4 Things Dropping ‘Master’ Tells Us About Harvard University

4 Things Dropping ‘Master’ Tells Us About Harvard University

Harvard faculty are supposed to be less gullible, less panicky, and better educated than your average third grader. As this insanity shows, perhaps that’s not so.
Nicholas Gallagher
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Harvard University’s heads of its undergraduate residences are dropping the term “master” because of its supposed connotations of slavery. As the Washington Post reports:

The ‘Masters’ of Harvard’s undergraduate residential houses are senior faculty members who serve as the chief administrative officers within the houses. They are responsible for shaping the cultural and intellectual life of these smaller student communities, and also play a role in giving each house a distinctive character.

Ivy League institutions adopted the term from British schools, notably Oxford and Cambridge, where ‘master’ survives as a shorthand for ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘headmaster.’ But in the American context, the ‘Master’ moniker, which is also used at Yale and — until very recently — Princeton, has been criticized for its associations with slavery.  Students and faculty alike have pointed out the title’s unsettling historical connotations. Its elimination has figured among demands from student protesters at Harvard and Yale.

The Post’s potted history of the word isn’t really accurate. Rather than being just a contraction, master in the sense of house master comes from the Latin magister, or teacher, from which schoolmaster and headmaster also derive. “Master” in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with “master” in the sense of slavery, for which the Romans would have used dominus or domina.

The supposed “association with slavery,” is therefore bunk. This whole discussion is about as intellectually sound as one schoolboy whispering to another that “f*ck” is an acronym for “Fornication Under Consent of the King.” (It’s not, in case you were wondering.) Harvard faculty are supposed to be less gullible, less panicky, and better educated than your average third grader; as this insanity shows, perhaps that’s not so. It also shows us four things, none of which are particularly comforting about the state of higher education.

1. Does Anybody Know How to Use a Dictionary?

It took me about 10 seconds of googling to pin down the etymology of “master” in its academic sense. Harvard’s Widener Library doubtlessly contains several fine editions of the Oxford English Dictionary. Did nobody bother looking this up during the draw-out debate that led to this decision? Or did they just not care?

Perhaps they were taking their cue from university feminists, who for a generation have sporadically objected to history as a contraction of his-story, despite the fact that it’s almost an exact transliteration of the Greek “historie,” or “inquiry”—the term the first historian, Herodotus, used for his work.

2. Like Many Bastions of Higher Ed, Harvard Now Values Feelings over Knowledge

Maybe the lack of dictionaries isn’t the real problem. According to the Harvard Crimson, some of the teachers-formerly-known-as-masters behind the debate had at least some sense that the term “master” was not meant to refer to slavery. They just didn’t care.

‘The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.’

“I understand the important historical roots of the title ‘Master’ at Oxford and Harvard, but I am sensitive to the context of the Houses today, and the issues of race which for many years have made me uncomfortable with the title,” Mather House master Michael D. Rosengarten wrote to students. “I have not felt comfortable personally with the title,” Harvard College Dean and Cabot House Master Rakesh Khurana told the Crimson, which continued, “While Khurana acknowledged that the ‘master’ title can be interpreted in various ways—such as etymologically—he said he also takes into account ‘the social meaning of words.’”

So in other words, while Khurana at least seems to have been aware his explanation was not correct, that didn’t matter to him. The folk etymology was accepted over the real one because the need to be sensitive to feelings, no matter how inaccurate the basis of those feelings, was given priority over facts and knowledge—which, y’know, is traditionally supposed to be the business of higher education.

Prioritizing feelings is increasingly the rule, not the exception on campuses. This trend leads nowhere good. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a seminal Atlantic article in September, the increasingly loud demands from students and faculty to be protected from (supposedly) offensive words and ideas on campus “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.” Specifically, they highlighted “emotional reasoning” as a major problem; it’s hard to think of a better description of what happened here.

Some of the best-educated members of our society spend time and energy fighting racist echoes that aren’t even real.

In a properly working higher education environment, anyone who was offended by “master” would be taught what the word meant, its history, and why it wasn’t offensive—and everyone would move on to more important things. Those more important things include fighting the world’s real injustices.

But now, some of the best-educated, most-concerned members of our society spend time and energy fighting racist echoes that aren’t even real, while others on campus cower in fear of being accused of being offensive. This is not what fighting the good fight against injustice looks like.

