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."
The New Criterion, a journal trying to plant the "the groves of ignorance" on firmer soil, looks to the book "The Closing of the American Mind" by the late Allan Bloom for his cogent critique of the way the university fuses fads with ideas, substituting silly for serious. This phenomenon has accelerated since he published it in 1987: "Students now arrive at the university ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it." They often leave having learned nothing.
Openness to everything closes the mind to careful distinctions and civil discourse. It fosters a popular conformism, a moral and intellectual corruption that reduces all meaning to the present tense. Relativism replaces reflection and reason. Opinion, not probing, becomes the baseline of value. The Delphic Oracle of "Know thyself" is translated into a mere narcissistic motto with intellectual pretension.
Saul Bellow, in a preface to Bloom's book, writes that the university has become a "conceptual warehouse" of harmful influences rather than a place for free inquiry. Academic antagonists no longer listen to each other: "The habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching." What happens in university life spills over into our political life and vice versa.
Instead of reforming the university at its academic roots, reassessing the goals of a university education, mottos in consultant-speak become emblematic for what the university has become. The tragic-comic professor in Bellow's novel "Herzog," trying to integrate his learning with his life, jokes that what this country needs "is a good five-cent synthesis," reprising the famous wisecrack about cigars by Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president. It takes wisdom, in the old meaning of the word, to distill the purpose of education. Fiat Lux.