Yale's decision last year to abolish the term “master” was denounced by campus conservatives as yet another dialectical development in our contemporary obsession with political correctness and racial sensitivity. The hubbub began when Master Davis of Yale’s Pierson College emailed his students that he would no longer use the title. He reasoned that “master” inevitably conjures up the brutal legacy of American slavery, explaining “there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone 'master.'”
The conservative response emphasized the deeply ahistorical nature of Master Davis’ thinking and the stupendous silliness of suggesting there is anything racially intimidating about the title of an individual whose primary professional function is to maintain the students’ multi-million dollar playpen. Several searing critiques—two written by friends of mine—argued persuasively that the title “master” derives not from American plantations, but from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, where the term connoted a healthy respect for authority and wisdom. Yet rather than reflect further upon the history and meaning of the title, campus discussion pivoted to the more politically sensationalist debate over trigger warnings and safe spaces.
The debate over “master” of course does have a great deal to do with debates over race and free speech. But in so emphasizing that aspect of the issue, another deep implication of the controversy was overlooked: the traditional vision of education embodied in the term “master” is under siege by the corporatization of the university.
The charge that Yale is becoming too corporate means all things to all people, as a friend of mine described in an excellent article on the topic. From the Left, “corporatization” refers to the university’s neoliberal, profit-maximizing impulse that comes at the expense of workers’ rights. From the Right, it describes the elevation of efficiency-minded technocratic bureaucrats over professors and scholars.
Importantly, both conceptions of corporatization have much to do with the debate over the title, “master.” Mastery in the collegiate context refers not to political mastery over men, but intellectual and academic mastery over a craft. As a professor of mine put it, the term should invoke the wisdom of a Jedi Master or the artistic genius of Rembrandt and Vermeer, not the brutality of ante-bellum plantation politics. As Adam Smith explains:
All such incorporations were antiently called universities … The university of smiths, the university of taylors, &c. are expressions which we commonly meet with in the old charters of ancient towns. When those particular incorporations which are now peculiarly called universities were first established, the term of years which it was necessary to study, in order to obtain the degree of master of arts, appears evidently to have been copied from the term of apprenticeship in common trades, of which the incorporations were much more ancient. As to have wrought seven years under a master properly qualified, was necessary, in order to intitle any person to become a master, and to have himself apprentices in a common trade; so to have studied seven years under a master properly qualified, was necessary to entitle him to become a master, teacher, or doctor (words anciently synonimous) in the liberal arts, and to have scholars or apprentices (words likewise originally synonimous) to study under him.The real argument that needs to made is one that endorses the vision of education embodied in the language of mastery—the vision of an essentially apprentice-based model of liberal learning. The title should be maintained precisely because it does not connote raw power, but rather expresses the rightly directed reverence and respect students ought to have for their teachers. This sort of reasoning can also help illustrate the conservative objection to a corporate model of university governance. We wish to preserve traditional modes of learning because of the values and ideals they promote. What looks like an inefficiency to the technocratic administrator is in fact an institution purposefully designed to make a distinctive kind of education possible.
We should be wary of ever-greater university centralization precisely because it undermines the traditional purpose of the university's academic structure. To apply the standards of bureaucratic efficiency to an institution oriented toward a radically different set of goods is to make a very basic and very dangerous category mistake. Indeed, the awkwardness of the title "master" in contemporary discourse illustrates our collective forgetting of its traditional meaning. That amnesia accompanies a radical re-conceptualization of the university, leading undergraduates to view of themselves as consumers empowered to customize their education and graduate students to view themselves as laborers deserving union representation.
The point then is that the title “master” is itself a positive good. It should be defended not only because of the ineptitude of its critics, but because the title embodies a rapidly disappearing vision of what college education should be. Just as the consolidation of power in the hands of distant bureaucrats undermines the academic character of the university, so too does abandoning these traditional linguistic bearers of respect and authority lead us ever-further away from that most noble purpose of college education.