Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Degrees, Honorifics, Misogyny and Books I've Read

 

I have a BA. A Bachelor of Arts. In Mathematics with a minor in French. My skills in those two subjects being woefully absent in my old age, I don't brag about it too much. I wish I remembered more about differential equations. I wish I'd ever even studied topology. Occasionally I read popular books that touch on mathematics and desperately try to revive something of my training. I have mastered enough French to never stumble over ici, mer, and such in my crosswords. Every year I buy a page-a-day calendar with a French sentence or note about something French six pages a week. (You only get one page for the weekend. It's a cheat.) I went back to college for classes in mathematics, accounting, and business. I never completed any other degree. Therefore, you won't find me bragging about my education or using a title or honorific. And I didn't attend Harvard or anything for that one degree. North Texas State University. Now the University of North Texas. (Why the name change? I don't know.)

Much has been made on social media about an editorial by Joseph Epstein in The Wall Street Journal in which he excoriates Dr. Jill Biden for using the title. It is dismissive of her because she isn't a medical doctor, has a Doctorate in Education, and wrote a dissertation he described as 'unpromising' perhaps because it mentioned "Community College."

In this editorial, he admits that he has only a BA and an honorary doctorate. He excoriates his honorary doctorate a bit, but also that of others. He brags about, despite his lack of real degrees, being a lecturer at the prestigious Northwestern and the editor of The American Scholar. 

In a world where we have so many problems that should light up the editorial pages of our major newspapers and social media, this editorial should never have been written. It smacks of misogyny, elitism, whatever. He might have missed that Jill, married to a politician all these years, might want some way to say "I am a woman who has accomplished something in my field, education, not just by getting an advanced degree, but by furthering student's accomplishments."

But. No, there's not really a but. They shouldn't have published it. It just doesn't matter what he thinks about her use of the title. Like his lack of an advanced degree doesn't matter. 

However. Yes, maybe there is a, however. Around 1999 or 2000 I picked up a book while browsing in a bookstore. "Narcissus Leaves the Pool" by Joseph Epstein. I loved the title and the cover. (Above.) I might have glanced inside at some of the essays. (The title one is about growing old and accepting that one's body will eventually betray our 'getting better every day' mantra.) I read it while we were on a staycation at a local Bed and Breakfast. I loved it. His way with words. His choice of topics. I hadn't thought about it until this controversy arose and, I confess, I didn't remember many specifics about the essays. I never bought another of his books or read him elsewhere that I remember.

I hunted up the book. Now, I remember. One essay "So to Speak" was about mispronouncing words and names and how embarrassing that can be. I related to that. I grew up maybe reading but never hearing a lot of words. I was excoriated for my Texas accent. I did mispronounce things and it embarrassed me greatly. Once, in Canada (eh) I told my students in a class about Natural Language for a computer system, that the system 'parsed' the words they wrote in the language in a certain way. Someone said I meant passed, haha, and I said 'no, parsed.' Because this person was ignorant of the word parse and they could hear an accent of some kind (eh) they assumed I was adding an 'r' to pass. And yet if they hadn't also been ignorant of accents they would have known that Texans didn't add and subtract 'r's like Bostonians. See how fast we can lash out at others because of our own failings and sensitivities?

In another essay ("Trivial Pursuits") he talks about giving up watching sports. As some of you may know, I started boycotting football at every level about four years ago. I don't watch news reports (unless it's about the reasons for the boycott) or one down of any game or any ads associated with such broadcasts. I know that it makes no difference. However, I no longer feel complicit in the horrors of the destruction of young men (CTE, joints, undervaluing education), the overshadowing of academics in schools, the turning the other way when crimes are committed, the societal implications that the sport is the ultimate and therefore that women, who only cheer or play an instrument or dance at half time cannot be the best. I feel better for my boycott. I wonder now if this essay allowed me to start the thought process that---after fifty years of watching football (and, yes, enjoying it) and sometimes living and dying (so to speak) with the fortunes of these boys or men---led to this turning away which has been very pleasant.

Joseph Epstein writes good essays. (And has been richly rewarded, it seems, for that.) He could have written an essay on the sometimes meaningless honorifics and degrees without the ad hominem attack on Dr. Jill Biden. It's obviously something he has thought about a lot since he 'only' has a (real) BA. Like me. When I first worked in computers in the early seventies, I had just graduated from college. But over the years I met a lot of people (especially women) who got into the field from 'traditional' women's jobs in companies that were just acquiring computers and went on to careers every bit as successful as mine or the younger people with degrees in Computer Science. (My university did not offer such a degree when I was there.) This unbalance in potential success and degrees or advanced degrees is a worthy topic. Since Jill has studied Community College education, it is one that she is probably prepared to address as well. 

When the firestorm over this OPED started my husband located this book (which he had never read) and wanted to get rid of it. After having glanced through it to see why I had, in fact, enjoyed it, I think I'd like to read it again. No offense to Dr. Biden. 

2 comments:

Theresa B (of Nebulopathy) said...

Not only did he write that essay, but he apparently spent his entire career as a lecturer belittling the women in his class and making sure they received poor grades.
This isn't the only account I saw, just the most concise: https://twitter.com/anguilline/status/1338226284703272962

(As far as I'm concerned, he's spent his lifetime damaging people and he can be on the first bus yeeted into the sun.)

All that combined means that I'll never even skim an essay by him, but if I didn't know anything at all about him, might I have found them interesting? Maybe back when they were written -- I suspect the person I am now would pick up on his misogyny pretty quickly.

If you do re-read the essays, knowing what you know now, I'd be interested to see if you have the same opinions.

LB said...

Yeah, he's apparently spent some time attacking gay people and tried to back away from it, too. I feel like when I read this book a couple of decades ago, knowing nothing more than the dust jacket bio, I came away thinking that he was elitist and self-centered and also envying him because he got to make his way through life getting paid for writing these essays! I will definitely be reading with a different perspective this time around. But dipping into those essays I know why I liked them. As narcissistic as they were (ha, I don't think he really backed away!) they spoke to a certain self-centered part of me. Reading the whole body of the book should be interesting, though, knowing more about the guy.