Once upon a time, the university encouraged students to think big across the centuries, to read and study the best that had stood the test of time. The ivy-covered tower was a place to open the mind, but not so wide that brains fell out. Now that the cost of a college education has risen almost as dramatically as the level of genuine learning has fallen, colleges and universities are turning to consultants, marketers and "branding" experts to sell themselves with snappy mottos.
Not heroic couplets, or even blank verse. The college presidents are not looking for inspiration in their departments of literature; Alexander Pope, who understood that "a little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep," is a dead white man, after all.
Relevance and punch, not substance, is what marketing and branding are about. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that "motto lotto" at the University of Idaho will cost the school a cool $900,000. The old motto, "From Here You Can Go Anywhere," might give students the wrong idea about what, exactly, the university means by "anywhere." To evoke an expansive landscape and opportunity, they tried out "No Fences," with the tag line "Open Space, Open Minds." That one was dropped, too. The winner is "A Legacy of Leading." Wouldn't "A Legacy of Learning" be more to the point? Or, since the university's athletic teams are called the Vandals, why not a little truth in advertising: "Vandalizing Learning"?
Dartmouth draws on erudition with "A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness," stolen from both Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. James Wright, the president of Dartmouth, describes the slogan as a combination of historical resonance and contemporary relevance, harking back to the school's founder, who determined to deliver a Christian education to the Indians inhabiting a "spiritual wilderness." Rob Frankel, who calls himself "the best branding expert on the planet," prefers "Fiat Lux," or "Let There Be Light," for the University of California: "It worked for God, so it ought to work for them."
This would be good fun but for the fact that it exposes an extravagantly frivolous way for a university to spend its money. Many universities today exploit part-time instructors hired on the cheap without tenure or health insurance to enable tenured professors teach an eclectic variety of causes, not courses. Looking at literature through the eyes of radical feminists, Marxists, multiculturalists, relativists and queerists isn't what actual education is about.
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