Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Master of None

Jack of All Trades, but...

From 1969 until 1972, then again for an eight-year period after the universal college system was instituted at Princeton, I served as the Master of Wilson College.  I poured my heart into a job to which I devoted a full quarter of my teaching career.   I therefore take it a little personally that virtually overnight, in response to complaints and a sit-in by undergraduates of the “Black Justice League,” the title of college “Master” was jettisoned in favor of college “Head”.  Furthermore, according to the local and national press, the Princeton administration will now seriously consider removing Wilson’s name from the College of which I was master as well as from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  These actions are of course undertaken on the grounds of sensitivity, openness, “diversity,” and other comforting linguistic abstractions.  I propose to devote my next two essays to the two parts of the issue: the bowdlerization of academic titles today, Woodrow Wilson next week.

One of the ex-Masters, Michael Hecht of Forbes College, is quoted as saying the following: “Master is a very loaded word.  The word has this baggage associated with it, so let’s get rid of that baggage.”  I’m hoping that Head Hecht has been misquoted, but I more than half fear that he actually believes this codswallop.

ca. 1300

What is the “baggage” that makes master “a very loaded word”?  It is that in one of its tertiary meanings, long since obsolete, and as part of a compound phrase (slave master), it could denote the owner or supervisor of slaves.  It has no such connotation in current English.  Nouns become obsolete when the things they denote cease to exist.  It is possible you have seen a master sergeant or a quartermaster or a postmaster.  You may have sat across a board from a chess master, even a grand master.  You have perhaps sat at the feet of a Zen master.  But no living person has ever seen a slave master.  Slave masters have gone the way of the Master of the Temple and the Master of Ballantrae Hall.  You can conjure one up only by taxing your imagination.   If you live on a horse farm and you hear outside your window the sound of clip-clop, clip-clop, you do not think “Zebra!”—not if you’re sensible.

We do not live on a horse farm but on the campus of one of the world’s great universities.  Here, surely, if words matter, they matter enough to study and to use them with reasonable precision. What is the real load borne by the common English word master?  It came to our language by way of the French (maistre, maître) from the Latin (magister).  The idea behind the family of words is that of expert knowledge, training, or skill.  That is why in the lexical record the primary arena of the word family—master, masterpiece, mastery, magisterial, and a dozen more—has in all periods of English linguistic history been pedagogy and learning.  A master is a teacher.  In traditional industrial and artisanal structures an apprentice (meaning “learner”) learned from a master (meaning “teacher”).  What the apprentice learned was a mister (trade, skill, profession), a word now obsolete, though remembered in the medieval “mystery” plays once sponsored by professional trade guilds.  But of course our current word Mister (polite form of address, male) is actually the word master reflecting the reduced stress of its proclitic use.

 ca. 1870

Since the new Dean of the College is a Professor of English, she must know all this.  I presume she still chairs the Council of Heads, olim the Council of Masters.  At Commencement one of the tasks of her colleague the Dean of the Graduate School, the former Master of Butler College, will be to present to President Eisgruber a sizable cohort of candidates for the conferral of what heretofore has been known as the master’s degree.  Are they now to be heads’ degrees?  Heads or tails?  The one is no more, and no less preposterous than the other.  Shall we never again hear a visiting maestro conduct in Richardson Auditorium?  Will no visiting instrumental virtuoso ever again offer a master class?  Will we cease to boast of the Old Masters in the Princeton Art Museum?  Only a most determined (or predetermined) search for offense will find it in the words college master.  Must our beloved English language always be the first victim of political confusion?
ca. 1920

College professors are quite capable of finding complexities undetected by ordinary mortals, and of searching out previously unsuspected thought crimes.  I know, because I am one.  My first introduction to British academic life came from a fine novel about precisely that: C. P. Snow’s The Masters.  Of course there is also political mastery and artistic mastery.  The third and central volume of Robert Caro’s still unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson is entitled Master of the Senate.  One of its subjects is Johnson’s role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The Irish novelist Colm Toibin, a recent sojourner in Princeton, published a beautiful novel “about” Henry James entitled The Master.  James was in fact and most appropriately called “the Master” by his literary admirers and disciples.  Among James’s most remarkable stories—one I would recommend to any seeker after truth in art and life—is that entitled “The Lesson of the Master.”  The lesson of the master, one most ironically delivered in this story, is that in the pursuit of a theoretical perfection you may lose it all.
ca. 2010

There was exactly as much racism in the “masters” of my last paragraphs as there was in the title “Master of Wilson College”: that is, precisely none.  So on factitious grounds Princeton University has now jettisoned a venerable title wholly appropriate to its mission of teaching and learning in favor of one appropriate to the organizational chart of a corporation.  Head!?  Talk about a word laden with baggage!  Some years ago some disgruntled ex-professors from the University of California, Santa Barbara, went into the bar business in Goleta. They called their establishment “The English Department”.  The doors on its toilets read “Departmental Heads”.

