It’s not just about Dr. Jill Biden. It’s a common tactic in the church and world to denigrate those with advanced degrees–and make them harder to achieve than they are for straight white men.
Academic Bias…or is it?
When I was interviewing to become a clergyperson in my faith tradition, it was an uphill climb because I was a progressive Christian seeking ordination in a conservative region of United Methodism. While I had many shortcomings and failures in that interview, one comment stuck with me: an interviewer said I used too much “academic language” in my theological statement. It struck me as odd: a theological statement is internal, for an interviewing board of fellow clergy, and I needed to show that I understood the nuances of theology to them. If, on the other hand, it was a sermon that had too much academia, it would be totally a valid criticism!
I later found out it was a pattern over the years: other progressives also were criticized for using “academic language” whereas conservatives could drop as many $3 words as they wanted and they didn’t report any critiques like that. So a professed concern with academic language was used as a weapon to keep unwanted people from achieving a similar status as their own.
Little did I know that experience was only a small, small slice of what women and minorities experience every day.
Church and World weaponizing education
Recently, Dr. Jill Biden was criticized by a Rupert Murdoch-owned (ie. Fox News founder) newspaper The Wall Street Journal for…well, having a doctorate, the article author erroneously claiming that only medical doctors can be called “doctor.” Dr. Biden has a Doctorate in Education and is a college professor, and will continue to use both in the White House.
The response was swift: people named this wouldn’t have been written about a man. They named it for the long tradition that it was: using anti-intellectualism as a weapon against women who have achieved more advanced degrees (or higher degrees than the Wall Street Journal article author). I’m glad to see my social media streams filled with women who proudly add “Dr.” to their bios, in every field, in response.
I’m sad to say it continues to happen in the Church too. On Twitter a few weeks ago, a United Methodist posted a picture of the group UMForward (now split into the Liberation Methodist Connexion and The Liberationists) and denigrated the group for having a ton of PhDs, DMins, and ThDs in it. It was blatant anti-intellectualism (and the thread was since deleted…should taken screenshots, shoot!), but the claims were made against a group of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ persons. Every single one of the people in that picture had to overcome institutionalized homophobia and/or racism to achieve their advanced degrees, experiences that the mostly-white participants in that Twitter thread did not.
Finally, anti-minority faith-based organizations like The Institute on Religion and Democracy regularly refer to women and LGBTQ+ persons without their honorifics, or even “quotations” around their earned statuses (such as with Bishop Karen Oliveto, who also has a Doctorate, but they put quotes around “Bishop” to denigrate her status as the first out LGBTQ+ bishop in United Methodism) in order to use status as a weapon.
So you can see how in both church and world, anti-intellectualism and anti-status language is used as a weapon against women and minorities (racial and sexual) who dare achieve similar or higher status than straight white men. These claims are not actually against being smart or having status: they are made to undermine the authority of someone to whom you are prejudiced against.
Unequal Tracks to Authority
Such anti-intellectual sentiment is misplaced even if it comes from good intent because it doesn’t understand the nature of authority when it comes to women and sexual/racial minorities.
Authority traditionally comes from earned status (an advanced degree or rank or position), earned experience (a plumber for 20 years has more experience than a trainee), and/or a track record of consistent claims (a black activist on Twitter with epic threads and spot-on commentary). We understand these things, which is why we claim them when we make appeals. Even I have “Reverend” in my Twitter name because I want people to see all my writings as shaped by my calling as a clergyperson.
But what people forget is that the road to an advanced degree or experience is much easier for straight white males than it is for women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC persons.
- A few years ago, a male engineer wrote a letter to his female engineers, recognizing that their path to engineering was much harder than his (Hacking Christianity posted our own version of it regarding clergywomen).
- Likewise, black doctorates are a small percentage of doctorates earned each year, with some disciplines going years without new black doctorates earned in them nationwide.
