“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo,” begins writer Joseph Epstein’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed calling on First Lady-elect Dr. Jill Biden to stop referring to herself as a doctor. The article itself is so demeaning, ludicrous and poorly written — its thesis is, “Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc” — that it hardly even warrants a direct rebuttal. Yet its publication highlights a deeper decades-old problem in American culture: the extent to which we undervalue teachers and its ruinous effects on educational quality.
Epstein predicates his argument, that Biden’s possession of a doctorate in education establishes her as inferior to those with doctorates in medicine and other fields, on his perception that teaching is an “unpromising” career. He is neither correct nor alone in that belief, and the American educational system continues to suffer as a result. Rather than allow the right to unjustly denigrate her educational training and pride therein, Biden should lead the charge against the low prestige of the teaching profession while in office. In doing so, she could improve the lives of both American teachers and the pupils for whom they are responsible.
For nearly the first two centuries of U.S. history, first ladies’ duties were almost exclusively ceremonial. With the exception of First Lady Edith Wilson, who essentially ran the executive branch after then-President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, their responsibilities were limited to hosting guests, decorating the White House and planning events. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt changed all that. She gave lectures, wrote a daily newspaper column and traversed the U.S. while in office, and following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, she spearheaded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Since her tenure, nearly every first lady has championed a cause: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis supported the arts, Hillary Clinton fought for greater access to health care and Michelle Obama worked to reduce childhood obesity. Precedent, then, suggests Biden will likely follow suit.
If and when she does choose a cause, she is uniquely positioned to pick education. Biden is the first presidential spouse to ever hold a doctorate in education, a degree for which she conducted original research. As an experienced, highly qualified educator with decades of experience as a politician’s spouse, she has both the topical expertise and policy exposure necessary to work within the system to revolutionize American education. Contrary to Epstein’s misguided opinion, Biden deserves significant respect as an academic and as a person.
Biden has clarified that she will keep her job as a community college professor, which would make her the only first lady to ever work outside the White House while in office. This is admirable in and of itself — no woman’s professional life should be subordinate to that of their spouse, and teaching while acting as first lady would demonstrate that to the American people. Moreover, it would also help her use her other qualifications to become an extraordinary policy entrepreneur, or a public leader who promotes proposals and shepherds them through the policymaking process. Since a huge variety of interest groups, unions, associations and other organizations dominate education policymaking, the process is often pluralist and therefore very susceptible to policy entrepreneurs’ influence. Long story short, Biden’s unique professional situation and education policy’s pluralist bent could help her effect significant change.
Biden’s background as an educator also predisposes her to use those advantages to great effect. Having suffered baseless disrespect from Epstein and Fox News host Tucker Carlson for her career choice, she should use that experience to push for improvements to one of the greatest inadequacies in U.S. education: the low prestige of public school teaching. In the U.S., college students rank teaching among the most unattractive professions in the world, and most teachers are trained in schools with low academic standards. We have a shortage of high-quality teachers because we can neither convince high-quality students to take those jobs nor train them well when they decide to do so, and student outcomes suffer as a result.
In other countries, public school teaching is extremely prestigious, and it shows. In Finland, for instance, college students admire teaching more than law or medicine. Finnish teaching colleges’ acceptance rates hover around 10%, require all students to conduct research and are generally very rigorous. That fierce competition means that only the best of the best can become teachers in Finland, and the qualified few who succeed are trained extraordinarily well. Given teacher quality’s outsize effect on student performance, the fact that Finnish students consistently top international rankings of academic performance — and trounce their American peers — is no surprise. To improve students’ educational outcomes and teachers’ quality of life, the U.S. needs to follow the Finnish example. Biden could and should lead that charge.
Specifically, she should work with her husband, the Education Department and the various interest groups involved to improve teaching’s prestige by changing the way we train teachers. First, Biden should push those policymakers to phase in a nationwide requirement that all newly accredited public school teachers hold at least a master’s degree in education or the field in which they hope to teach. Not only would this disincentivize teachers to leave poorer states, but it could also help elevate the prestige of teaching to the level of engineering, law and executive management.
Moreover, her experience conducting research work for her doctorate in education should help her advocate for the other key component of increasing the prestige of teaching: improving the quality and rigor of teacher training. This could mean subsidizing Master of Education programs on the condition that they exclusively offer three-year degrees and require students to write dissertations, or mandating that they do both before renewing their accreditation. Precedent in Finland and elsewhere suggests this would both attract more qualified people to the profession and train them more effectively.
As a professor with three graduate degrees and a generally remarkable human being, Biden deserves to spend her time teaching students and reforming this country for the better, not dictating the White House’s holiday aesthetic. Biden is an autonomous person with the right to lead her own life exactly as she sees fit, but she’s more than up to this challenge, and American teachers and students alike need her to take it.
It will be a challenge, though, and Congress should pay her accordingly. No first lady has ever received a cent from the government for their work, despite their enormous workload and significant impact. If President Donald Trump was offered $1.6 million over four years to shred American democracy, Biden deserves to be paid for putting what remains of it to good use.
So share Epstein’s article with your friends and family to expose his attacks for the demeaning vitriol that they are. Call on Biden to take action, pressure your elected officials to work with her and donate to public education groups. Ask yourself whether you’re biased against teaching and why. And seriously, if you’re in college right now, think about becoming a teacher. You could do a lot of good.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.