The Latest in Political Correctness at Yale

A professor takes “master” out of its Oxbridge context and drops it into the Old South.

Yale University’s undergraduate school has twelve residential colleges, each with a dean and a master. Just last week, one of the masters, Professor Stephen Davis, e-mailed his students to ask them to stop addressing him as “Master Davis” because of the “racial and gendered weight” the title carries.

In his e-mail, he stated, “I think 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.’ And there should be no context where male-gendered titles should be normalized as markers of authority.” According to Davis, there have been students over the years who “have felt it necessary to move off campus . . . to avoid a system where the title ‘master’ is valorized.”

As a former student of Professor Davis, I know him to be an excellent lecturer, a gifted scholar, and an earnest person of character; I have nothing but respect for Professor Davis. But while I appreciate the concerns he has raised, I find the reasoning underlying his request deeply problematic.

Regarding the term’s racial connotations, the first thing to note is that no one owns the semantics of language; words take on different meanings depending on time, place, intention of the speaker, and overall context. To take but one unfortunate example: During the height of the Second Red Scare, in the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds changed their name to the Cincinnati Redlegs for fear of being associated with Communism. Unfortunately, there is a rather ugly arrogance in our own day that enables the language police to decide unilaterally which words count as harmful — regardless of intention.

And this brings us to the word master. In the Yale context, there is no case to be made that it has ever been intended in a racial manner. From the beginning of the residential-college system in 1933, one cannot imagine that slavery or racial subjugation was conceivably on the minds of those who used the term for the professor overseeing a college. The current dean of Yale College — himself a professor of African-American history and a former master — stated that the title is “nothing more than a legacy of the British Oxbridge system that Yale was blatantly trying to emulate when it created the residential college system in the early 1930s.” But even moving beyond the original intent, I would be very surprised if one could find even a single occasion since when the term has been used in an offensive way.

To be sure, the term has different meanings — as Albus Dumbledore is headmaster of Hogwarts or as G. K. Chesterton was a master of the English language. More than that, however, at Yale the masters are people who serve: They serve their students every day in making sure life in the residential colleges is going as smoothly as possible and in organizing activities such as master’s teas, cultural events, special dinners, fancy dances, and so on. The masters have been dedicated servants and, as the word’s history would suggest, gifted teachers. How very sad that a term so rich in historical meaning, full of reverence for the life of the mind, should now be on the chopping block of political correctness.

Professor Davis’s concern about gendered titles is also flawed. Consider that terms of profession like comedienne and actress have begun to give way to the increasingly gender-neutral terms comedian and actor. This same logic has already been applied to the term master since Yale appointed its first female master in 1971 — who was not known as “Mistress Lustman.”

Ironically, Professor Davis has asked his students to address him as “Dr. Davis” instead. But doctor is just as gendered a term as master. And yet we’ve come to understand the originally male-gendered term as being gender-neutral. In other words, we have linguistically, and therefore culturally, moved beyond such gendered distinctions.

A deeper irony is that each of the five degrees Professor Davis holds reflects the “patriarchal” system he now derides: a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton; a master of divinity degree from Duke; and a master of arts degree, a master of philosophy degree, and a doctor of philosophy degree from Yale. His underlying logic would suggest that these degrees are oppressive relics of a sexist and — in the case of the master degrees — racist past. Should we get rid of these titles as well? I think not.

Since last Friday, students have lauded Professor Davis for his “brave” decision to begin a “conversation” on the term’s usage at Yale. Yet he has effectively spurred one of those “conversations” in which there is very little actual, balanced conversation. Given the current state of political correctness,​ anyone who expresses even the slightest of reservations about officially changing the title for the remaining eleven masters is likely not to be taken seriously or treated charitably.

Professor Davis’s reasoning does a disservice to the Yale community by imagining offensiveness where no offense exists.

Professor Davis’s reasoning does a disservice to the Yale community by imagining offensiveness where no offense exists. It does a disservice to the wider cultural fabric at Yale by interjecting a racial connotation that does not accord with the term’s usage at the college. And it does a disservice to our collective intellect by denying our ability to understand words in their proper context and to shape their meaning to reflect our cultural values.

We would do well to remember the warning of the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984, where, as the philologist Syme observes, “Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.”

In the grand scheme of things, of course, Professor Davis’s request is not a big deal. The problem is that this move further enshrines the idea that in every single thing we say and do we must walk on eggshells to avoid cracking the hypersensitivity of fragile children who in fact ought to be rigorous students able to understand words in their proper context. As such, it will be frustrating if others at Yale University cave in to such flawed and superficial reasoning.


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