- Even when they achieve status or education, the obstacles continue. In the most egregious examples, people will live into their misogyny or racism and claim someone only has a status or degree because of affirmative action or that women used their bodies to get ahead. It’s all connected.
Straight White people should be able to get the concept of an uneven playing field. We already understand that experience gives authority when it comes to economics, as society already grants lower-class experiences more valued authority than higher-class experiences (ie. politicians acknowledging their working-class roots, or rapper Kid Rock famous lyric I’m not straight outta Compton, I’m straight out the trailer”). But we do not often acknowledge that BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women have many more obstacles and biases set against them than straight white men, who are the majority and the gatekeepers of those earned degrees.
The reality is that having diversity in a professional, academic, or positional authority is necessary because persons who did not grow up in the majority culture have much more earned and lived authority, and any organization or church would be better off with their perspectives in them. Anyone who criticizes education needs a second look at themselves to see if it is a bias or prejudice that is actually driving the critique.
Celebrate women. Celebrate women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ persons with academic, professional, positional authority. It matters and they matter so, so much to their fields of authority.
Even in a niche blog, it’s important to model this value. I confess I fall short of my goal to get better at centering, quoting, referencing, and celebrating women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ writers and authorities. It might take extra time if you aren’t already immersed in those circles, and I recently was called out for not doing the work of looking for BIPOC contributors to conversations. But if I don’t do that work, then I rob my readers of conversation partners who have more authority in both position and experience. So I apologize and ask your accountability when I fall short going forward, and I hope you also do this work in your writings, sermons, interactions, and efforts.
Thanks for reading, commenting, subscribing, and sharing on social media.
Lisa Schubert Nowling
One of the challenges I’m putting before myself in 2021 is using more diverse sources in preaching. I’m going to try to center female & BIPOC voices as my sources. I would love to get to the place where that’s all I’m using.
I remember vividly when I sat down after preaching one Sunday and realized I only quoted men in my sermon. A sobering realization! 🙁
You know what would be actually helpful, Jeremy? If you publicly apologized to and thanked by name the clergy women, clergy of color, and queer clergy that you learned these lessons from, and directed your readers to their work. Or even asked one of them to write this article responding to the backlash against Dr. Biden and used your platform to amplify their voice. Or even better, partnered with some BIPOC, Queer, and Womxn contributors and PAID them for content to make your blog actually more inclusive. That would be an example of actually DOING better now that you have acknowledged that you KNOW better.
I agree with all the above that would have made a better article and approach. Thank you for the time and energy it took to offer this engagement!
Once had a bishop (UMC) who during Annual Conference called all male clergy “Dr” and all female clergy by first name. I am female clergy with a PhD. And the bishop knew that.
Lori Keller Burns
I tend not to tell very many people that I have a doctorate, and rarely insist that they call me “Doctor.” It’s not that I didn’t work hard. It’s not that my degree doesn’t matter. I just don’t like the pompous privilege and entitlement that most “Doctors” wear like a badge of honor. I don’t want to be associated with that part of it.
I am not a member of clergy, but I do have an AAS, BS, BA, MS Cert, and 2 other Certifications. I have been denied job due to being over qualified and much better suited to management. Then I was told I was under qualified for management!
A straight, white , male judge from my church, upon hearing of my MS Cert classes, did not say “Congratulations”. He instead asked what I wanted to be when I grew up! I laughed it off, but it hurt. Why should it not be okay to choose a program that is not the exact same as my BS, for my Masters, but rather a degree that would compliment it. Then I got angry. How dare he criticiz Ed me for doing whatever I can to succeed, move forward, thrive in this white male business world!
Just recently, I overheard less educated co-workers complaining about me mentioning that I had education. Ghen my boss died from Covid. The one commenting is now my temp boss until they hire a new one. I am going to apply for the job!
Thank you for sharing your story! It is good to know that I am not alone in this struggle!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a black man with a non-physician degree.
HMMM, seems like he was referred to as “Doctor”. Your premise is wrong, but great posturing nonetheless.