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At Harvard, Feelings Trump Knowledge

TAI staff writer Nicholas M. Gallagher is in the Federalist today, breaking down Harvard University’s decision to scrap the title “master” for faculty heads of residential colleges because of the term’s supposed “association with slavery.” As Gallagher shows, this decision, which rests on ignorant folk etymology, highlights American universities’ increasing tendency to prioritize their students’ feelings over actual academic knowledge:

Rather than being just a contraction, master in the sense of house master comes from the Latin magister, or teacher, from which schoolmaster and headmaster also derive. “Master” in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with “master” in the sense of slavery, for which the Romans would have used dominus or domina. The supposed “association with slavery,” is therefore bunk. […]

The absence of laughter can indicate the presence of ignorance. It seems to here. It’s not that this ignorance of classical or European languages reflects a growth in admirable, rigorous study of more diverse tongues; few Harvard scholars replaced the Latin curriculum of the 1950s with an acute knowledge of classical Sanskrit. The top universities now employ a great many people who “study” subjects that would at one point not have been recognized as academic.

This has many effects, some a great deal more grave than some academics making asses of themselves. The same student who cannot understand master/magister is deaf to the entire classical world—to Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero— and to all those who knew and were in conversation with that world, such as Dante, Milton, and Goethe. If you think knowledge of that world was only useful to dead white guys, you know nothing of the educations of America’s great civil rights leaders.

It appears that at least some of the Harvard leadership was aware that the crusade against the term was based on a distorted and superficial understanding of the English language. And yet the university—like other Ivy League schools faced with questionable demands—swiftly caved, perhaps because of the sense that capitulating to protesting students is a sign of respect, or perhaps just out of a desire to make the witch hunt stop. They are wrong on both counts: Failing to stand up for academic values in the face of a misplaced ideological crusade does students a grave disservice, and it only emboldens them to keep pushing.
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