The contretemps, two and a half years ago, over First Lady Jill Biden’s problematic degree and her too-earnest desire to be addressed as “Doctor” opened discussion about a problem in higher education that didn’t go quite far enough.
Just what is this “EdD,” and why is this chit so important to so many people—but only the people who clutch it tightly, even as they behave as if, at any moment, they may be found out?
It is impolite and sometimes impolitic to point out the clear and documented deficiencies of advanced degrees in “higher education,” of the people who teach in these programs, and of the folks who complete them. But this unnecessary extension of courtesy has had a predictably deleterious impact on the university in general.
Witness the ludicrous spectacle of Whoopie Goldberg lauding Jill Biden, EdD, as a viable candidate for Surgeon General.Says cultural critic Roger Kimball, “It is generally understood, though seldom mentioned in polite society, that the less distinguished one’s academic institution, the more likely one will insist upon the honorific ‘Dr.’” And that’s the actual doctorate, not the EdD, which isn’t actually a “doctorate” in the same sense as, say, a PhD in physics or in quantum mechanics or even in economics or business. It’s little more than a me-too “certificate,” not far removed from the master’s degree in education, which isn’t really that far removed from the bachelor’s.
And yet, the uninitiated at times believe the EdD to be far more than it possibly could. Witness the ludicrous spectacle of television personality Whoopie Goldberg lauding Jill Biden, EdD, as a viable candidate for U.S. Surgeon General, seemingly unaware of the difference between the EdD and the MD.
If it were only matter of egos, the issue would be a teapot tempest. But the problem is that, today, the folks acquiring the EdD in certain fields are precisely those megalomaniac personalities that we do not want in positions of power and influence. But the door is open, and they are here in ever-increasing numbers.
What They Are, and Why They’re Problematic
Education schools were corrupted with ideology years ago. The neo-Marxist “critical” thinking of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Michael Apple, and bell hooks has colonized education schools for more than two decades, even as ed-school websites provide not a whisper of this alien ideology. Ed schools crank out graduates like a Krispy Kreme donut line. In 2021 alone, the most recent year available, 13,655 doctorates in education were awarded. These schools reliably produce credentialed “professionals” in “student affairs,” “educational leadership,” and “higher-education administration.” Their graduates believe themselves to be “scholar practitioners” tasked with “transforming higher education.”
The main problem with the EdD is its lack of rigor, which is doubtless forced upon education schools by the low quality of the human capital admitted. Examination of many of these education-school programs suggests that most anyone can get in. An example taken at random: One program requires no GRE and only a 2.75 GPA and takes less than three years to complete (including the dissertation). A helpful list of EdD programs nationwide, purportedly the 21 best of the lot, can be found here.
Many of them descend into the hierarchy of public-school systems, where they propagate their ideology in the ranks of principals and superintendents or as members of intransigent school boards. The most worrisome of the EdDs, however, are welcomed into bureaucratic positions in the universities, often created just for them by their fellow-travelers in the apparat. These EdD and master’s graduates stream back onto the campus as activists in dubious student-affairs positions and other vague administrative roles, where they mean to do much more than ensure that the pizza’s hot for karaoke night in the dorm. They mean to “boldly transform higher education.”
Such educationists believe themselves to be change agents for a bold new society. Their Newspeak lingo of “justice,” “emancipation,” “liberation,” and “egalitarianism” is augmented with neologisms from the nouveau trinity of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” along, increasingly, with “belonging.”
This Newspeak lingo of “social justice” permeates descriptions of education programs, with “student learning” and “student development” serving as the two chief Newspeak euphemisms for the 24-7 social-justice messaging students can expect wherever they matriculate. The University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, for example, should be commended on its candor in advertising outright its socialist agenda, embracing what it calls “principles of equity and social justice” as it “prepares you to become a critically conscious leader.” So-called critical consciousness is the marker for Freirean crypto-Maoist dogma.
Some programs provide an express model. Penn boasts, for instance, that “in just two years, you will earn an Ivy League Ed.D. by completing all coursework and dissertation requirements in an intensive professional learning community.”
In short, education programs are run in fevered ideological kilns where the alchemical and magical thinking of Giroux, Freire, Kishimoto, and others is served up without scrutiny, let alone criticism. But education schools’ EdD programs have a weak link that gives them away—the spectacularly weak link of the “dissertation.”
The telltale marker that education schools are not serious places is what passes in these schools for the “dissertation.” The EdD dissertation, not to be confused with the PhD dissertation aimed at scholarly participation in academia, has been degraded to the point of absurdity, with many carrying the markers of pseudoscience, narcissism, scientism, and outright magical thinking. A survey of EdD dissertations provides ample evidence of this, as do the books purporting to offer “methodology” instruction for would-be “doctors.”
