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“Master”ing Contextualization

By Paul Onyali     4/13/16 8:25pm

An integral component of Rice University’s residential college system is the presence of the masters, who are typically faculty members strongly affiliated with the colleges. The masters’ perpetual presence around their respective colleges lets a student form close relationships with them and their families, acknowledge them in passing with a quick “hi” or simply ignore them altogether. Regardless of the route a student takes concerning the college masters, they remain a very approachable resource for students and seek to make their colleges into the most welcoming environments possible.

Given this specific description of the masters, the administration’s recent discussions to change the title of “master” so as to appease student outcry over the term are, quite frankly, absurd and distracting from pertinent issues facing us today. Many students and faculty feel the term carries strong connotations of slavery and has no place in our 21st-century society, especially considering Rice’s diverse student body that includes numerous students of color. In this regard, students who may potentially be triggered by the title should contextualize things by acknowledging that the antebellum South and present-day Rice University are two completely different environments. Yes, slaves addressed their owners as “master.” Yes, slavery is an evil, antiquated institution that should not be emulated in any manner in the present day. However, creating a welcoming environment does not involve banning regular English words because they could potentially trigger some. It does not involve seeing past all the bridge-building and overall beneficial things that a group of people do for our residential colleges simply because a title was once used in the context of something bridge-burning and detrimental. The masters do not treat students as slaves in any manner whatsoever, nor do they demand to be addressed as “master.” It is simply a title to denote their position within the residential college, and should be viewed only as such. Furthermore, the word itself predates American slavery. In the context of educational institutions, “master” is thought to have derived from “headmaster” or “schoolmaster,” terms describing leadership within English school systems. The word therefore owes no etymological allegiance to slavery at all.

Many Rice students have called for a democratic approach to this issue. If enough of the administration and student body feel the title has run its course, it should be changed. Changing the title may make some students and faculty feel more at ease, but it would also raise questions over trigger thresholds in general. Instead of looking to abolish any words possibly linked to remnants of ugly periods in human history, we should direct our energy toward ensuring those ugly periods do not repeat themselves and actually harm human beings. Frankly, we should take things with a grain of salt.

Paul Onyali, McMurtry College ‘19

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