The evolution of traditions

“O tempora, o mores!” sounds the cry whenever we discuss changing symbols at this University. Bricks inscribed with distant dates and impressive stone architecture make it easy to forget Yale’s youth. But its 1701 foundation places it nearer to us than it to the construction of the Bastille or the severing of the Sphinx’s nose.

Several of the columns in last Friday’s forum (“Debating the title ‘master,’” Aug. 28) on Stephen Davis’ decision to cease use of the term “master” testify to this forgetfulness. Anthony Kronman casts the term as a “tradition” equal to science and “respect for equality”; Isaac Cohen ’16 warns that “master’s” obsolescence will let a “childlike parochialism” crowd out things at Yale that he presumes more important. Both surmise that history is frailer than history has proven itself to be, that to change the term is to threaten our community and our knowledge.

The columnists, even those in favor of the term’s repeal, grounded their arguments about meaning and tradition on a different set of institutions: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, schools so old that their foundation dates are speculative. Even J.T. Flowers ’17 sets his opposition in spite of that perceived tradition, saying that in “the British Oxbridge system […] the term applies exclusively to the head of an educational institution in an indiscriminate, non-racialized fashion.”

Yet there is no need to concede Oxbridge so easily. The fullness of history scorns consistency; Oxbridge’s history is no different. Indeed, Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges have never exclusively used “master” to refer to their heads of house. At Oxford, a “warden” heads Merton College, and has since its 1264 foundation. The head of Christ Church, who holds his post ex officio as the ecclesiastical head of the Christ Church Cathedral, is thus a “dean.” My college, Kellogg, is led by a “president.” Only five of Oxford’s 38 colleges are run by a “master.” When Yale made the undemocratic choice in 1933 to use “master” as the sole title for the heads of our residential colleges, centuries of tradition contradicted this decision. Rather than an “emulation” of the English universities, as Kronman suggests, the title is a sickly parody of them.

“Master” is a “word with many meanings,” but the history of our country and of Yale — different than the narratives  of England and Oxbridge — must inform us, as Flowers and Eshe Sherley ’16 rightly identify. It was in the United States where the language of “master” and “slave” built the economy of the South, informed the logic of secession and incited the deaths of over 600,000 Americans. Until only eight years ago, a portrait of Eli Yale, standing with a shackled black slave cowering at his feet, proudly stood in the Yale Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall. Discarding the term “master” from our colleges will not “impoverish our language and our thoughts,” as Cohen suggests — as if Yale undergraduates were so imbecilic as to rely solely on Yale reference points for understanding. What disrespect for tradition, indeed, to contend that all English words must signify identically, whether uttered in New Haven or in Oxford.

Though the example of Oxbridge does not support the use of “master” as those who defend the term might wish, those universities across the Atlantic can teach us about the malleability of longstanding tradition. Both universities abolished their centuries-old matriculation examinations in classical languages in 1960. Cambridge made voluntary the use of its traditional academic dress, called “sub-fusc,” when sitting exams in the late 2000s, and while Oxford still requires it, as of 2012, they allow any permutation of the men’s and women’s versions in support of gender-nonconforming people. The Oxford Union, a 200-year old debating society, recently declared itself institutionally racist, and this year, the sitting Rhodes Scholars at Oxford — many Yalies among them — for the first time in a century refused to toast Cecil Rhodes at their annual gala dinner. Our traditions, old as they seem, are young. Even Oxford and Cambridge’s ancient rites are not sacrosanct. If they can adapt their traditions to the institutions they are today, we ought not to bear such hubris for our own.

Stephen Marsh

Sept. 2

The writer is a 2013 graduate of Saybrook College