This column is part of a Friday Forum on the title “master” affixed to professors who head the residential colleges. Read the other columns here.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
That is the last stanza of “Invictus,” a popular Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley. This ode to perseverance has inspired many: Nelson Mandela is said to have kept it scrawled on a scrap of paper in his cell on Robben Island, and Winston Churchill paraphrased its closing lines in a speech to Parliament in 1941.
Is “Invictus” now toast? Its famous last couplet uses that now infamous word: master. This word, we are told, is “offensive” and hurtful. It is “deeply problematic”; it carries “racial and gendered weight”; students forced to use it have been “viscerally marginalized.” Never mind that the title “master,” as we use (or once used) it at Yale, has nothing to do with American slavery or with the subjugation of black people. But the decision has already been made, and we must fall all over each other to get in line. Out with “master,” in with “head of college.”
Few will say it, but many will think it: This is deeply silly, and it is unbecoming of Yale’s students and its faculty.
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. There are golf masters, concertmasters and master builders. “Master” is often what we call little boys, whom we adore, before they become men, perhaps in anticipation of the men we hope they will become.
The word “master” also bespeaks courage, self-discipline and self-control — mastery over oneself and one’s mind. It is this connotation that I would invite my fellow Yalies to ponder.
Black men and women are woefully underrepresented in computer science, math, economics, medicine, academia and so many other vital fields. It is not the use of words like “master” that prevents them from entering these arenas in greater numbers. Common sense dictates that study and scholarship are far more likely to help than a university-wide kumbaya about our “sensitivity” and our “compassion.”
Some will answer that sensitivity and achievement are not mutually exclusive. A few students are upset. Does it hurt to indulge them?
Actually, I think it harms them, and the rest of us, a great deal. We only have so much time at Yale, and only so much mental and emotional energy to spare. Are we to spend it nursing feelings of offense and hurt in response to such a rich, meaningful and ultimately benign word? Are we to spend it banishing “master,” or developing mastery?
In his email explaining his decision to drop the title “master,” Professor Davis said that 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.” Are these Yale students of whom he writes? How, with all due respect, do they ever get anything done? Are they mastering game theory, biochemistry, public policy, literature, the arts or some other subject of their choice? How will they function in graduate school? As scientists, writers, lawyers, doctors, civil rights advocates? How will they govern?
Purging the title “master” from our lips is not a step forward. It is certainly not progress. It is a step backward — to petty distractions, to navel-gazing and most of all to solipsism.
In pouring our efforts and energy into eliminating this title, we allow self-obsession to substitute for true achievement and for real progress — the improvement of human abilities and minds. Sadly, this move represents not only individual self-obsession, but also a community’s self-obsession — the Yale community’s.
We do not seem to be encouraging our peers to be the masters of their fates and the captains of their souls. We seem rather to be nurturing a childlike parochialism — that vain urge to peer first into one’s own feelings and emotions, putting inner states ahead of an outward focus on the wider world.
I wonder: Can Yale students master their emotions, or will their emotions master them?
Isaac Cohen is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .