Master and Panderer

 

On Friday, The New York Times reported that Yale University was “grappling” with its “ties to slavery.” Lest anyone think that there is any genuine intellectual grappling going on here, let’s put this in context. One of the issues the article cites is that “some at Yale have suggested an end to calling the heads of the colleges ‘masters’” – because the word “master,” of course, is just too evocative of antebellum slavery.

I must confess I was blissfully unaware that I was living under the yoke of a latter-day slave master when I was an undergraduate at Yale. I felt myself quite fortunate to live in one of Yale’s residential colleges, each of which is led by a professor who lives in the college and has the title of “master.”

Well, I can just about forgive undergraduates for this sort of nonsense, but the revolt against the masters came, not from students, but from a member of the faculty. Professor Stephen Davis, who has served as Master of Pierson College for two years, announced a few weeks ago that he would stop using the title because of the “deeply problematic” racial and gender hierarchies associated with the title. He had “heard stories and witnessed situations involving members of our community … who have felt it necessary to move off campus their junior or senior year to avoid a system where the title ‘master’ is valorized.”

One hates to “de-valorize” Professor Davis’s remarks, but he is spouting nonsense. Yale’s residential college system was not created until the 1930s, and the title “master” was a very conscious borrowing from the Oxbridge college system, and wholly unrelated to slavery. Thankfully, not all undergraduates jumped on the Davis bandwagon. One senior wrote an eloquent rebuttal to Professor Davis in the Yale Daily News, pointing out, among other things:

Ousting the word “master” will impoverish our language and our thoughts. “Master” connotes much more than the master-slave relationship. It is a fine word, rich with meaning. “Master” originates with the Latin “magister,” meaning “teacher.” The word connotes erudition, skill and wisdom, which is often hard won. A master is a person who has developed expertise in some area, who has honed his or her talents to a high degree or who has learned something useful about leadership or life that elicits the admiration of others.

It used to be a joke to suggest that “the kids should run the school.” Now it is clear that Yale would be far better off in the hands of undergraduates like Cohen rather than the current faculty.

As of now, none of Yale’s other 11 masters have decided to follow Professor and head-of-college Davis. A more contentious question among Yalies is whether one of its residential colleges – Calhoun College – should be renamed so as not to valorize, as it were, alumnus John C. Calhoun. Calhoun did, of course, support slavery, but then, he was also a US Senator and Vice President, a skilled lawyer, and an important thinker on states’ rights regarding issues other than slavery; particularly tariffs. And if Yale wants to go down that road, it will need to do a lot of renaming, because more than half its colleges are named after slaveowners. In fact, since Eli Yale himself was involved in the slave trade, Yale must drop its own name.

A modest suggestion for those in academia: if you want students to learn about all the terrible things John Calhoun did, why not try teaching them about him, rather than pretending that he never existed?

Published in Culture, Education, General
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  1. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    I can confirm: totally borrowed from Oxbridge. The masters of the colleges there were called masters well before the Atlantic slave trade began.

    • #1
  2. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    LIKE!

    • #2
  3. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    If they really believed this …stuff, they’d fire all the faculty involved in offering Masters degrees.

    • #3
  4. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    What I don’t get is why a Yale (YALE?! Aren’t these people supposed to be smart?) doesn’t realize how self-evidently idiotic this is? Thirty seconds of thought should have given him all sorts of references for the word “master” that would invalidate his premise even before he bothered to google it.

    Adam Freedman: He had “heard stories and witnessed situations involving members of our community … who have felt it necessary to move off campus their junior or senior year to avoid a system where the title ‘master’ is valorized.”

    If he heard these stories let alone witnessed situations, might it not be his job to explain things to “members of the community” who somehow managed to reach their junior or senior year at Yale (YALE?!?) without learning how to use a dictionary?

    • #4
  5. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    raycon and lindacon
    @rayconandlindacon

    “The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts–so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them.”  —  John 12:40

    The intelligentsia have fulfilled Biblical prophesy so perfectly as to be a beauty to behold.  We used to all laugh at the idea that the end times would ever unfold in the way the Bible describes, centering on Israel.  Now, we find ourselves wondering what the start date for Armageddon will be.

    Question;  If the Anti-Christ will be a Jew, probably from Israel,  who might he be?

    • #5
  6. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    raycon and lindacon:“The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts–so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them.” – John 12:40

    The intelligentsia have fulfilled Biblical prophesy so perfectly as to be a beauty to behold. We used to all laugh at the idea that the end times would ever unfold in the way the Bible describes, centering on Israel. Now, we find ourselves wondering what the start date for Armageddon will be.

    Question; If the Anti-Christ will be a Jew, probably from Israel, who might he be?

    What?