We do our students no service by turning the lexicon of the English language into a political Rorschach Test.  Nor should we be surprised when many intelligent people in what we call the Real World, reading about what goes on on our campuses, confuse the Academy with Alice’s Wonderland.

"’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’  ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.’”


  1. Well said; thank you. --Will & Anne

  2. According to Horace Walpole the world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. Given your long attachment to Princeton, I can only sympathize with what you must be feeling.

  3. well put, yet a further irony: remember magister stems from a polarity in Latin, magis // minus, 'greater' // 'lesser', so magister, magistratus, as opposed to minister, public temple slaves: should house & college be led by ministers? Trouble there, minister still with us as noun & verb, metonymic dualism, as master (n & v): there's alway pastor & shepherd . . . for Christ's sake

  4. Ed Hummer, '67

    Prof Fleming excluded from his etymology of "master" an example that must be close to his heart. I speak of the Wife of Bath, familiar to all students who had the honor and, yes, the privilege, of studying Chaucer under either Prof. Fleming or his own master, Prof D. W. Robertson.

    Trigger Warning: The Wife of Bath's tale involves debilitating references to rape, the death penalty, and, of course, the battle between the sexes. However, to provide trigger warnings for all such issues raised in the Canterbury Tales would run to a length longer than the Preface that Chaucer himself provided.

    The Wife of Bath told her fellow pilgrims the tale of an Arthurian knight who raped a young maiden and was sentenced to death for that awful offense. However, Queen Guinevere - who I believe had her own sex and gender issues to deal with later on - interceded and promised the knight his freedom if he could discover what it was that women most desired - "What thyng that worldly wommen loven best." Thus incentivized, the knight went out and...yada, yada,yada...came back with an answer. That answer, which met with the unanimous consent of the ladies of Arthur's court and thus won the knight his freedom, was that what women most desire and "loven best" is the "maistrie" - mastery over their husbands and lovers. They wish to be the teachers and their husbands and lovers the pupils.

    1037 "My lige lady, generally," quod he,
    "My liege lady, without exception," he said,
    1038 "Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
    "Women desire to have sovereignty
    1039 As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
    As well over her husband as her love,
    1040 And for to been in maistrie hym above.
    And to be in mastery above him.
    1041 This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
    This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
    1042 Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille."
    Do as you please; I am here subject to your will."
    1043 In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde,
    In all the court there was not wife, nor maid,
    1044 Ne wydwe that contraried that he sayde,
    Nor widow that denied what he said,
    1045 But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.
    But said that he was worthy to have his life.

    Actually, the Wife of Bath's "maistrie" seems to have a bit of a harder edge to it than that. In terms well understood on today's neighborhood basketball courts, she does not think women should "teach" their husbands so much as "school" them. But, a teacher is a teacher. Some are just stricter than others.

    Many thanks to Prof. Fleming for his contributions to Princeton over the years and also for his recent exemplary contributions to the discussions now roiling campus and the alumni. He is living evidence of the importance to the educational process and to our country of the development of knowledge and the nurturing of sensibilities that only the liberal arts can provide, even, perhaps especially, in an era in which politicians seem to feel that only the STEM subjects are worthy of financial support.

    His dedication to rational argument is inspiring. And his gentleness and sense of fairness make his arguments all the more powerful, something that today's office occupying students and their enablers on the faculty who lack either of those qualities should bear in mind. One can only hope that the current effort, sparse in either civil discourse or rational argument, to impose mandated - and no doubt highly ideological - course content on students as well as mandated - and also highly ideological - instruction to students, faculty, and administrators regarding what to think and how to live their lives meets a bad end for the little Robespierre's pushing that agenda, and soon.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. It is always with great interest and humility that I take a turn with your blogs. They, happily, acquaint me with the unfamiliar and, simultaneously, remind me of my academic deficiencies in so many different subjects. However, I am forced to invoke the provincial defense in response to Princeton’s Wilson controversy and your “master’s” thesis. Although within the confines of the Princeton campus and perhaps even New England, “master” might not evoke overtly or subliminally “slave master”, in the geographical shadows of our Southern trail of plantation homes mention “master” and slave is more quickly implied. One of the outcomes of Princeton’s diversity may be that the student body has been infiltrated by some of our region’s students and their etymological bias.