An open letter to Joseph Epstein, who is not a doctor, about Jill Biden, who is one

(Editor’s apology: When I started this blog a few years back, my editors at SAGE asked me to avoid “unnecessary cursing,” as my vernacular tended to drift to words that might upset folks in more conservative institutions. Today’s post includes some of those choice terms, but please know I find it to be “necessary cursing.” I hope you’ll agree. -VFF)

Dear Mr. Epstein,

When I read your piece in the Wall Street Journal in which you had the temerity to tell Dr. Jill Biden to drop her “doctor” title as the incoming first lady, I kept waiting for that exact moment when you revealed your comments to be a spoof. I kept thinking, “Wait for it… This has to be a joke. Otherwise, why would the Wall Street Journal run this?”

What I found instead was something the majority of my academic colleagues face each day from administrators, fellow faculty, students and the general public: A denigration of their scholarly efforts, impolitely slathered with an ample serving of sexism.

In my academic career, I have worked with hundreds of women who are fantastic educators and scholars. They are gifted, hard-working individuals that earned their doctorates in myriad circumstances. These and other women in academia don’t need me to stand up for them or to stand with them to prove their worth. They are more capable of dealing with you than I could ever hope to be.

That said, Mr. Epstein —  Joseph — Joey — J-Dog — pookie: Since you seem to value opinions that only come from people who sport a specific genitalia and who you can’t dismiss as bleeding-heart liberals, let me see if I can walk you through a few things.

First, to find out what kind of person would decide he had the bona fides to declare who should be addressed as what, I did some brief research on your prior writings in the Journal and your record in academic life. What I found is little in the way of substance, but an awful lot on self-important, self-aggrandizing arrogance that somehow keeps finding its way into the public.  For example,  a piece you wrote earlier this year took on the “Tyranny of the Tolerant,” in which you discussed issues of racism, sexual reassignment surgery, climate change and abortion in a way that just screams, “Damn hippies! Get off my lawn!”

Prior to the Biden piece, where you came within a half a step of calling a professional woman with an advanced degree with whom you have no formal relationship “kitten,” you took a similar dump on the concept of higher education. In a 2019 WSJ piece, you note that teaching college is a “sweet racket” where professors can make upwards of $200,000 a year  for “essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day.”

(If you have a line on that job, shoot me an email. I’ve got friends who are teaching for about $3,000 a class who might be interested. Some of them are even those “doctor women” you seem to value so little.)

An opinion piece you provided at the beginning of the school year, as most of us in education were heading into uncharted waters and facing unfathomable risks, explained that no real teaching goes on in colleges anymore because we’re too soft on our kids.  You noted:

There used to be a tough-guy tradition in teaching that was in good part based on shame and fear. I had such a teacher at the University of Chicago named Norman Maclean. When he asked you a question, he made you feel as if you were being interviewed by the bad cop.

(There also used to be a tradition where we smoked on airplanes, groped women with impunity and told people of color where to sit, eat and pee when they were in public. Let’s just say some things change for good reasons.)

In each of your education-based essays, although calling them that seems to endow them with value beyond what they are actually worth, you mention the 30-years you spent at Northwestern University as an instructor. I’m uncertain as to if you reference this fact as a credential to support your poorly developed views or as an indictment of the school’s hiring and firing processes. In either case, it was this line in your piece on teaching that made it clear to me why Northwestern is disavowing you now faster and harder than Peter denied Christ:

The two biggest lies about teaching are that one learns so much from one’s students and, so gratifying is it, one would do it for nothing. I had a number of bright and winning students, but if I learned anything from them, I seem long ago to have forgotten it. I always felt I was slightly overpaid as a teacher, but I wouldn’t have accepted a penny less. The one certain thing I learned about teaching is that you must never say or even think you are a good teacher. If you believe you are, like believing you are charming, you probably aren’t.

(Well, I have learned a lot from my students over the past couple decades and I have taken pay cuts to do it, for various reasons. Maybe, and I’m just guessing here, you weren’t much of a teacher. That might be why it was a money grab and an ego boost for you instead of actual pedagogy.)

