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Columns

A House Divided

In debating tough questions on campus, there’s much we’ve yet to master

By Molly L. Roberts, Crimson Staff Writer

2016 is the year of the house master. Or rather, it’s the year the house master will die.

MIT is just the latest in a line of colleges—Harvard included—to move toward striking the title, usually assigned to someone who leads a residence hall, in favor of something more palatable to protestors who are uncomfortable with the possible slavery associations the word “master” holds.

This is silly.

For one thing, the focus is in the wrong place. If any argument about the word “master” in its academic context holds ground, that argument revolves around gender: House master is a title for males, which made sense for the many years that women were shut out of academia. Now, as they’re climbing tenure ladders across the country, it seems less reasonable that women should take on a title that not only doesn’t fit their sex but also got its gendered name from a status quo that kept them out of the classroom.

When it comes to race, the same argument just doesn’t work. House masters at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT weren’t called house masters because they owned slaves, or even because they were white. The relation between house master and slave master is the same as the relation between a planation overseer and Harvard’s board of overseers: semantic. And any time we play six degrees of separation with words, we’re bound to find something disagreeable.

Again, it’s silly. But silly doesn’t mean insidious.

At first, when I heard Harvard planned to nix the master moniker, I was mad—not least for the reasons above, and also because I already knew where I stand on razing every statue of a Confederate soldier, or changing the name of Columbus Day: It’s dishonest and dangerous to pick and choose what parts of our history we want to remember. Instead of cutting chapters from the historical narrative, we should grapple with what’s written. That’s the best way to make sure future chapters read better.

Yet in this case, I’ve come to realize my initial logic worked against me: If “master” doesn’t have any real relation to slavery, then what important bit of history are we losing by ridding ourselves of the title? There’s little benefit in removing “House master” from Harvard’s vocabulary, yet there’s equally little cost. And when every leader of Harvard’s 12 Houses has signed onto the need for new nomenclature—when they say it doesn’t represent the role they really play in their communities—then I’m not so sure it’s my place to cry foul.

All this to say, when the next campus controversy makes its way to Cambridge, we shouldn’t jerk our knees too hard—left or right. I still worry about the “master” conversation in the context of other changes that threaten to obscure the past: Even if the word itself has small historical value, the clamor to do away with it seems another sign that we’re all too ready to hide certain parts of our history. It’s also a sign that we believe we can fix far-reaching issues of inclusivity with words instead of action. But just as some scramble to strike symbols, statues, and more from the historical consciousness, others are sometimes too quick to condemn every effort at change. I might be one of them.

Of course, this is about more than just house masters, Confederates, and Columbus. It’s also about how we talk about other hot-button topics today, when everything is personal and political at once—about how we have a much easier time forcing each issue into our prepackaged worldviews than we do entertaining the thought that some things might not fit. The house master debate shows that not all questions are easy, and that when it comes to answering them we need to think harder.


Molly L. Roberts ’16, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House.

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