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”).
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. Phi-
losophers may raise ingenious arguments to the effect that nothing is cer-
tain, 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 store-
house 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 false-
hoods 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 drop-
ping 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