Education Opinion

Giving Meaning to Independent School Mottos

By Peter Gow — April 15, 2013 3 min read
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No prep school movie or TV episode is complete without either students decked out in crested school blazers or a shot of some preposterous granite-edged entrance way sporting a school motto, always in Latin.

However much and for whatever reasons we may venerate the idea of Latin, the anti-intellectual strain in the American character is immediately put on guard by words we don’t understand, and words in a foreign, dead language (apologies to the Vatican and Latin teachers everywhere, who like to tell us that Latin is an immortal language) possess mystical power: they may be absurdly pretentious, but Dude, they’re in Latin!

I have written quite a lot about the aspirations of independent schools, and how these are ultimately the expressions of schools’ founders, usually idealists for whom embodying a philosophy of education into a school of their own creation was an act of extraordinary hope. (Today we can discern this in the founding sentiments of many of our most interesting, idealistic, and philosophically compelling charter schools.) The schools I’ve been at have a varied group of aspirational mottos, from (in translation) “Truth” (in Greek, actually) to “Bear and Dare” (as in, “endure and be bold;" both liberal translations of the Greek), “Work conquers all,” and “From the mind and by the hand.” The work motto seems appropriate for a boys’ school founded by a famously stern pedagogue, while the mind/hand phrase is just right for a school founded to realize John Dewey’s ideal of active, creative learning.

The one of my schools’ mottos that needs no translation is “Play the Game,” which lends itself to all kinds of ironic or cynical interpretations. In fact, it comes from an 1897 patriotic poem by Sir Henry Newbolt in which a nervous young soldier is recalled to his duty by being reminded to “Play up! Play up! And play the game!” as he had in his school days. The poem was still stirring souls when this particular school--then for boys only--was founded in 1923.

The most oft-cited independent school motto is Non sibi, or “Not for self,” the venerable Latin phrase used by Phillips Academy, better known to the world by its location, Andover (Massachusetts). Like many, it’s terribly easy to be cynical about, but consider the school’s founding moment: 1778. A great many New Englanders were pondering the balance of self-interest and altruism from many perspectives, some of them exceedingly perilous. Paul Revere himself created the school’s seal, in the 1780s, after the peace had been won; not a bad little historical moment. (And yes, of course you can raise the perspective that in the Revolution the middle class merchants of New England had simply brilliantly co-opted the farmers and other working classes to help them shed an annoying tax burden and allow themselves to pile up even larger fortunes. But it wasn’t that simple, really.) I like that Andover keeps its motto front and center (there’s even a Non Sibi Day), signifying an ongoing conversation of just the sort we all need to be having.

I am also pleased by the motto of the fascinating Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. An avowedly “private school with a public purpose,” the school’s motto “Head, Heart, Hands” (in English) seems apt for a school with roots in vocational education that today is seriously college prep and equally serious about ethical development and civic engagement. I like as well the motto of a girls’ school that merged into what was to become Lick-Wilmerding in the mid 1900s: “To do things uncommonly well.”

It is unusual and unusually heartening to come upon a school whose students both know the school’s motto and use it regularly as a touchstone for their lives. The boys of Fenn School in Concord, Massachusetts, know that Sua Sponte (official school translation, “On one’s own responsibility”) carries with it the sense of taking ownership of their own learning and behavior, a nice touch of self-reflective meta-teaching accomplished simply by the reiteration of two short words; an equally effective reminder to boys just entering adolescence that their words and deeds have an impact on others.

In the end, what we all have to work with in order to have our own impact on others are our ideals and our willingness to see them through. We’ve all seen enough television and movie dramas in which someone is reminded of those ideals and goes off, in a heroic climactic moment, to enact them and conquer whatever iniquity has been driving the plot. All we can do as educators is to keep our ideals, like Andover’s or Fenn’s mottos, front and center--and then do what we can to support ourselves, our schools, and our students in living up to them.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.