Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Megyn Kelly and the Disappearance of Courtesy

I've never met Megyn Kelly. But based on what she said a couple of days ago, she seems to believe I'm a fraud. Agreed, she didn't say this about me. She said it about Jill Biden. But I certainly felt Ms. Kelly's disrespect, and I was not amused.

What caused Ms. Kelly to take to Twitter and express her outrage about the First Lady was this: during the Eagles-49ers playoff game, the play-by-play announcers, noticing that she was in the crowd, referred to her as "Dr. Jill Biden." This offended Ms. Kelly, and she said so, accusing the First Lady of being nothing more than a "wannabe" with a "fake title." She concluded her tweet by suggesting to the First Lady, "Get a real MD or just work on your self-esteem."

Okay, I understand. Ms. Kelly is a partisan, a former Fox News commentator, and she dislikes the fact that Joe Biden is president. I'm fine about that-- she has every right to her opinion. I can also understand that she might be criticizing Joe Biden by proxy whenever she criticizes his wife.  But the scornful dismissal of Jill Biden's degree, and Ms. Kelly's annoyance that the announcers used the First Lady's preferred title, was uncalled for. 

Like Jill Biden, I got my doctorate later in life: she was 55, and I was 64.  Hers was a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Delaware; mine was a PhD in Communication from the University of Massachusetts.  Like Jill Biden, I studied nights (and worked days) in my quest for the advanced degree. I promise you, it wasn't easy doing it that way. If you have an adult learner in your family, or if you are an adult learner yourself, you know that when you've been out of school for a while, it can be challenging to go back. I've read some online critics who claim the Doctor of Education isn't a "real" degree; but I know some folks who have one, and they worked hard to get it. They don't deserve to be mocked, by Megyn Kelly or anyone else.

To me, it's about good manners. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps I'm hopelessly outdated, but I was always taught to be polite when speaking to others. For example, I was taught that you called professors "Professor." You didn't call them by their first name. Nor did you call priests or rabbis or ministers by their first name: you used their title. Ditto for a wide range of other folks, including your boss. Now, agreed, once you got to know them, if they gave you permission to use their first name, it might be okay. But it was their decision, not yours.

Thus, I'm not bothered if Jill Biden wants to be called Dr. Biden; it's her decision, and it reflects the degree she worked hard for. When my students are addressing me for the first time, I'd expect "Professor Halper" or "Doctor Halper." To me, it's just courtesy. I understand that we're in a more casual era now, and first names are more common: in fact, I often let my students call me Donna, if they ask. But if I were at an academic conference, I would want to use my professional title. And why not? Nothing pretentious about it. Nothing fraudulent or fake. Like Jill Biden, I worked hard for that degree (took me nine years before I finished), and I'm proud of what I accomplished. Lots of folks told me I was "too old." But I proved them wrong. And I see no harm in using the title that reflects all the research I did, and all the effort I put into it writing my dissertation (which was 365 pages long). 

So, my advice to Megyn Kelly is learn some manners. Jill Biden is not asking for anything unreasonable. She's simply asking to be called by her academic title. If that makes her happy, why should anyone be upset about it? She has a real degree from a real university. So do I. So do many folks with Ed.D and PhD degrees. We aren't claiming to be medical doctors. We're just saying that our accomplishments are valid, and deserving of respect. And Megyn, if you can't be proud of us, could you at least try to be courteous? We earned our degrees, so please call us by our title if that's what we want.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Omissions and Corrections, or Why History Matters

When I was in high school, I don't recall learning anything about the Civil Rights Movement. Our American history books in the late 1950s/early 1960s focused mainly on U.S. presidents, famous military leaders, and some men whose inventions changed society (like Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell). We studied one or two women (Clara Barton and Betsy Ross come to mind) and while slavery was mentioned, not very much time was spent on it; the same was true about the "Indians"-- they were presented in the Thanksgiving story, and never appeared again. 

I came from a family of readers, and being Jewish, I knew about the Holocaust; but that wasn't taught in school either. The emphasis, as I recall, was on all the good things the U.S. had done. The fact that there were influential members of the government who insisted on restricting the number of Jews (and other immigrants) who could come here was never discussed. Truth be told, a lot of things were never discussed-- and besides, it was not an era when discussion was encouraged. Teachers taught, students took notes, and that was how it was done. Perhaps the goal was to avoid controversy, or perhaps the goal was to make sure we all turned out sufficiently patriotic. In either case, I only found out later how much was omitted from the typical history course.

I was reading an article in an educational publication recently that noted the steep decline in college students majoring in history. In numerous colleges, history is no longer required, and many students avoid studying it-- after all, who cares about what happened a century ago? How can that help anyone get a good job? Historian and author Mike Maxwell explains the rationale for this attitude: "The present system of American education emphasizes “21st century skills,” especially skills associated with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Learning about events from the past has limited currency in this results-oriented educational environment."

Add to this unfortunate belief a bunch of self-serving politicians who have been demanding that history be taught a certain way-- reminiscent of how it was in the 1950s: no discussions of current events, no discussions of racism or sexism or antisemitism, nothing that would make any students feel "discomfort." In fact, no mention of any mistakes America ever made (to do that, said one politician, would teach students to "hate America"). These politicians, many from conservative states, insist that teachers are "indoctrinating" students, and there are now laws in some of those states that tell teachers what they can teach and how they can teach it.  

As many of you know, I'm a media historian. My expertise is in the history of broadcasting, as well as baseball history, women's history, and the history of rock & roll. I understand that there are numerous perspectives and points of view (and debates) about a wide range of issues; but I don't think avoiding them is the answer. Nor do I think going back to how things were taught (or not taught) in the 1950s is helpful. There are so many stories that still need to be told, so many events that need to be re-evaluated, in light of new information that we now have. Enforcing one "correct" way to look at history means important lessons will not be taught, and important conversations will not occur.

Frankly, I'd like to see changes to how history is taught in many schools-- not to make it partisan, and not to "indoctrinate" (which rarely occurs, by the way, but sounds wonderful for politicians to use in speeches, since it generates outrage from potential voters). I'd like to see history taught in a way that energizes students, a way that makes them curious about what it was like to live in that time, and what we can learn from how our ancestors handled the problems they encountered. Knowledge of history alone may not help someone get a job, but ignorance about history can make one more easily manipulated by folks who want to mislead, and much less able to decide what is factual, or what lessons from the past we can benefit from knowing.

So, I hope those who continue to minimize the importance of history will think again. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, circa 1905, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I see a lot of history repeating itself, and I see a lot of efforts to pretend past mistakes never happened. History contains some wonderful and positive lessons, about people who overcame obstacles or created something that made everyone's life better. But it also contains some lessons about times when we could have done better. Let's bring history back to life. Let's tell the stories (all the stories), write the people who were erased back in, correct the myths... In other words, let's embrace the study of history... because where we've been matters... as we try to figure out where we're going.