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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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  • Eurydice

    I’m not going to criticize this one. Language changes and migrates. What meant one thing in the year umpty-ump in another country means something else today in this country’s context. A billion years ago “hussy” meant the mistress of a household – try using that for the wife of the house master. And we all know that “gay” doesn’t mean “merry” anymore.

    • Andrew Allison

      I think the point of the post is that adolescents should not be rewriting history. Meanwhile, in the spirit of the season, I’m off to don my gay apparel [grin].

      • Eurydice

        All humans rewrite history, they might as well get an early start. I know the history of “house master” and the etymology and the tradition and still, to me, the term sounds weird for this modern age. It sounds old and fusty, moss-encrusted and paternalistic, slave plantation, with just a dash of dom/sub. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la 😀

        • Jim__L

          Sounds like you need to start de-acculturating yourself from the sort of nonsense that passes for intellectualism these days. Or to use an older equivalent phrase, get your mind out of the gutter…

          • Eurydice

            Thank you for your concern, but it’s not necessary. I was educated at an earlier time, but one can only mourn for the past for so long. As for intellectual nonsense, I would put “de-acculturating” in that category – I don’t acculturate or de-acculturate; I just live in the world as it exists. With the problems facing the university system in the future, nitpicking about the title of a job description seems pretty fruitless. The administration can hand the students this dubious prize, but it won’t change the cost or quality of their education.

          • Jim__L

            Wouldn’t it be better to spread the culture you think best, rather than reflect “the world that exists”? It’s not as if your existence and the existence of whatever other culture you prefer didn’t matter. You have that much power, even in a place as anonymous as a news site comment section.

          • Eurydice

            Well, I thought I was expressing my power just by posting here – I didn’t realize there was some other hidden criterion. But, if you’d like to know what other culture I would prefer, it would be one that doesn’t spend so much time fighting the battles of prior centuries, but that would be a fantasy culture. I think, right now, the 21st century is still trying to digest the 20th century and there will be a lot more “tut-tutting” to come about how things are no longer what they once were.

          • Fat_Man

            ” If you’d like to know what other culture I would prefer, it would be
            one that doesn’t spend so much time fighting the battles of prior

            Don’t tell ISIS.

          • Re-read the article. Throwing them a bone encourages them to go for the jugular, every time. Once the surrender to insanity starts, it never stops except in violence.

          • Eurydice

            Perhaps. But, when it comes to students, I find it useful not to overestimate their attention span or underestimate their indolence.

          • Fat_Man

            The students deserve expulsions. Anything else is over indulgence

          • Jim__L

            The attention span and zeal of the American Talib is only increased by humoring them.

          • Fat_Man

            “it won’t change the cost or quality of their education.”

            The cost is astronomical, the quality is non existent.

        • Fat_Man

          The reason is sounds weird to you is that you are uneducated, and uncultured.

    • I don’t think this particular group of individuals has any clout to redefine words. Treating their whiny antics as though they had value is what begins the long, slow march to the end.

  • qet

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Things like this have absolutely nothing to do with any feeling other than the feeling of power. Kids today sense the presence of an Overton Window and they aim to take advantage of it. Changing anything–anything–signals to them that they have power. The hard battles having been fought and won long ago by the real heroes–the battles memorialized in those classic photos of Bull Connor with his fire hose and his German Shepherds, and Orville Faubus blocking the entrance to the Little Rock school, and the Freedom Rider bus on fire–today’s warriors are left with nothing but trivia–names (Wilson, Lynch), words (master), clothes (Halloween costumes), school crests (Harvard Law wheat sheaves). It would be like if a liberal German kid today, wanting to feel himself being an “agent of change” long after the Nazis had been defeated by the sacrifices of millions of lives, demanded that every word spelled with a double-s in it be outlawed because, you know, SS. The only appropriate reply to such persons is that old chestnut: No.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Regarding the ‘double-s outrage’….don’t give them any ideas….

  • Jim__L

    So are they going to discontinue the “Master’s” Degree?

    This is stupidity.

    • Nevis07

      They’ll start calling them non-slaveholder’s degrees?

  • Nevis07

    liberals: (plural noun)
    – a person who has hijacked a once honorable concept of liberty. One who whines and cries when someone says something (anything) that offends them. An ignoramus.

