one of the greatest essayists of our time, a man who lectured for 30 years at Northwestern expounding on the works of Henry James, Willa Cather, and Joseph Conrad, was obviously liked by his students for his erudition, wit, and occasional antics, sat on the board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was editor of The American Scholar, and has authored 29 books, including a masterful study of Alexis de Tocqueville — all without the alphabetical excrescence of a Doctorate trailing after his name like an airplane banner. He didn’t need one.
One observes in this connection the celebrated panoptic scholar George Lyman Kittredge, Gurney Professor of English at Harvard in 1917, author of Chaucer and His Poetry — a book acclaimed “as one of the first works to make clear Chaucer’s greatness to modern readers” — and compiler and annotator of a distinguished edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, the gold standard of Shakespeare scholarship for many years to come. Kittredge’s students included such notables as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William S. Burroughs. As Kittredge’s biographer Clyde Kenneth Hyder tells it, Kittredge never bothered to acquire a Doctorate. “There is a widely circulated story that when asked why he did not have one, Kittredge was supposed to have replied, ‘But who would examine me?’” The same response, whether true or apocryphal, would apply to Epstein.
One might wonder, what’s the big deal in having a Doctorate or why it needs to be flaunted. It is not a rare phenomenon. After all, several U.S. secretaries of defense were so accoutered, though they were never saluted as “Doctor.” As a colleague reminds me, renowned business tycoon Jack Welch was never addressed as “Doctor,” though he had a Doctorate in chemical engineering. Former HUD secretary and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson is referred to as “Mr.” in the New York Times. In Canada, former NDP leader and Ph.D. Ed Broadbent was never called “Doctor.” Even Howard Dean, the onetime DNC chairman, has never to my knowledge been called “Doctor,” though he is an M.D. What, then, is Dr. Biden’s agenda? Why is the press shocked, shocked?
More worrisome, as Samantha Chang at The Western Journal points out, “The first lady, who has never held elected office, is her husband’s ‘closest and most protective confidante’ and is influencing every major decision he makes, according to Bloomberg’s Nancy Cook. This is frightening because no one voted for Jill Biden, an English teacher who has no background in politics or public policy.” Ms. Chang alludes in this context to the secret presidency of Edith Wilson, one of the strangely implausible episodes in American history of a First Lady managing her infirm husband’s duties.
Ultimately, this is the Biden trademark: a corrupt and geriatric incompetent in the White House, and a vain First Lady devoid of intellectual substance who passes herself off as a scholar. Everything about such people is meretricious, or in popular parlance, “fake.” Such is current American leadership in both politics and education, a tale of broken crowns and failed policies hurtling down the historical gradient.