'Dr. Jill' and the Dangers of Scientism

Jill Biden thinks an ed-school advanced degree makes her more important. Does it?

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Essayist Joseph Epstein stirred up the “woke” commissars with an essay jovially advising Jill Biden from insisting on being called “Dr” because she has a doctorate in education. As Epstein pointed out, usually the demand to be called “Doctor” when one is not an M.D. suggests insecurity or unseemly vanity. After all, according to her husband, she sought out the degree because she was “so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden.” No matter. To Epstein’s critics, the “entitled” old white guy was “sexist” and “misogynist,” demeaning Mrs. Biden’s accomplishments in order to keep her in her “handmaiden” place.

Such “woke” dudgeon is so common that it is a dog-bites-man story, reported on only to provide progressives with opportunities for virtue-signaling, attacking their enemies, and feeling superior to the unenlightened. What’s more serious about this spat is the foundational flaw that runs through it–– our failure to separate real science from activities that reflect scientism: Dressing up ideological beliefs or even fads in the quantitative data and forbidding jargon of real sciences like physics or engineering.

Of course, the criticisms were all preposterous: slighting the EdD is an equal opportunity custom long embedded in Academe, where the “narcissism of small differences” is epidemic, especially for the American professoriate, which doesn’t enjoy the wider social esteem that European academics enjoy. Also, doctorates in education exist mainly as a way to boost a school-teacher’s salary, or qualify him to serve as an administrator. For snooty professors in traditional disciplines, the stink of the marketplace clings to the EdD.

But the deeper question is, why does a discipline like education even exist? Does anybody really believe that there are scientific truths from which this discipline derives? The reliance of educational theory on psychology and sociology should set off warning bells. While empirical information shows up in these fields, they are not “scientific,” but comprise philosophical theories dressed up in the numerical data and polysyllabic jargon that characterize real science. Disciplines whose topic is human behavior, interactions, motivations, or consciousness are particularly dubious, because few of these aspects of our humanity can be understood with the rigor and predictability of hard science.

As such, the disciplines on which education relies are subject to the transient fads and fashionable theories that have bedeviled psychology and sociology since their birth in the 19th century. But the influence of educational theories is particularly malign, since they inform the credentialing programs that certify who gets to teach in our schools. Hence young people are subjected to all sorts of curricula and pedagogical techniques that repeatedly fail. “New” math, phonics, the obsessions with “self-esteem,” sex education, “tolerance and inclusion” curricula, and now unscientific ideas like “systemic racism” or “white privilege” are filling lesson plans and passed off as the fruits of scientific inquiry rather than ideological constructs based on a particular political viewpoint.

That these various pedagogical fashions have failed is evident in the dismal performance of our public schools, as shown by U.S. students in the Programme for International Student Assessment tests, where their scores are regularly below average. This will not come as a surprise to many in businesses, or to older professors like me, who over 43 years of teaching has seen the decline of foundational skills like reading and writing, and of the general cultural and historical knowledge once possessed by people with just grade-school educations.

The biggest problem with scientism is that it assumes human beings can be known and manipulated the same way real science has come to understand nature and then create life-improving (and life-destroying) technologies. This assumption is false. With their minds and free will, humans are too complex to be understood with the same rigor with which science can understand the material world. They are unpredictable and spontaneous, in a word, undetermined unlike any other creature. As Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei says, “What science can there be in a matter which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be determined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which becomes manifest at a particular moment, and no one can tell when that moment will come?”

Teaching is an art, not a science. The only preparation needed is the knowledge of subject matter––something today’s credential students in the “soft” disciplines sorely lack. Everything else needed to teach successfully is learned from experience, and advice from successful veteran teachers, if one can be found. Any classroom is too diverse in so many different ways––upbringing, ethnicity, levels of intelligence, work ethic, home life––to be amenable to some totalizing theory or methods cooked up in some ed school.

Nor is there some magic pedagogical technique or technology that allows students to bypass the drudgery that all learning requires. The poor performance of our schools can also be marked by their eagerness to adopt any new fad or computer program that promises to “make learning fun” and protect students from failure and damage to their “self-esteem.” Yet such goals tend to thrive in schools of education. The “different ways of learning” fad––visual learners, kinetic, logical, social, and the rest––may work with very young children, but the age quickly comes when a student needs to learn to read and memorize information, and practice foundational skills through repetition. Of course, the ed schools dismiss this as “drill and kill,” even though for thousands of years until the last fifty that’s how human beings across the world learned cognitive skills.

The prestige put on advanced degrees reflects how thoroughly scientism has spread through our culture. The hard sciences perhaps deserve this esteem, but even there you can find plenty of hacks and drudges. But at least they had to know math. The softer disciplines don’t deserve to be treated the same way medical doctors are. There too you will find the mediocre and the mercenary, but every day doctors save thousands and thousands of lives.

It is testimony to Jill Biden’s lack of self-awareness that she thinks an ed-school advanced degree makes her more important. This doesn’t mean that a good teacher in an ed school has no value, given that to teach in America you need to have that credential. But in my experience from teaching thousands of credential students, I can tell you that the good teachers I have met over the years are good in spite of their credential courses, not because of them.

So Mr. Epstein is right to counsel Jill Biden to drop the “Dr.” As Epstein writes, “In contemporary universities, in the social sciences and humanities, calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league.” It bespeaks insecurity and a desperate craving for respect, always a bad combination. Being First Lady should offer Mrs. Biden ample opportunities to earn both, rather than demanding empty honorifics.