  • Beauceron

    I know, sometimes I say, “I have a Master’s.” That could be construed as saying I have a master.

    I might have to issue a trigger warning.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The Washington Post said that “Officials at Princeton announced last month that masters of residential colleges would from that point forward be called the “head of college”, adding “Princeton College Dean Jill Dolan said “‘head of college’ better captures the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life.” Now Harvard is going to do something similar.

    It’s really hard to understand all this fit-throwing over changes of job titles to those which actually better describe the positions.

    • Anthony
      • FriendlyGoat

        Thanks. That’s good information. But did you notice that the last graphic in that piece seeks to blame the problem on Nixon ending the gold standard when the trend of high-end tax cuts starting in 1978 would actually better explain what the heck happened. How can people write about this stuff and think that tax cuts don’t matter enough to be mentioned? AAARRRGGGHHH

        • Anthony

          Writer one was more interested in graphics (difficult to illustrate high end cuts perhaps) and two consider source. Yes, I noticed Nixon Bretton Woods. But, FG, we can’t always have what we want (AAARRRGGGHHH).

          • FriendlyGoat

            No, alas, many of us can do very little but keep trying to develop our own versions of “logic” in the comment section. (That’s me, anyhow.)

          • Anthony

            You do a good job! (by the way, that last cite was heads up on version different from TAI’s regular fare)

          • FriendlyGoat


          • Jim__L

            Logic is common to both sides.

            It might be rewarding to use your time in the comments section to try to understand the *conclusions* of others. It’s priorities and emphases that lead to different conclusions, so it is critical to understand those, rather than to talk about the logical tools.

            For example, I understand from your comments that you believe money is the root of all political evil, so it should be taken by government for safekeeping via confiscatory taxes on the highest earners. I’m skeptical of this approach; for one, money in the hands of government has a corrupting influence there too. For another, I seriously doubt that these taxes would be dodged by redistributing income within a company’s payroll department — it will instead go towards fatter expense accounts and more company-owned perks…. or dividends and stock buybacks. Call me cynical, but there it is.

            For another example, I understand that money is for you the most important political / societal issue, and even the words of the religion you profess cannot move you to put value in non-material things like the lives of the unborn, or the sinful nature of envy and covetousness. This is a common blind spot on the Left. Again, instead of trying to nitpick “logic”, you might try instead to understand emphases and priorities. You might understand a lot better how people believe what they do about where their interests lie, if you understand that.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, I “might” spend my time in the comment section being another yes man to pat the backs of conservatives and cynics, or I “might” spend my time developing my own original thoughts—-as I do, not giving a rat’s behind whether I get upvotes or downvotes from you fellows.

            As for your interpretation of my thoughts—-please know that I KNOW you are doing nothing but putting on your own political spin. The first sentence of your third paragraph here is evidence of that. YOU believe you can argue against “money is the root of all political evil” so you put it up for debate as if I had said it. YOU believe that income taxation is the government taking money from the highest earners for safekeeping, so you spin that little conservative cutesy too—-attributing it to me.

            Here’s the deal, Jim. I seriously do not need your re-spin of my thoughts. You can live in conservative-land for the rest of your life if you want, but you’re not dragging me there no matter how much you criticize me.

          • Jim__L

            First up — to understand something is not to agree with it.

            You have said in the past that you “can’t understand how conservatives can vote against their interests”. I’m asking you to make as much effort to *understand* conservative positions and priorities as I do to understand yours, whether we end up agreeing on anything or not. No yesses, upvotes, or back-patting necessary.

            Feel free to put your own lighthearted spin on my positions if you’d like. My apologies if the bantering tone fell flat.

            What piqued this response was the use of the word “logic”. In spite of the rest of the internet, I think that logic is pretty universal across political debates on TAI. It’s when we get into rules of evidence, emphases, priorities, and predicted outcomes that the real controversies start. I think we could do a better job of understanding where others are coming from on those points, and that would enhance the quality of debate here.

            And pardon me if I’m misunderstanding your position regarding money and materialism in politics, or money in the hands of 1%’ers. What I put down is lighthearted, sure, but (I believe) mostly descriptive of what you have presented as your position.

            Where would you correct me, or present it in an alternative way?

          • FriendlyGoat

            My understanding of conservatism (notice I am speaking of the modern American political movement, not necessarily you) is that it includes these ideas:

            1) State legislatures with male majorities will decide whether women, once impregnated, will or will not give birth and be mothers.

