Quaecumque Vera: A day in the life of a motto
The University of Alberta motto: the succinct expression of the lofty aim, a maxim to live by and... the most commonly used quip by Folio letter writers and guest columnists-next to "... it makes sense." It's our own version of "All for one and one for all," comes from the Bible (Philippians 4:8) and means, "Whatsoever things are true." But does it ever enter the classroom, the lab or the office?
For Dr. Chan, the man who brought us Reubens and Picasso, the motto is essential to his work.
It's mostly because of the nudes. Throughout his 20-year career, he says about a dozen students have tried to stop the nudes. He shows the slides; those students squirm, and some complain about the overt sexuality they're seeing.
"The obligation I have is to simply relay the history of art . I can't edit these out," says Chan. "I'm not offended by these oppositions. In those situations, there's a kind of naivete. "
The U of A motto speaks to his resolve to truly teach art history, he says. "I think the word 'truth' is so loaded and so complex. But there is a principle in the word 'truth' that we've all committed ourselves to as enlightened human beings."
In class,"I'm simply representing what happened in the past ...We have no right to reinterpret our history in terms of our own beliefs." That doesn't been we don't bring our biases to the task, he says. But "we have to try very hard to come as close to the truth as possible."
Chan comes from a Jesuit educational background where the priests asked students to cover the private parts depicted in works of art with paper. "Suddenly, when you put these little bits of paper on, they become very provocative," says Chan. "That's what censorship does to some extent."
Dealing with differences in "truths" requires an open forum-even if it means having to hear racist or sexist rhetoric at times. "Censorship always comes with a backlash and opens up a worse scenario," he says. "We have to put up with this because we do not want to infringe on the principles of democracy." We could be silenced next.
"Democracy only works if the majority is intelligent and able to judge for themselves. That is why we're committed to education, because we hope through education people will be enlightened ... to be fair and just and all those things."
"Higher learning is about uncovering the truth, no matter how awkward or painful or embarrassing it may be," he says. And it will be painful, he promises, recalling that Nietzsche said, If everyone could come face to face with the naked truth, we could not survive.
The motto holds equal importance for Dr. Lewis Klar. "I think it is important for the university to have a motto that broadly expresses, as much as one short phrase can do, the essence of a university," he says. "The pursuit of truth, or perhaps more importantly, the pursuit and advancement of knowledge, defines a university. It is an apt motto. I think that especially in today's political and economic environment, when the "bottom line" seems to many to be more important than the quality of life and the importance of knowledge, such a motto ought to be brought to mind."
That's not to say we couldn't improve on it. "I might suggest, however, that a motto should be understandable and in a language which all can understand. The specific Latin phrase in issue is not only difficult to understand, but it is also difficult to say."
For Dr. Diane Cox, her first year at the U of A has been filled with more pressing issues than learning our motto. "I'm more interested in world class research than in what's on my letterhead," she says. She thinks history is important and always uses the university crest on documents because it lends that official look. But research and outstanding support for students is foremost in her mind. "I want attention to my institution because of its outstanding work, not because of a motto," she says.
McDonald, steeling himself for the wrath of traditionalists, says, "I know this a very politically incorrect answer, but frankly, I couldn't care less."
"It's a very nice motto," he says. "But whether it does anything for us is beyond me." McDonald attended three universities, University of Saskatchewan, McGill and the University of California, and says he has no idea of what their mottos are. "Does that make me any better of worse?"
In his more than 33 years at the U of A, he says he hasn't seen a lot of issues decided with the guiding wisdom of our motto. Yet he does seem to be somewhat of an expert on the subject. He says everybody knows Harvard's (Veritas-truth). But he also knows Canada's--"A Mari usque ad Mare," the U.S.'s and a number of others. That Latin course paid off.
While he's not sure just what the purpose of the motto is, it is handy, he says. "You can use it in off-the-cuff statements when you think someone's skirting the truth or whatever. . you can always use it in the right context to buttress your case."
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