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.
The master of Pierson College has declared that he wishes no longer to be called “master” by anyone who might otherwise be inclined to address him as such, out of courtesy or a respect for tradition. His decision is of such little consequence that were larger interests not at stake, it would hardly deserve a reply. But his ill-considered judgment reflects wider currents of feeling that present a real danger to our community.
To begin with, I must object to what seems the procedural irregularity of Master Stephen Davis’ pronouncement. Procedure can be the enemy of conscience. But it is also the guarantor of many values we cherish.
“Master” is not a designation enjoyed by the master of Pierson College alone. He shares it with many others. Before any individual master takes the presumptuous step of declaring the title morally offensive, would it not be appropriate to raise the question with his or her fellows (and perhaps even to put it to a vote) before unilaterally declaring his own moral contempt for the title? Is his position so like that of the brave abolitionists who declared their conscientious opposition to slavery that he too is properly deaf to the judgments of others? His is an act of insufferable arrogance, unbecoming the dignity of one who is supposed to exemplify the spirit of open mindedness that is the lifeblood of Yale College. It reflects the enervating spirit of all-too-ready offense that has deformed our culture and produced the absurd demand for “trigger warnings” that seems, against all belief, to be gaining ground in America’s colleges and universities.
As to the substance of the matter, “master” is a word with many meanings. It is what slaves called their owners. It is also what students have for centuries called their teachers. What the word means at Yale ought to be determined by the context most relevant to its construction. Can there be any doubt that the right one is the academic setting in which the title is conferred and used? It may be that those who designed Yale’s residential college system were guilty of an anxious wish to emulate the Oxbridge model. But can anyone seriously contend that their use of the word “master” was meant to endorse the very different system of authority that underlay the antebellum plantation?
Some will respond — this is Master Davis’ position — that it makes no difference so long as one possible meaning of the term is the offensive one that a single student places upon it. But those who make this their standard substitute for a democratic rule the requirement of unanimity (or, to put it pejoratively, the heckler’s veto). But such a requirement is hopelessly impractical (except, perhaps, around the kitchen table). In larger and more diverse communities, it produces mediocrity and quiescence. And if not constrained by some conception of reasonableness, it stifles democracy, debate and the habit of living with others who see things differently. It may masquerade as courage but is cowardice in fact because it cannot stand to live with disagreement. How small and unworthy of Yale.
An undergraduate education at Yale is premised on the assumption that young people ought to challenge the traditions they have inherited. That is more than sound; it is indispensible to their growth as self-respecting men and women. But there is another side to the question. None of us comes into the world naked. We are all the beneficiaries of the traditions we inherit. Science is a tradition. Respect for equality is a tradition. And it has been a tradition at Yale for the better part of a century to call those who are responsible for overseeing the welfare of the students living in our residential colleges, “master,” regardless of race, sex or anything but the academic and personal distinction that has presumably led the president of Yale to entrust them with this duty.
This is a tradition that should not be thrown away casually. Yes, there are rotten traditions. But is this one? I don’t see it, and Master Davis’ failure to give the question the consideration it deserves suggests that his reflections are not the ‘soulful’ ones they seem, but in reality self-serving and thoughtless instead.
But that is hardly important. Master Davis is only one man, inflated by a sense of his own moral prestige. The troubling thing is the general devaluation of tradition his decision implies. When tradition becomes suspect for no other reason than that it carries the dead hand of the past, god help us. For then we are but the “flies of a summer” living in the self-indulgent glow of a moral certitude that has nothing to do with our connection to those who prepared the way for us and will follow us soon enough.
Is this really a human way to live? Is it the way Yale College aspires to teach its students to live? I hope not, and with all my heart hope that those most immediately touched by Master Davis’ puerile declaration declare themselves with equal vigor in favor of procedural regularity, a sensible interpretation of words and the value of preserving Yale’s honorable traditions in a world that increasingly views all traditions with suspicion and erases them whenever it can, so that we may at last dwell in righteousness as the history-less citizens of Kant’s kingdom of ends.
Tony Kronman is the Sterling Professor of Law and a former dean of Yale Law School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .