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OPINION: An insult to rural America

OPINION: An insult to rural America

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Joe Biden hasn’t even been sworn in yet and already his administration is swirling in controversy. The biggest one is the least expected: Should the new First Lady present herself as Dr. Jill Biden or not?

This would hardly seem controversial: The president-elect’s wife does, indeed, have a doctorate, making her, yes, Dr. Jill Biden.

The controversy, such as it is, arose when The Wall Street Journal recently ran a commentary by the writer Joseph Epstein in which he called on her to drop the “Dr.” title because she’s not a medical doctor. This brought on an outcry that accused Epstein and the Journal of practicing misogyny on the grounds that they’d never tell a man with a doctorate not to go by “Dr. So-and-So.”

Much of this debate treads on complicated turf although the point we’ll eventually make seems pretty uncomplicated. Most media stylebooks — such as that of the Associated Press, which is typically considered the gold standard — do indeed advise avoiding using the “Dr.” title for anyone other than a medical doctor to avoid confusion as to the nature of the degree. Thus, when Jill Biden spoke at a conference at the Hotel Roanoke in 2015, The Roanoke Times account referred to her as “Jill Biden” on first reference and “Biden” thereafter. Likewise, we refer to the president of Virginia Tech as “President Tim Sands” on first reference and after that simply “Sands.” A media stylebook is not the same thing as common courtesy, though. If you were to meet Sands on the street, the proper greeting would be “Hello, Dr. Sands.” Or, in this case, “Hello, Dr. Biden.”

The Wall Street Journal piece didn’t stop there, though. It went on to denigrate the nature of her doctorate, because it’s a doctor of education, an Ed.D., rather than a doctor of philosophy, the more familiar Ph.D. A followup piece by the writer Kyle Smith in National Review took more aim at Biden’s degree, calling it a “lesser” degree that is “something of a joke in the academic world.” There is a difference between the two degrees, but not what National Review asserts. A Ph.D. is more research-focused, an Ed.D. more application-focused. It’s notable that many don’t make a distinction between the two degrees. For instance, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents can tell us that 103 of the state’s 133 superintendents have doctorates — but not which species of doctorate they hold. Either is good. Meanwhile, of Virginia’s 23 community college presidents and one chancellors, 15 hold Ed.Ds, nine have Ph.D.s.

Yet more criticism has been directed at the subject of the dissertation that earned Biden her doctorate: “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” The Wall Street Journal piece called this an “unpromising title.” National Review was even harsher, calling it “garbage.” And this is where we must call “foul.” While most commentary has focused on the gender politics involved, we are more focused on the cultural politics. This is simply an elitist attack on the community college system and the students it serves.

That these two writers are conservatives makes no difference. Conservatives often like to attack liberals as elitists, and they’re often right. But conservatives have their own elitists and here are two living examples. Let’s not forget that a few years ago National Review ran a piece in which it advised rural residents to give up on their economically distressed hometowns and move. So much for “make America great again.”

Those chortling that a Biden is under attack — any will do, apparently — should keep this in mind: You need not like the president-elect, his wife or any other Democrat for that matter to be offended by this denigration of her degree and, by extension, the community college system. Indeed, it is people who live in places that vote most enthusiastically against Democrats of all kinds who ought to be the most outraged here, because it is those communities that benefit most from the community college system — and are hurt the most by attempts to dismiss it.

The National Review piece includes an astonishing factual error, calling the school where Biden has taught “a small community college.” Really? Northern Virginia Community College is only the second-largest community college in the whole country. Indeed, it’s the largest institution of higher education in all of Virginia — two-year or four-year. Granted, most of its 49,500 students are part time but that’s the nature of a community college, even the purpose. Still, even the 15,539 full-time students at Northern Virginia Community College is more than twice that of Smith’s alma mater of Yale, or, perhaps we should say, a small school in Connecticut.

The real point, though, is the incredible mockery National Review has for community colleges. Smith writes that Biden “has spent a lot of time teaching remedial English to slow learners in community colleges. Which is like being a rock musician who’s in a bar band. That plays covers. At mixers. Held in assisted-living facilities.”

It must be nice for Smith to live in such rarefied circles that he can write such things and think they’re funny. Here in the real world: About one-third of all college students nationwide are in community colleges. Further, community colleges are the gateway for many students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity for higher education: Most first-generation college students attend a community college first, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Community colleges are also the key to building a new economy in rural America. Like it or not, the new economy demands higher skill levels than what the old one did and — and the only way for rural America to compete is for a lot of adults to go back to school, if not for a specific degree then for specific classes or credentials. That’s why lots of states — some red, some blue, some in-between — have been trying to make community college free, on the grounds that the economy today doesn’t demand a K-12 education, it demands a K-14 education. That’s a separate question but all part of the same picture. Community colleges matter. A lot. One challenge they face is that the retention rate for their students — typically older and poorer — is 20% lower than their counterparts at four-year schools, which makes Biden’s dissertation topic a pretty vital public policy question.

Rural America understands that even if the Wall Street Journal and National Review don’t.

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We are making waffles as the sun creeps over the mountain. Rather, it is my husband and our youngest who are whisking the batter. He is telling stories of his grandmother who lived on another mountain in another place and time.

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