The End of Masters At Yale?

April 23, 2016
Alexander Michaud

An anonymous source has informed the Yale Free Press that the Yale Corporation has indeed decided to abolish the title of “Master,” and will announce the change next week. The YFP Staff critiques their decision.

Editor’s Note, 12:24pm 4/23/16: An early draft of this article was accidentally posted at first. This draft has been edited for grammar and spelling.

We must begin by addressing what many will wonder: what is the point of refuting a change that seems inevitable? The Yale Free Press is no stranger to the virtue of fighting for lost causes (see this issue’s Letter from the Editor about standing athwart history). This time, however, our goal is not simply to be reactionary. On Monday, prefrosh will arrive to get a taste of Yale, and we want them to be prepared not only for this University’s offerings, but also its politics. This rebuttal, and this entire issue, for that matter, is for their benefit. In order to understand the university they are entering, they must have an idea of what this institution values and what it doesn’t.

At its core, this decision is an implicit slight towards the purpose of education. Learning takes place in an environment where the pupil is willing and eager to be humbled by the knowledge and experience of their elders. We can, of course, learn from our peers, but we did not attend a university to be taught by twenty year-olds. We came to be humbled by scholars, experts in their fields.

The Master’s role, though differing from college to college, coheres around the concept of mentorship. We don’t want a Master who’s simply another residential college bureaucratic, academic peer, or even our friend. We want someone who sees their responsibility to their students as being different from that of any other professor. We are not fit to govern ourselves, and a Master is chosen to be a guiding authority not just in our studies, but also our lives.

The key word there is authority. The way we refer to authorities symbolically encapsulates our relationship to them, and “Master” is meant to have a humbling effect. It is a reminder that just because we are at Yale doesn’t mean we understand how to navigate it. The rejection of the title is a refusal to be humbled, and thus a refusal to be educated. It contradicts why we are here in the first place.

Let us sidestep for a moment, and point out that this critique is obviously a refocusing of a conversation that many consider to be solely about race. This is a sadly myopic perspective: the subjective experiences of students, even a plurality of them, cannot categorically trump the institutional interests of the Yale community. The truth of the matter is, seeing the Master as a slave-driver represents a childish inability to identify the meaning of words based on context. It is hard to conceive of a more self-indulgent position than to insist that your Yale education is being marred by the name of the person who regularly throws you dinner parties.

So what’s wrong with “Head of College” (besides how utterly stupid it sounds to say Head Schottenfeld)? Whatever is chosen to replace the title is inconsequential. The loss is the symbolic sacrifice on the altar of student whims: this University has given up on trying to exert authority over the student body. Soon a Palestinian student group will petition to have the Hebrew removed from Yale’s crest, and the precedent will have already been set. President Stiles will turn over in his grave.

This is to say nothing about the university’s lack of respect for its own traditions. In most cases, Yale traditions are fun and inoffensive to our modern sensibilities, like guzzling Mory’s cups, or freshmen stuffing their faces at Christmas. Students have no problems studying in aesthetically antiquated spaces, as we have learned our lessons from the modernism that inspired Stiles and Morse. Yet when these traditions actually have content, and actually try to impart some wisdom from the past that might be controversial, they are as disposable as napkins.

When he began this crusade, Master Davis committed an offense against the former holders of his office by refusing to be beholden to their legacy. The value of a Yale education is marketed as an established, immemorial institution of accumulated knowledge, and yet it is precisely this prestige that Yale is refusing to own up to. The Yale Corporation is rejecting the dignity that comes from authorities of the past. If this does not offend you, we are frankly surprised you read this far. Regardless, we at the Yale Free Press expect more from the stewards of our education. Especially when it comes to following the lead of Harvard and Princeton.