    • #6
  7. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    So is pleasuring oneself now racist?
    Asking for a friend.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I gotta wonder if this is a baby-boomer problem particularly, in which case I’m sympathetic with the heads of the departments at Yale who are operating under that title and would like to change it.

    The word “master” goes up my spine sideways too. I heard it too many times in the old literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The old racist minstrel shows were still making the rounds in some places when I was a kid.

    We heard the word much more often than people hear it today, and we heard it in some pretty dreadful contexts. Maybe there’s a rankling that happens over time with too much exposure to some words.

    Racism is part of the boomers’ living-memory past. We want no part of it.

    I watched an episode of NCIS, a rerun, that concerned a World War II veteran who did not receive the Medal of Honor he was supposed to have received until 1991! because he was black. That fact may give younger people some idea of how long the last vestiges of segregation hung around in American society.

    The boomers want the racism to get out of our heads permanently. It bothers us perhaps more than it bothers younger people. Perhaps it’s like some allergies that don’t strike people at first but only after a certain level of exposure. We’ve been exposed to it longer than young people. And we want it to be gone.

    • #8
  9. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    And yet these are the most respected universities even among conservatives. It goes to show, “higher education” is as often about buying social standing as obtaining professional knowledge.

    I’ve argued before on Ricochet that slavery is wrongly considered only as an absolute; rather than by degrees, like its opposite — freedom. If less than absolute freedom is respectable, then perhaps less than absolute slavery is acceptable.

    For example, how much of an employee’s time may an employer reasonably demand? How much “crunch time” is too much? Must employees be afforded a weekly day off? What should be the maximum duration of an employment contract? And the maximum penalties for breaching such a contract?

    One of these days, I’d like to see Victor Davis Hanson or another classical historian compare various forms of “slavery” and perhaps explain why each form was preferred by particular societies. What differences of moral priority do those forms reveal?

    In the ancient world, debt slavery was common. A man could pay off his debts by agreeing to become a slave for a number of years. These days, bankruptcy laws deny lenders certainty of recompense. I’m not sure all changes in recent centuries can be objectively measured as superior. There are trade-offs involved.

    • #9
  10. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    The only one I know that it is in agreement with Prof. Davis is My dog.

    And yet the bitch won’t leave the hand that feeds Her.

    • #10
  11. HVTs Inactive
    HVTs
    @HVTs

    MarciN:I gotta wonder if this is a baby-boomer problem particularly, in which case I’m sympathetic with the heads of the departments at Yale who are operating under that title and would like to change it.

    The word “master” goes up my spine sideways too. I heard it too many times in the old literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The old racist minstrel shows were still making the rounds in some places when I was a kid.

    The boomers want the racism to get our of our heads permanently. It bothers us perhaps more than it bothers younger people. Perhaps it’s like some allergies that don’t strike people at first but only after a certain level of exposure. We’ve been exposed to it longer than young people. And we want it to be gone.

    Forgive my romp through the obvious here, but it’s not the word that’s doing that. It’s the concept you associate with it.  If I tell you I bought a Master Lock today, do you get the same tingle?  I doubt it.

    You all don’t seriously think that banning words will get rid of the concepts in your head, do you?  Let alone that it will end the practice of thinking impure racialist thoughts?

    Wanting something “gone” in this context is like the child putting hands over his or her ears to block unwelcome comments. This reinforces the view of baby boomers as oversized children.

    • #11
  12. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    HVTs: Forgive my romp through the obvious here, but it’s not the word that’s doing that. It’s the concept you associate with it.  If I tell you I bought a Master Lock today, do you get the same tingle?  I doubt it. You all don’t seriously think that banning words will get rid of the concepts in your head, do you?  Let alone that it will end the practice of thinking impure racialist thoughts? Wanting something “gone” in this context is like the child putting hands over his or her ears to block unwelcome comments. This reinforces the view of baby boomers as oversized children.

    Right on all counts. :)

    Changing the titles at Yale will accomplish nothing.

    But I do understand how it can bother the people with the title, and I don’t blame them for wanting to change it.

    • #12
  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Miffed White Male:If they really believed this …stuff, they’d fire all the faculty involved in offering Masters degrees.

    Excellent point.  Several years ago I read an article about some directive from on high in Los Angeles County.  Mechanics working for the county were no longer supposed to refer to master and slave cylinders in automotive braking systems.  Computer technicians were not supposed to speak of master and slave hard drives (this was in the pre-SATA era, when one IDE cable could connect two hard drives to a jack but one had to be jumpered as the master and the other the slave.)

    • #13
  14. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    I’m with Marci here. I totally get that two radically different meanings of “master” are being conflated. (Reminds of the politico who was forced to apologize for racial insensitivity because he had used the term “niggardly” at a budget meeting.) And I realize that the use of title is part of an ancient tradition in university life.

    But, at the same time, I sympathize with those who choke over it. It does have terrible associations in our country. And even the more innocent sense of the word doesn’t sit so well with democratic sensibilities.

