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“What drives us closer to our Vision gets prioritized”

— In many respects I have an old-fashioned view of education: I think it should be inspirational. Not (I say again, not) in the cheesy motivational sense that is beloved by management hucksters around the world. I would sooner cover my walls with demotivational posters—and make myself a big hit with the college-age population in the process—than spend a dime on one of those people.

I think education should be inspirational in the strong, etymological sense: it should make young people spirited, so they will be able to discover where their true chance of greatness lies, and so they will be resilient in the face of adversity. Along with the authors of The Yale Report of 1828 on liberal education and collegiate life, I think one of our primary tasks as educators should be “rousing and guiding the powers of genius.”

An un-inspired campus is easy to spot by the degree to which it repeats hackneyed, formulaic “mission statements” and “vision statements” that sound like they were copied out of business marketing and management books. Most of these “vision statements” are well-nigh indistinguishable from greeking. And universities often compound the embarrassment with tripping endorsements such as, “What drives us closer to our Vision get prioritized.” (Why does that make me think of an automobile factory? It certainly doesn’t make me think of an alma mater, knowing her children one by one.)

And who on earth came up with that most hackneyed of all campus marketing phrases, “the student-centered university”?

The reason marketing slogans fail in an educational environment is because most people see them as fundamentally phony. They aren’t authentic expressions of institutional loyalty or shared aspiration: they are gimmicks designed to get you to buy. One university of my acquaintance hired an expensive advertising agent to come up with the marketing tagline “Large enough for diversity, small enough to care,” and started printing it on all manner of official publications. The students very quickly labeled it as inauthentic and converted it into “Small enough for persecution, large enough to hide.”

So how do you do it right?

The oldest and most reliable way of communicating inspiration and aspiration is through a simple motto. Nearly every university has a motto—even if it has been forgotten—and every residential college within a university should have one too.

A good motto is the antithesis of a bureaucratized vision statement or cheesy marketing slogan. A good motto has history behind it, and usually literature as well. It is short, strong, allusive, and adaptable. It isn’t hip and timely: it’s old-fashioned and enduring.

Mottos don’t have to be in Latin, but Latin is always appropriate. It’s always appropriate because every college and university is—whether in Tokyo or Adelaide or New York or Lima—a direct descendant of the medieval Latin-speaking universities of Bologna and Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. You may admire your ancestors or you may resent them, but they are your ancestors nonetheless, and Latin was their language. Dominus Illuminatio Mea, Veritas, and Vox Clamantis in Deserto have lasted for centuries and will be ever green. The students who inherit these words aren’t being tricked into a purchase; they are being given foundations on which to stand.

For the residential college I helped to establish several years ago I selected as a motto the familiar Latin phrase Per aspera ad astra—“Through difficulties to the stars.” This was not an attempt at originality, but rather a neat fit to local circumstances: the college was named for the first professor of astronomy in the university, and a strong and simple coat of arms was devised that corresponded to the motto. The result was a combination that provided a wealth of opportunities for literary association and artistic creativity.

But Latin doesn’t have to be the language of a college or university motto. Other classical languages are perfectly acceptable, as is the local vernacular if it is used with flair. The motto of New Asia College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is 明 誠, “intelligence and sincerity” in Classical Chinese, from The Book of the Mean, written in the fifth century B.C. The University of Botswana’s motto is Thuto Ke Thebe, “Education is a shield” in the Tswana language (and appearing, of course, on a scroll beneath the university’s coat of arms). For one residential college that had a botanical association with violets, I proposed To him as to me, an expression of brotherhood and equality that is rich with possibility, based on the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “The violet smells to him as it doth to me.” (Perhaps I should hire myself out at a motto consultant. Commissions will henceforth be accepted, at rates far below those of Madison Avenue.)

It is entirely possible, and even desirable, to have a whole sheaf of sayings and sentiments that become associated with your college, beyond a single official motto. A line from a college song, for example, or a quotation inscribed on the facade of a building. All United States coins carry three mottos, only one of them the true national motto in a legal sense: E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust, and Liberty. Do you know which is which? And most Americans would probably regard We the People and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness to be sayings as familiar and as important as any legal motto.

So chuck the vision statement, and the commercial marketing guru along with it. Get reacquainted with your Classics department or your literature department, and consult with some poets and historians. Future generations will thank you.

Two years ago this month I had the pleasure of visiting and speaking at the University of Limerick in Ireland, through the kind offices of Dr. Sarah Moore, UL’s dean of teaching and learning. At the main entrance to Limerick’s verdant campus there is a large inscribed stone. It doesn’t carry the university’s official motto, which is Eagna Chun Gnímh, “Wisdom in action” in Irish Gaelic. Nor does it say “What drives us closer to our Vision gets prioritized.” Instead, it quotes the last three lines of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” as an authentic vision for how young people should live out their lives:

And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014