3. Our Educated Classes Increasingly Know Nothing of the Classical Languages

Magister or magistra is a pretty standard first-year Latin vocabulary word (because that’s how you refer to your teacher); from there, the connection to “master” is not that hard to make. In other words, until about five seconds ago, historically speaking, the word master’s origins would have been widely understood, and this debate would have been impossible for a body of educated people seriously to sustain.

Until about five seconds ago, historically speaking, the word master’s origins would have been widely understood.

In addition to the Latinate connection, master in this sense is cognate with the French word maître, the Spanish and Italian maestro, the Portuguese mestre, the Dutch meester, and the German Meister. Anyone who has mastered one of those languages, and (by learning a foreign tongue) had come to understand how words work, should have realized what the word really meant.

The absence of laughter can indicate the presence of ignorance. It seems to here. It’s not that this ignorance of classical or European languages reflects a growth in admirable, rigorous study of more diverse tongues; few Harvard scholars replaced the Latin curriculum of the 1950s with an acute knowledge of classical Sanskrit. The top universities now employ a great many people who “study” subjects that would at one point not have been recognized as academic.

This has many effects, some a great deal more grave than some academics making asses of themselves. The same student who cannot understand master/magister is deaf to the entire classical world—to Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero— and to all those who knew and were in conversation with that world, such as Dante, Milton, and Goethe. If you think knowledge of that world was only useful to dead white guys, you know nothing of the educations of America’s great civil rights leaders.

4. The (Ex?) Masters of Harvard Have No Regard for Harvard’s Own History

While Rosengarten and the Post acknowledged a link to Oxford and Cambridge lurks somewhere in this discussion, they never quite put their finger on how direct it is. Cambridge was founded by Oxford alums, and John Harvard was a Cambridge graduate. He received his M.A. (master of arts, or magister artium—as Jacob Weisberg joked on Twitter, what will Harvard call them now?) in 1635. At the time, Oxford and Cambridge were the only colleges in England. This is exactly where Harvard gets the title “master” from, and its appearance reflects a history that Harvard should be proud of.

Taken as a whole, Harvard is an adornment to American history.

Whatever Harvard’s historic faults are—and like everywhere else, it has some—an outsized role in slavery is not one. In fact, many Harvard men led the fight—moral and physical—for abolition. Taken as a whole, Harvard is an adornment to American history, and it’s pathetic to see it consumed with crippling self-criticism.

Certainly there was a time when the Ivies could be too brashly unreflective; now an all-consuming self-flagellating streak seems a much bigger problem. To need to make up a folk etymology tying an old title to racism implies that the university is trying to dodge real issues where they exist, invent them where they don’t, or both.

Witch Hunts Like This Never End

Well, a title will change at Harvard—and life will move on. But the fifth big question here is for all of academia: where will this crop up next, and where will it end? As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in NRO’s The Corner, a great many things have “master” in their name; they can’t all be thrown onto our Savonarola-esque bonfire of words. (Hilariously, the Crimson un-self-consciously used the verb “oversee” in its report. Hmm….) But some title or subject somewhere will be hit next, and the very removal of this process from logic creates a sort of terrifying randomness to the PC wars on campus that can be pretty paralyzing.

A great many things have ‘master’ in their name; they can’t all be thrown onto our Savonarola-esque bonfire of words.

Largely, this is an intra-Left fight. But conservatives shouldn’t just point and laugh (though by all means, point and laugh.) This issue and a thousand like it indicate the extraordinary decadence and mental feebleness that Left’s third generation to control academia has fallen into. If conservatives are willing to bone up on the subjects, and re-engage with academia, an enormous amount of ground can be retaken. Battles can be won by doing things as simple as looking up words in the dictionary (provided you can stand the cries of hurt feelings before and after), because in many places left-wing academia has lost contact with true academics.

One final note. In researching this article, I came across the 1642 “Rules and Precepts” that, Harvard assured its English donors, were “observed in the college.” The very first one reads: “When any scholar is able to understand Tully, or such like classical author, extempore, and make and speak true Latin, in verse and in prose, suo ut aiunt Marte, and decline perfectly the paradigms of nouns and verbs in the Greek tongue; let him then, and not before, be capable of admission to college.”

Standards have clearly fallen a long way.

Nicholas M. Gallagher is a staff writer at The American Interest. He graduated from Oxford University in 2011 with a degree in classics and English. You can follow him on Twitter at @ngallagherAI.
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