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Words to learn by: the case for the unheralded university motto

By TODD PETTIGREW | February 8, 2016
Illustration by AnotherExample
Illustration by AnotherExample

If you want to know what a given university is all about, you might check the calendar, and there you will likely find some version of what is called, without irony, a mission statement. It will probably be filled with whatever buzzwords were current at the time of its composition, words like synergy, partners, innovate and entrepreneurial (all these have appeared in the recent mission statements of my own university). Little of this is informative and none of it inspires. Fortunately, we can still look to the other statement that universities have traditionally provided: their heraldic mottos.

Perhaps because of their age, university mottos speak to nobler sentiments than most contemporary discourses coming out of universities. The motto seeks to address the timeless ideals of education rather than the pedestrian cupidity of modern marketing. Where I work, Cape Breton University, the motto Theid Dìchioll Air Thoiseach – translated from Gaelic by the Canadian Heraldic Authority as “Perseverence will triumph” – says more than any core principle statement ever could.

It would be nice to be able to say that university mottos are as old as universities themselves, but that simply is not true. Oxford was not granted a coat of arms until around 1400, long after its founding, and its current motto, Dominus Illuminatio Mea (“The Lord is my light”), only gradually came into use in the 16th century. Canada’s own University of King’s College, founded in 1789, determined in the 1950s that its coat of arms, to which mottos are typically appended, had never been officially sanctioned. Not until 1964 was a proper motto approved and then was temporarily misrendered as Deo Regi Legi Gregi. It was later corrected to Deo Legi Regi Gregi (“For God, law, king, people”).

The importance of truth

For obvious reasons, a great many university mottos make reference to truth. One of my favourites along this line is Patet Omnibus Veritas (“Truth lies open to all”), the motto of Lancaster University in the U.K. The idea might, at first, seem counterintuitive. Doesn’t experience show us a great deal of ignorance in many people? Perhaps, but the point is not that truth abides in all people, but that truth lies open to all people.

Anyone can know truth, if they take the opportunity to seek it. Philosophers may raise ingenious arguments to the effect that nothing is certain, but outside smoke-filled dorm rooms and learned colloquia this kind of extreme skepticism is impractical. There are accepted facts, after all. We all do much better when we accept that, as a matter of fact, getting hit by a bus is generally not as conducive to one’s health as getting enough sleep.

Our modern storehouse of facts is, perhaps only second to our storehouse of art, our greatest resource. We know why the heavenly bodies appear to move across the sky as they do. We know what causes a great number of diseases. We know, in broad terms, how the incredible variety of plants and animals arose on this planet. We even know whether other stars have their own planets (they do). We increasingly know more about human beings, how they function and how their societies work. We know, contrary to the long-standing belief of many, that no particular race or ethnicity is inherently more moral or wise than any other. We know that societies of a certain size function well when they have a rule of law and a credible, impartial system of justice. We even know what tends to lead to a happy and satisfied life. While the lines around such facts are necessarily a little more blurred and open to debate, we are nevertheless able to speak about such things without relying merely on faith, taste or convention.

Once one develops an affection for truth, it is astonishing to notice how frequently people hold to and promote ideas based on obvious falsehoods or easily debunked myths. One important function of education, we might then say, is to give the student a feel for facts and their application. Spend enough time finding facts and checking facts, and one gradually gains an ear for what is commonly (and beautifully) called the ring of truth.

The idea of something “ringing true” comes from the practice of dropping coins on a hard surface to get a sense of the purity of their metal. A gold coin makes a distinctive sound, but if it contains substantial amounts of cheaper metal, the sound is dulled. These days, few of us worry about the metallurgical content of our coins, but the practice yields a perfect metaphor for the ability to notice when a particular claim or argument sounds off.

Of course, no well-educated person should simply dismiss a notion because it is novel or seemingly implausible. Our expectations, prejudices and habits of mind can make us suspicious of valuable new concepts. Truth lies open to all, not just to us. But when an idea is dropped before us that does not ring true, we should retain a healthy skepticism until more is known.

If it is bold to shamelessly defend the notion of truth, it is bolder still to unabashedly endorse wisdom, as does the University of New Brunswick with its motto, Sapere Aude (“Dare to be wise”). The idea of wisdom, too, often provokes either suspicion or resentment. Faced with one who aspires to be wise, we often imagine that the pretender must be a fool who underestimates the complexities of the world. If not that, he must be a snob who disdains those less educated than himself.

But we have more to fear from the haters of wisdom than its admirers. One of the greatest barriers to “daring” wisdom is the fear of reprisals from those who cannot fathom a mind that is dedicated to a better understanding. Many people are so caught up in their own narratives that they cannot genuinely engage with a contrary opinion, particularly if it is vigorously expressed. The response to an unexpected argument is too often not a counter-argument, but mere outrage. Too often we hear “How dare you!” rather than “I disagree.” Once, in response to a satirical article I wrote, a reader – and a university student at that – threatened to kill my cats.

It is, for this reason, I think, that so few public figures today even attempt daring wisdom. We have become wary of causing offence or facing backlash, especially when it can now strike so quickly and with such force. Politicians and bureaucrats make statements on the news that are so vague that they seem calculated to lull the listener to sleep. Even social activists rarely offer bold positions. Instead they call for “awareness,” “more funding” or any number of similarly bloodless suggestions. On all sides, counter-arguments are left unanswered, nuances are ignored and, often, whole issues are brushed aside – we don’t want to get dragged down into that debate. Such strategies keep office holders in office and board members on their boards, but they are not especially wise. And they are certainly not daring.