    I feel similarly uncomfortable with terms like “lady” and “courtship” and “sir”. They come from and hearken back to another culture—a hierarchical one, with a definite pecking order, where good manners entailed “knowing your place.”

    That world had its great merits and charms. Sometimes (being Catholic and loving its imagery as I do) I feel painfully nostalgic for it. Sometimes I’d give anything to trade the vulgarity and brutality of our culture for a little more of that courtesy and social orderliness.

    But, on the other hand, it’s not our world, and democratic values are real values too. And while it’s true that in one important sense, students are beneath their teachers, in another important sense they’re not. Students and teachers are peers in the search for Truth.

    • #14
  15. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    katievs: But, at the same time, I sympathize with those who choke over it. It does have terrible associations in our country.

    No it doesn’t.  A specific meaning of the word that is not in any way involved in the usage here does.

    And even the innocent sense of the word doesn’t sit so well democratic sensibilities.

    So you’re saying we should be niggardly in our use of the word?  Consign it to a Black Hole?

    • #15
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    To KatieVS: Exactly.

    “Master” meaning “mastery” is an elegant word. And its meaning in “master lock” or “master file” doesn’t have any negative connotation.

    But in a hierarchical organization chart, it conjures up some negative associations. (That said, the term “headmaster” doesn’t bother me.)

    I’m surprised this wasn’t addressed in some faculty meeting twenty years ago behind the scenes and in between school years.

    • #16
  17. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    Miffed White Male:

    katievs: But, at the same time, I sympathize with those who choke over it. It does have terrible associations in our country.

    No it doesn’t. A specific meaning of the word that is not in any way involved in the usage here does.

    The two meanings aren’t unrelated, MWM. They both suggest “superior” in a hierarchical relation. That’s the rub.

    • #17
  18. Big Green Inactive
    Big Green
    @BigGreen

    MarciN:

    The word “master” goes up my spine sideways too. I heard it too many times in the old literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The old racist minstrel shows were still making the rounds in some places when I was a kid.

    I watched an episode of NCIS, a rerun, that concerned a World War II veteran who did not receive the Medal of Honor he was supposed to have received until 1991! because he was black. That fact may give younger people some idea of how long the last vestiges of segregation hung around in American society.

    The boomers want the racism to get our of our heads permanently. It bothers us perhaps more than it bothers younger people. Perhaps it’s like some allergies that don’t strike people at first but only after a certain level of exposure. We’ve been exposed to it longer than young people. And we want it to be gone.

    It appears that the biggest issue is what you associate with the word rather than the word itself.  Even though young people have less of a problem with it, we should move away from the word “Master” to make sure it doesn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the boomers…who, by and large, aren’t going to be around in 20-25 years? I say buck-up.

    As for the NCIS episode, is that story even grounded in fact at all?

    • #18
  19. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Big Green: As for the NCIS episode, is that story even grounded in fact at all?

    Apparently so. 

    • #19
  20. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Big Green: the boomers…who, by and large, aren’t going to be around in 20-25 years?

    Quite right. We’ll soon be dead and gone. :)

    • #20
  21. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    Perhaps if the university awarded “Masters” more niggardly, there would fewer people in a position to possibly offend.

    Updated: Darn it!!! Miffed White Male beat me to the “niggardly” punch!!

    • #21
  22. HVTs Inactive
    HVTs
    @HVTs

    katievs:Students and teachers are peers in the search for Truth.

    Seriously?  What distinguishes the teacher, then, if not some standing that’s “above” the pupil’s?  Don’t we presume that the teacher has grappled for a long time with the grand and complex issues associated with “Truth” so that he or she is entitled to a status that’s not merely a peer to students?

    • #22
  23. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    katievs: They both suggest “superior” in a hierarchical relation. That’s the rub.

    It’s a rub to “hierarchical” deniers.

    • #23
  24. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Addiction Is A Choice:Perhaps if the university awarded “Masters” more niggardly, there would fewer people in a position to possibly offend.

    Updated: Darn it!!! Miffed White Male beat me to the “niggardly” punch!!

    That’s ok.  Katievs beat us both.

    • #24
  25. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Addiction Is A Choice:Perhaps if the university awarded “Masters” more niggardly, there would fewer people in a position to possibly offend.

    Updated: Darn it!!! Miffed White Male beat me to the “niggardly” punch!!

    I think that guy actually had to resign, didn’t he?

    Which—okay—these faintly surreal stink-fests are one thing when you’re dealing with the great, diverse mass of ordinary people, not all of whom read a lot, or have expansive vocabularies, and yet they reasonably expect to be communicated with in an efficient and yet sensitive matter.