The typical EdD framework is the same as most dissertations, superficially. It features a literature review, a methodology section, a description of the project, and the results generated by research. The look and feel of “science” is maintained throughout the document, much as South Pacific Islanders maintained the look and feel of actual airfields in their primitive, cargo-cult constructs. Upon the departure of allied soldiers after World War II, natives constructed fake airstrips, pretend control towers, and bamboo airplanes in a bid to bring back the “cargo” that had fabulously enriched them for a time. Likewise, the purveyors of the EdD practice a form of sympathetic magic in constructing dissertations with the look and feel of science, but without the substance and rigor.
It is as if education schools have collectively decided to mimic the forms and language of science and offer a fake version, which philosopher Roger Scruton called “scientism.” The chest-thumping charade hits all of the scientistic markers to create a world of appearances:
The scientific thinker has a clear question, a body of data, and a theory that can be tested against it. The scientistic thinker borrows the apparatus of science, not to explain the phenomenon before him, but to create the appearance of a scientific question, the appearance of data, and the appearance of a method that will arrive at an answer.
Thus do the education schools embrace the sympathetic magic of the cargo cult to construct facsimiles of reality. If you seek a marker for this pseudoscience, go to the methodology section of almost any “qualitative” dissertation in the field. The EdD brand of “qualitative research” typically consists of interviewing people, usually between four and 15. How are these persons selected? Typically through convenience, with only a nod to the fact that selection bias renders any resultant “findings” worthless. Subjects are selected at times by an email sent out to students in the “researcher’s” own program or to enrollees at a neighboring community college. Sometimes, “snowball sampling” is used, which is nothing more than asking the person to whom you just spoke if he knows anyone else who might want to be interviewed.
To attain an education doctorate, you can simply interview four or five coworkers down the hallway, “code the data,” and write it up.This means that to attain an education “doctorate,” you can simply interview four or five coworkers down the hallway, “code the data,” and write it up. Congratulations, “doctor.”
If even this sounds like too much work, you have other options. You can engage in a navel-gazing exercise called the “autoethnography.” This involves ruminating on your own experiences learning about the field, including the writing of the autoethnography itself. You keep a journal of your experiences, as well as your thoughts and feelings about them, then write them up in a “dissertation.” In the most hyper-reflexive cases, you can ruminate on your own experience in the program itself. This reflexive exercise can cut your research time to zero. Whether anything of value is produced is another matter.
Someone who has long recognized the cargo-cult inadequacies of this kind of “qualitative” work is Martin Hammersley, who bottom-lines it:
Tolerance for unwelcome information, or for questioning fundamental assumptions, is likely to be low on the part of those engaged in political struggle or other kinds of demanding practical work. Furthermore, from this is likely to arise pressure to over- or under-interpret evidence so as to serve the interests of the organization. The goal of promoting those interests is likely to override the researcher’s proper commitment to discovering the truth about the issue concerned.
You know already that the findings of these “dissertations” always confirm the ideology of the education school. The selection of participants, the small sample, the tendentious participation of the “researcher,” and the contrived method yield whatever results the grad student and his advisors want to see. They then pretend that these anecdotal contributions to the central myth is “science.” Of course, nothing new, fresh, or surprising is ever produced.
If this sounds like a scam, it’s because it’s one of the oldest in history. The operative principle is that if you can get enough people uttering the same opinion in cargo-cult journals set up for that express purpose, the opinion can and will be accepted as legitimate. In this way, the machinery of cargo-cult validation is constructed and put in motion to publicize ideology, to consciously reproduce it, and to generate rhetorical capital designed to look like scholarship.
American education schools have organized a cargo cult of fakery to produce ideological bureaucrats.Superficially, this EdD machinery does look much like the actual processes that generate the scholarship of science, processes carefully developed over hundreds of years that laboriously produced genuine knowledge through a self-skeptical and rigorous method. This superficial similarity, intentionally contrived, gives the EdD cargo cult its power. It is the well-known power of mimesis. By crude mimicry of form, by guessed-at substance, and by rhetorical abstrusity, one can generate equally “respectable” and accepted results. In the vernacular, it is a counterfeit intended to gain the same results as the genuine article.
In short, American education schools have organized a cargo cult of fakery to produce ideological bureaucrats. As long as the EdD was limited to a qualification chit for salary increases and promotions in primary and secondary schools, the fakery could be tolerated. But now, these pseudoscientific exercises have metastasized into dubious higher-education credentials in various campus schools, departments, and programs.
It’s time to unlock the closed kilns of education schools and expose the contents to the sunlight of scrutiny, debate, and—ultimately—dramatic reform. Much more is at stake than the egocentric preening of “Doctor” Jill Biden and her ilk.
Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D., IMBA, is clinical full professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. He is a former military intelligence officer with a Ph.D. from Duke University and has taught in Russia, China, India, Spain, and Colombia. He is the author of Brutal Minds: The Dark World of Left-Wing Brainwashing in Our Universities.