ON SCHOOL MOTTOS

30 July 2016

REFLECTIONS ON SCHOOL MOTTOS

I had never encountered school mottos until I started teaching in the English-speaking world, first in Scotland, then England, then Australia.  Just like school uniforms, school mottos are not really common in continental Europe and I did not come across them in the German and Italian schools I worked at before.  And yet, like uniforms, they create unity, identity and a sense of belonging.  They are usually brief, they are easy to remember and they instil and inculcate in the impressionable young mind some key values and messages that will stay with pupils far beyond their school days.

If I simply focus on the schools I taught at, there is a common thread that links their mottos.  “Plus est en vous” is the famous motto of Gordonstoun School in Scotland.  Unusually, it is French rather than Latin, but its meaning – “there is more in you (than you think)” – is similar to that of many other mottos.  Bedford High School advocated an ethos of aiming high (“Alta petens”), and Cheltenham Ladies’ College hopes for their students to grow in, or through, or aided by heavenly light (“Coelesti luce crescat”).  Queenwood School in Sydney expects its students to master some challenging times first before reaching the stars (“Per aspera ad astra” – through struggles to the stars).

What these mottos have in common is their aspirational nature.  Success does not come without hard work, but you should always stretch yourself.  The underlying assumption is always that of a growth mindset.  People can improve as long as they believe in growth and look beyond perceived limitations:  through self-belief, through faith or through aiming high and reaching for the stars.

The motto of Queenswood School in Hertfordshire is less obvious and needs some more research:  “In Hortis Reginae” – literally translated as “In the Gardens of the Queen”.  It is taken from a speech by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, delivered in 1864 and titled “Of Queens’ Gardens”.  In this speech Ruskin talked about the education of women, and Queenswood, founded in 1894 as a girls’ school based on a Methodist foundation, felt it was an appropriate reference to use as their school motto.

Interestingly though, Ruskin’s speech is a rather ambiguous statement on women’s education.  It follows on from a previous speech titled “Of Kings’ Treasuries”, which outlined his ideas on men’s education, and contrasts the gender differences.  Both speeches focus on a canon of literature that men and women should follow, and it is important to read both texts together, as the first gives context to the second.  Here I will, however, only focus on the second.

In a quick tour de force of literature Ruskin sets out to prove that there are few properly positive male heroes in literature and that redemption, if there is any, is usually owed to the female characters.  With amusing irreverence he refers to Caesar’s and Mark Antony’s “flawed strength” and “vanities”, he calls Hamlet “indolent and drowsily speculative” and labels Romeo “an impatient boy”.  He draws the conclusion that it falls to women to keep the house in order to keep their men on the straight and narrow.  Good literature will aid them in their domestic responsibilities.  Ruskin asks the question how this guiding role of the woman can be reconciled with her duty to obey her husband, which leads him to the infamous words that have been held against him by feminists in the 1960s and 70s and ever since:

“The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive.  He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender.  His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war and for conquest (…). But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle – and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision.”

Ultimately therefore the creation of a peaceful home environment is the task of a woman, and the education that enables her to achieve this goal is to provide her first with physical exercise to ensure her health and the “loveliness of her countenance” before giving her the knowledge she needs.  Ruskin sees this knowledge as an acquiring of emotional intelligence rather than factual knowledge:  “It is of little consequence how many positions of cities she knows, or how many dates of events, or names of celebrated persons – it is not the object of education to turn a woman into a dictionary.” 

Instead women should “enter with their whole personality” into the history they read and picture it with their mind, learning valuable lessons from it and apprehending the “pathetic circumstances and dramatic relations.”  Somehow, Ruskin seems to imply, such empathetic reading of history and literature will equip them to become better guides to their husbands.  His logic is not always easy to follow, and it is not entirely surprising that in modern times his plea for women’s education is eyed critically.

His concluding remarks on men’s and women’s education are equally ambiguous:  He believes that “a girl’s education should be nearly, in its course and material of study, the same as a boy’s; but quite differently directed.  (…)  His command of it should be foundational and progressive; hers, general and accomplished for daily and helpful use. Not but that it would often be wiser in men to learn things in a womanly sort of way (…); but, speaking broadly, a man ought to know any language or science he learns, thoroughly – while a woman ought to know the same language, or science, only so far as may enable her to sympathise in her husband’s pleasures, and in those of his best friends.”

Despite such statements, which have led feminists to decry Ruskin’s old-fashioned Victorian views,  Ruskin then proceeds to promote equality for girls:  “Give them the same advantages that you give their brothers (…); teach them, also, that courage and truth are the pillars of their being (…) and give them, lastly, not only noble teaching, but noble teachers.”

It is interesting that Queenswood School has chosen the title of this speech as their school motto, considering the ambiguity of its statements on women’s education.  But as somebody who loves to discover connections I have been excited to discover a link from this text, which gave its motto to Queenswood in Hertfordshire, to Queenwood in Sydney.  One of Queenwood’s founding principals, a forward-thinking lady called Grace Lawrance, is often quoted with one of her favourite sayings:  “The path of a good woman is strewn with flowers; but they rise behind her steps, not before them.”

This is a direct quote from this very same speech by Ruskin, and the context is as follows:  “Have you ever considered what a deep under meaning there lies, or at least may be read, if we choose, in our custom of strewing flowers before those whom we think most happy?  Do you suppose it is merely to deceive them into the hope that happiness is always to fall thus in showers at their feet? – that wherever they pass they will tread on the herbs of sweet scent, and that the rough ground will be made smooth for them by depth of roses?  So surely as they believe that, they will have, instead, to walk on bitter herbs and thorns; and the only softness to their feet will be of snow.  But it is not thus intended they should believe; there is a better meaning in that old custom. The path of a good woman is indeed strewn with flowers; but they rise behind her steps, not before them.”

I remember my first interview on stage at Queenwood where the girls, rather humorously, asked me how I would cope with the loss of the “s”, following my change from Queenswood to Queenwood.  Well – I may have lost the “s”, but gained so much more.  Not least the discovery of this remarkable historical connection between both schools’ traditions.  This thought-provoking quote is no less aspirational than the school mottos I mentioned, and it emphasises service rather than entitlement.  Together with truth and courage, which Ruskin mentions as the pillars of a woman’s being, this provides another fine link to Queenwood’s early history and founding values.

There is some comfort in the simplicity of such mottos and values, and I have always found that they stand us, students and teachers alike, in good stead in life when the going gets tough.

© 2013 by Astrid Seele