Excellence…and humour

For still another inspiring motto, consider that of Scotland’s University of St Andrews, Aien aristeuein (“Ever to excel”). It is particularly germane these days, I would argue: the word “excellence” has been so poorly treated as to be largely meaningless, and we shy away from the notion that university education should lead us to focus on really improving ourselves, on genuine excellence.

One underappreciated way that education makes us better is the cultivation of a sense of humour. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of getting more jokes. I fondly remember a promising literature student showing up at my door, excited that she had just seen an episode of The Simpsons that made a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a story we had just covered. She got a joke she wouldn’t have the week before and it was exhilarating – to her and to me.

And it should be. It’s good to be in on the jokes. And nothing ruins a joke like having to look up why it’s funny. But not just jokes. Writers and artists are constantly making references to our cultural history and one needs a knowledge of that cultural history to understand – or understand more fully – what is being said. As I like to tell my students, you can know the things that smart, creative people know, or you can not know them. Personally, I’d rather know.

Education can make us better by cultivating a sense of shame, too. Many have complained that today’s students are entitled, but in my view the larger concern is that too many of them are shameless. When students come to me looking for a better mark, their argument is usually some variation on “I need a better grade,” and rarely “I deserve a better grade.” Most of the time, it’s simply a matter of what the grade must be for some other end – to keep a scholarship, remain on a team or stay in an academic program.

I am always tempted to ask them what they think those minimum averages for scholarships and teams are for. I wonder what they would make of the argument that the reason the scholarship committee needs to know your grades is to verify whether you are maintaining a high level of achievement. The grades are supposed to be an indicator of that. If I just change a grade to get it to the level you need, then it indicates nothing. In short, I want to ask them whether they have considered the notion that maybe they deserve to lose their scholarship or spot.

A similar kind of shamelessness shows itself in how easily some students lie. A student once jovially admitted to me that when he didn’t have time to finish a bibliography for a paper, he stapled a blank page to the assignment, tore that blank page off, apologized to the instructor that the biblography had been lost and promised to have it in soon. I sometimes overhear students counsel one another about how to deal with a late paper by suggesting, “Just say that someone in your family died,” as if just saying were not what we otherwise call lying.

Students can also strive to excel by becoming more resolute. I reflect on this each semester when students get back their first assignments. Many have done poorly and immediately drop the course. In other words, faced with a disappointing result, a great many have only one recourse: utter retreat. They assume that one lousy mark means success is impossible here. They see the subject matter as irrelevant or me as unreasonable. They rarely see their performance as something that should and could be altered.

Summoning this kind of reaction is not always easy, I know. My first grade of B- as an undergrad shocked me. Hearing a PhD candidate give a paper in one of my first grad seminars was life-changing. In both cases I could have despaired, or dropped the courses. Instead, I decided I needed to step up my game.

In order to excel, students need to learn it is possible not to crumble in the face of disappointment or, indeed, in the face of excellence itself. We must teach our students to consider that a bad result may be evidence that one needs to improve and is not necessarily evidence that the game is rigged.

A long-standing trust

All the mottos mentioned here are words that have inspired me, but my favourite belongs to the University of Toronto at Mississauga: Tantum Nobis Creditum (“So much has been entrusted to us”). Most mottos – understandably – set out a goal for students, but this motto is clearly addressed to the university itself. As a professor, I can’t help seeing it as addressed to me.

University professors are the keepers of a long-standing trust: the education of people at the highest levels of knowledge. If this does not inspire a certain amount of awe in you then you are not a professor – or, perhaps not as good a professor as you might be.

Much of what this essay boils down to is that the university is a public good. Strong societies have needs that do not apply to any individual and cannot be met by the marketplace. In our case, it is the need to have a crictical mass of people with advanced thinking skills. Among our judiciary, our teachers, our business people, we need skeptics, iconoclasts and visionaries to prevent our civilization from blindly following our baser impulses.

When I have been asked (and often when I have not) to justify treating the university as a public good, I have always been glad to explain that it cultivates a broadly educated populace and does not simply train young people for whatever jobs seem to be in demand. But lately I have grown weary of making the case, weary of needing to make the case. Still worse, it is increasingly taken for granted by students, their parents, our governments, and even many of our university administrations, that education for the greater good of humanity is a silly old notion that had little place in the last century and no place in this one.

So much has been entrusted to us and we are betraying that trust. But it may not be too late, if only we remember our mottos.  

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English in the department of languages and letters at Cape Breton University.

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  1. Catherine Rubincam / February 10, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Pettigrew’s article on university mottoes as a source of more wisdom and altruism than the regular pronouncements of university administrators. One obvious reason for the rarity of such attention to the mottoes is surely that they are generally couched in languages understood by so few of every university’s population of faculty, staff, and students. It was a particular pleasure to see him notice and applaud the sentiments expressed in the motto of my own institution, the University of Toronto Mississauga. He might be interested to know that “Tantum nobis creditum” – a motto devised by my late colleague in the Classics programme at UTM – carries within it not only the wisdom he so eloquently expounds, but also a pun on the river that borders the east side of the campus, the Credit River.

  2. C. Kingsfield / August 17, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Well said, Professor Pettigrew.

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