In getting back to the Biden situation, maybe you should have spent those 30 years at Northwestern actually talking to people who went through the doctoral process you apparently lacked the interest, dedication or talent to endure. To get a doctorate in pretty much any non-medical field, you need to put in at least nine years in higher ed (four for a bachelor’s, two for a master’s and three for a Ph.D.), and that’s a Cannonball Run through a program. Some people spend decades working through their programs, as they balance life, work, family and other responsibilities to get it.

Along the way, many doctoral students deal with professors who treat them as something between cockroaches and scholarship slaves.  They take on additional “Joe jobs,” teaching assignments and research efforts, all with the hopes that they’ll get that sheepskin, which has become the “union card” of higher education. They then enter a world in which there are too many of them and too few jobs.

For women, it’s even worse.

They are often mistaken for secretaries or assistants. They are treated as “less than” by students who have the view reflected in your Biden essay. They are often sexually harassed by administrators and faculty, usually older men who see them less as future peers but as a T&A fringe benefit that took the place of being allowed to drink scotch in their offices.

Once these women complete this run through the gauntlet, it starts all over again as they begin the climb to tenure. They are once again viewed as less-qualified eye candy by people like you who think the world peaked in 1958. (Trust me, professorial websites like “Rate My Professor” didn’t include the “chili pepper hotness” rating for professors to “honor” anyone.)

You wouldn’t know any of this, given your mail-order BA in English from the University of Chicago you romanticize as having earned when you “took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the peacetime Army.” That “honorary doctorate” you picked up from Adelphi University didn’t cost you anything in terms of actual work. (My guess is the folks there are already trying to figure out how to revoke it.) You have somehow managed to combine the two worst things about academia: People who don’t know anything about what it takes to survive in it, along with the arrogance usually reserved for the truly academic.

One of the things I did find fascinating about you is that you have long argued against the inexactness of language and the overwriting that occurs due to it:

Epstein rails against the lapse in the standards of language use that allows clarity and correctness to be sacrificed for popular and political trends. Epstein is clear about what he feels are the effects of such inexactness: “The condition of language today is such that communication threatens to be clogged, perception clouded, the possibility for serious discourse lessened,” he wrote in Commentary. Reality itself is threatened, asserts Epstein, by vague and abstract terms that obfuscate the meaning behind the words.

With that in mind, I’d like express a thought in a clear, correct and accurate way in regard to your efforts to minimize the work of people like Dr. Jill Biden:

You are an asshole.

I mean this, of course, in a metaphoric and figurative sense that should help you see yourself as being held in limited esteem and worth. However, I also mean this in an actual sense, given your stasis and actions:

  • You’re a wrinkled, tightly puckered element that nobody wants to deal with.
  • When you express yourself noisily in public, smart people are left disgusted and quickly move away from you.
  • When you open up and fully express yourself, it’s to expel an odoriferous waste product of limited value.
  • Individuals with common sense see what you have produced and quickly flush it away.

In sum, I hope this helps you learn a little something on the off chance you crawl out of your hole again and pontificate about education, academic credentials and how women should “behave.” If not, rest assured that you’ll have plenty of doctors out there, willing and able to give you the mental enema you so desperately need.


Vince Filak
(also a real doctor)

3 thoughts on “An open letter to Joseph Epstein, who is not a doctor, about Jill Biden, who is one

  1. Hillary says:

    Thanks, Vince, for addressing this. (It’s funny that this followed so closely on last week’s post.)

    When I was a grad student, I was fortunate to have been mentored by some of the most well-known researchers in the field. In most cases, that resulted in wonderful recommendations and contacts that I still benefit from.

    But, as I found out to my horror and too late to do anything, one recommendation described how great I was with his kids. I was his assistant for 2+ years and babysat for he and his wife once, but my child-care skills got top billing.

    It is definitely a luxury of the dominant and the established to eschew the titles that establish one’s bona fides. I know that I’m the one asked for copies, for office supplies, the one called “Mrs.,” when my male colleagues are presumed to be real professors. I can only imagine the assumptions made about colleagues with less privilege than my own.

    And, those who sneer at Dr. Biden’s dissertation title and topic: she researched how to help community college students succeed. Is there any topic more crucial to higher education, to the national economy, to the well-being of a society, than learning how to make the massive investment we make in education bear fruit for the individual and for all of us?

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