By Dr. Joshua Mayo
The motto of a college is a sacred thing—even more sacred, perhaps, than its mission statement. In its pith, its power, its appeal to ultimacy, the motto is a bold cry from the heart of an institution. I do not mean to say that a mission statement is less essential to the health of a college, only that it lacks the motto’s aura and moral energy. You can’t easily shout a mission statement while charging into the fray of the 21st century. A motto can fit on an army banner, but a mission statement needs an 8.5 x 11.
Consider the old Latin mottos of the Ivy League. They are spirited, bold, even scriptural:
- Christo et Ecclesiae, “For Christ and His Church” (Harvard)
- Lux et Veritas, “Light and Truth” (Yale)
- In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen, “In Thy Light Shall We See Light” (Columbia)’
My own institution, Grove City College, includes our traditional seal and Latin motto (Lux Mea, “My Light”) on the homepage of our website—a brave move given current marketing trends. Many colleges bury their mottos online beneath more up-to-date slogans, and while some of these sayings are interesting and effective, others are lyrically lame. Traditional mottos blaze with specificity and conviction, but some promotional taglines only ooze vagueness and apathy. “Knowledge and Thoroughness” (the motto of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) is a claim, a credo, even a creed, but “Why NOT Change the World?” (RPI’s current tagline) carries all the moral gravity of a OneRepublic song.
Examples of bad taglines range from the banal to the bizarre (“Experience Amazing,” “#WeCanDoThat,” “Together We Can!”), but the most discouraging type of tagline, I would argue, is the “Education for the Future” variety—the marketing mantra which is now almost ubiquitous in higher education. Some samples:
- “Your Future” (Arizona State University)
- “Your Future Starts Here” (The Ohio State University)
- “Imagine Your Future” (Susquehanna University)
- “Your Future. Our Focus.” (Northern Illinois University)
- “Get Ready for Your Future” (SUNY Buffalo)
Advertising is advertising, but these taglines do tell us something about the zeitgeist. The problem is not their emphasis on the imminent, but their lack of intellectual substance and moral vision. Notice how an appeal to the self or the individual replaces any higher sense of mission (the word “your” appears in every one of these taglines). We ask, what does the professor who is “Educating for the Future” really profess? Planning for the future is an institutional necessity, but when futurity becomes an end in itself, when an institution represents itself only by some abstract and contentless notion of progress, a college loses that which makes it truly a college—namely, some common definition of the common good. It ceases to be a collegium, a “gathering together” around some shared pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Of course, the future may bring good things, but it isn’t itself a good. We can’t fight for or against it, nor is it something we can cultivate in our students. In a word, “Educating for the Future” is a cause without content—a blank manifesto, a mast with no flag. For schools with real values, real vision, it’s a tagline to toss.
To be clear: I am not recommending something so simplistic as a “Find-and-Delete” operation, nor are taglines the problem per se. The point is not simply to excise the word “future” from all promotional material (though buzzwords are no doubt part of the problem). The canker lies deeper than diction—at the level of ethos. If we think that education is mainly about preparing students for the future, then we will we will simply teach (in John Dewey’s words) “to personal initiative and adaptability.” But if we believe that education is about higher goods—truth, goodness, and beauty, for instance—then we will educate (as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge puns) to educe—to “draw out” of error, to lead the souls of students to those things which do not pass and do not fade.
Resisting the zeitgeist is difficult, but worth the effort. For as Stratford Caldecott explains in Beauty in the Word (2012):
Education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word).
The work facing educational conservatives and classicists today is arduous, but the harvest is promising. “Information” is good; “skills” are good.” But our greatest goods are the transcendentals themselves. An education rooted, not wafting on the winds of change, will yield a precious crop: students who are “more human” and “more free.”