            2) Same-sex couples may not have the legal rights of marriage

            3) Every future gun-control measure anywhere in America is to be opposed.

            4) America’s involvement and funding of the UN is to be opposed

            5) There should be no limits on the amount of money anyone, including any incorporated entity, can spend to influence elections primarily with attack or hot-button ads put on television. The source of the money can be opaque and the donors need not live in the political sub-divisions being influenced. It’s fine for Koch Industries or Sheldon Adelson to spend money to influence the election of every office in every state in addition to any national election if they so choose..

            6) Carbon-caused climate change is not happening and the liberals who claim otherwise are power-seeking liars.

            7) Social Security and Medicare should be trimmed, or privatized, or abolished. The Affordable Care Act should be repealed.

            8) Samuel Alito is a good Justice and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a bad one. The president should appoint only those like Alito.

            9) Affirmative Action was always a bad idea and should be abandoned. This not only applies to laws respecting the opportunities of minorities, but also means there is no need for any federal small-a affirmative action on what is called rape culture, bullying or hate crimes.

            10) Labor Unions are evil and should be opposed anywhere.

            11) The federal government should be “small” but give LOTS of money to states in “block grants” with few or no strings attached

            12) Low taxation of high incomes is “Good for America”. Whatever government programs must be cut in order to achieve low taxation are of lesser importance than making certain that the mass of wealth and power remains concentrated in the top tenth of citizens and families on a permanent basis—by not taxing it.

            13) Dodd-Frank in general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in particular should be opposed and eliminated if possible.

            14) The Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be de-funded

            15) Property taxes collected for public schools should follow any student and be paid to any private school chosen by any parent.

            16) The “free market” should control the Internet and there is no reason for “Net Neutrality”.

            17) “Entrepreneurial Federalism” is an economic miracle in America and there is no problem with state legislatures competing to see which ones can give away the most economic incentives to the private sector, including state-level neutering of unions.

            18) If Republicans can win elections on #1 thru #3, they may then claim a mandate to work their will on #4 thru #17 which are the actual major goals of “the Party”.

            That’s my “logic” on conservative “logic”. I’m opposed to all of it, PARTICULARLY the deception involved with running on “the social issues” TO TRICK THE COUNTRY into the other issues.
            I’m never going to stop feeling this way.

    • qet

      Being critical is not fit-throwing. The stated rationale of the Harvard masters is not that of the Princeton Dean, and as for the latter, if you believe that the decision was some sort of ordinary course decision whose timing just happened accidentally to coincide with all of the recent shenanigans, then you are deceiving yourself.

      And if you (and others) imagine that the current goings on at colleges are the effect of some broad economic trend cause, as you seem to be agreeing vis-a-vis the Zerohedge article, then I think you sorely misunderstand the time (and place) in which you live.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Anthony sent me the Zerohedge piece as an unrelated matter, I think, so I replied to the Zerohedge matter unrelated to these college job titles.

        Yes, I know there are upheavals going on in the colleges now criticized as “too PC”. I just don’t think updating “master” is one for anyone to get upset about and try to defend. Some will say that “ALL THIS” is related and must be fought. I say anyone stuck on retaining “master” is just, well, “stuck”.

        • qet

          My mistake then.

          As for being stuck, you are missing the forest. If someone has $5 on him and a robber holds him up, are you going to say he is stuck for complaining over a measly $5?

          • FriendlyGoat

            Somewhat off topic, your example is to me a thought-provoking matter. Assuming that neither I nor any companions were being physically harmed, I would far prefer GIVING a robber five dollars (or two hundred) than calling the cops and putting someone into jail and “the system”. I don’t say this to neglect the abstract duty to maybe help keep some other person from being robbed by the same dude acting again, but really, if there was any chance that the robber was just a stupid kid being stupid and not the proverbial violent career thug, I really would relish the opportunity to say to someone, “If you need it, I will give it to you. You are not committing a robbery. This never happened. Here’s a gift of what I happen to have on me. I do not want you in trouble over five dollars (or two hundred).”

            Yes, I know that’s a fantasy and is probably a naive approach to most robberies. But five dollars would be a cheap fee to pay for the opportunity to say something unexpected in a tense moment and MAYBE break through in communication to someone who is not likely to be improved by jail.

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