    There is a town in Pennsylvania named Intercourse because the word originally and still means “interaction and communication between people.” You wouldn’t name a town that now because the great, diverse mass gets the tee- hees whenever they see the sign, and this gets tiresome even with all the charity Blue Balls and porn conventions the local Chamber of Commerce gets to throw.

    But if you are at Yale (okay, I’ll restrain myself from shouting in parentheses this time…) you should be capable of looking up a word and of determining on the basis of Webster’s evidence whether you need to pay attention to the slight shudder the word evokes, or whether maybe you could ignore it and go back to your study of Tolstoy’s Symbolic Treatment of the  Male Wound of Circumcision or whatever. After all, whether you are a Master or a mere Student, you’re a pretty privileged seeker after truth, if you’re at Yale (?!?!) and life is good.

    Now that I think of it, I’ve got a cousin at Yale. I’ll have to ask her if she’s offended by having a Master in the house?

    • #25
  26. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    HVTs:

    katievs:Students and teachers are peers in the search for Truth.

    Seriously? What distinguishes the teacher, then, if not some standing that’s “above” the pupil’s?

    Yes, a teacher has status that a student doesn’t have. Yes, he (or she) is above in terms of stature and office. Usually the teacher knows more, etc. That’s the true sense in which a teacher is above his student.

    In another respect, though, they are peers. So for instance, in a given question (a discussion of the relative merits of Shakespeare and Dante, say, or the right order of operations in a complicated math problem), the student may be right and the teacher wrong. And there would be nothing wrong with the student challenging his teacher on the point. There would be something wrong in the teacher answering the challenge with, “How dare you contradict the teacher?!”

    A school that wants to de-emphasize the role of authority in academia may choose to dispense with titles that highlight the hierarchical relations, just as it chooses to dispense with academic robes.

    I remember my logic prof. in grad school didn’t like being called “Dr. Smith.” “The name is Barry.” It was hard for me to get used to, but I do think he had a point.

    • #26
  27. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Jimmy Carter:

    katievs: They both suggest “superior” in a hierarchical relation. That’s the rub.

    It’s a rub to “hierarchical” deniers.

    I’m okay with legitimate hierarchies. The teacher need not pretend that he and the student are equal, whether in knowledge (power) or in ignorance (powerlessness).

    Rather, to the best of his ability, the professor must transmit information and skills (power) to the one who lacks these,  with the aim that the student eventually becomes what she is not, that is, the professor’s peer.

    • #27
  28. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    I know Thomas Aquinas College has a custom of students and teachers alike being addressed as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss, rather than professors being called  “doctor so and so” while students are called by their first names. It’s a way of deliberately emphasizing their relative peerage under the great masters of the perennial tradition.

    • #28
  29. HVTs Inactive
    HVTs
    @HVTs

    katievs:

    Yes, a teacher has status that a student doesn’t have. Yes, he (or she) is above in terms of stature and office. Usually the teacher knows more, etc. That’s the true sense in which a teacher is above his student.

    In another respect, though, they are peers. So for instance, in a given question … the student may be right and the teacher wrong. And there would be nothing wrong with the student challenging his teacher on the point. There would be something wrong in the teacher answering the challenge with, “How dare you contradict the teacher?!”

    A school that wants de-emphasize the role of authority in academia, may choose to dispense with titles that highlight the hierarchical relations, just as it chooses to dispense with academic robes.

    I remember my logic prof. in grad school didn’t like being called “Dr. Smith.” “The name is Barry.” It was hard for me to get used to, but I do think he had a point.

    I just don’t understand why Barry’s preferred form of salutation is being raised to the category of a significant cultural event.  Yes, sure, fashions change.  Victorian formality is obsolete.  It doesn’t change the fact that a Teacher worthy of the title is not now and never shall be the peer of his or her students.  Rubbish!  And, no, this has nothing to do with appeals to authority being a bankrupt form of reasoning.

    • #29
  30. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    HVTs:

    katievs:

    I just don’t understand why Barry’s preferred form of salutation is being raised to the category of a significant cultural event. Yes, sure, fashions change. Victorian formality is obsolete. It doesn’t change the fact that a Teacher worthy of the title is not now and never shall be the peer of his or her students. Rubbish! And, no, this has nothing to do with appeals to authority being a bankrupt form of reasoning.

    Well, the thing is, Barry is one instance of a wide social trend. If it were just Barry, it would be his idiosyncrasy. But, it’s not just him. The culture at large has become much more casual and much more deliberately egalitarian. (I don’t say it’s an unmixed blessing, I just say it’s a fact.)

    And the more common it becomes, the more authoritarian and pretentious the alternative begins to feel.

    It’s easy for me to imagine a particular Master (at Yale say) disliking the title and declining to use it—especially if the Master is a woman. And then, at some point, the school as a whole deciding to drop it as antiquated. (What do they call female Masters at Yale, I’m wondering? Surely not Mistresses.)

    • #30
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