All too often, there are Americans high and low who believe they can say, “That’s just your opinion!” to anyone about anything. It doesn’t matter if the person they say this to is an expert in, say, climate change or American history or twentieth-century education policy. Or, for that matter, if the person they question is a total bullshit artist. All opinions are equal, and equally discountable.
But it does matter if the opinion comes from someone rich and famous. or at least, someone Americans see on TV and/or hear on the radio nearly every day, someone they like, someone they could see themselves sharing a laugh or cry with. That’s why opinions like those of Rudy Giuliani, Bill Cosby, Michelle Malkin, even Brian Williams seem to have mattered more over the years than the expert interpretations of many a scholar, scientist or public intellectual.
On the scale of those experts, those in the media likely view me as a middle-of-the-pack expert. I went to graduate school for five and a half years, earning two advanced degrees with a focus on twentieth-century US and African American history, with an even sharper focus on history of American education, African American identity and multiculturalism.
Despite what my Mom, my dad and some of my more cynical former high school classmates may think, earning a PhD in history wasn’t nearly as simple as answering 1,000 Final Jeopardy questions correctly before getting a stamp of approval. Twenty-three masters and doctoral courses, more than forty paper assignments of twenty pages or more, two years as a teaching assistant, one year as an undergraduate student advisor, two summers as a research assistant, and twenty-seven months of single-minded focus researching and writing a 505-page dissertation with more citations than the number of Citations Chevrolet made between 1980 and 1985. Oh, and did I mention, nineteen months of burnout afterward?
Yet, when I take the years I’ve spent researching, writing, learning, teaching, publishing and working in the fields of history and education, and express views based on that, I get told what anyone else on the street could say. “That’s just your opinion!” Unbelievable!
I think, too, about those from a time not too long ago who could’ve and should’ve earned a doctorate, a medical degree, or a JD, yet the structures of socioeconomic privilege, racism and sexism prevent them from earning these most expert of degrees. Yet, at many an HBCU, in many a segregated classroom, in so many barbershops, we still called them “Doc,” a sign of respect, for their abilities, for their experience, for their — dare I say — expertise.
We still do this now, even for people who don’t deserve the nickname “Doc.” My father and my idiot, late ex-stepfather both at one point in their lives or another laid claim to being doctors and/or lawyers. For the first two years I knew my then stepfather Maurice, between ’77 and ’79, he carried a monogramed briefcase, always full of his “important papers,” telling me and anyone else he bumped into on the streets of Mount Vernon, New York that he was a “doctor” or a “lawyer.” When drunk, my father sometimes took it a step further, telling strangers on the Subway that he was a “big-shot doctor an’ a lawyer” on his Friday-evening paydays. Maurice drove a Reliable taxicab during his delusions-of-grandeur years, and my father was janitorial supervisor.
Given the history of education and our society’s denial of quality education to people of color and the poor in the US, though, I didn’t entirely hold it against them then, and I don’t now. What I do have much bigger problems with, though, are the people who should know better, and yet don’t do any better. Just in my lifetime alone, people with Dr. in front of their names without having earned a doctorate or a four-year medical degree. Like “Dr.” Henry Kissinger, “Dr.” Bill Cosby, and of late, “Dr.” Steve Perry (not to be confused with the former lead singer for Journey, I guess). And no, honorary doctorates for giving money to Harvard, Temple, or the University of Massachusetts don’t count! Nor does starting an outline for a dissertation without actually finishing one. Still, they insist on the “Dr.,” even when it’s obvious I could’ve sat on the stoop at 616 East Lincoln Avenue thirty years ago to get the same half-baked opinions from one of my hydro-smoking neighbors.
Then again, numbskulls like William Kristol and Newt Gingrich have earned doctorates from Harvard and Tulane University respectively, and Ben Carson was once one of the most respected pediatric neurosurgeons in the world! Yet, for some dumb reason, our media and most Americans think that their opinions are somehow more valuable, more consumable, than those of people who’ve spent decades understanding education, American culture, racial, gender and socioeconomic inequality, and government corruption. Or maybe, we just like listening to fake opinions from people with fake degrees and/or fake expertise on a subject in which they know nothing. Because nothing is exactly what Americans want to hear.