Leges sine moribus vanae: “Laws without character are in vain.” That’s the motto of the University of Pennsylvania—but it could also be the epitaph of elite higher education.
While they almost certainly did not intend to, last week, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT gave America a Latin lesson.
Penn’s motto is often translated into English using the derived word “morals,” but that misses something important. In Latin, the word “mores” is cumulative. The way I was taught the distinction between the singular and plural is “the sum of your habits is your character.”
C.S. Lewis famously illustrated this point in his essay, “The Abolition of Man,” in which he wrote, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.”
In a lesser-known essay, “The Parthenon and The Optative,” Lewis seems to be addressing academic leaders today when he criticizes the education reformers (“educationalists”) of his time who advocate for a “Parthenon” model of education that “begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush.” Lewis favors the kind of education symbolized by the “Optative” (a term used in the study of Greek), which “begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and at least has the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry.”
It’s clear that the educationalists have won the battle at Harvard, MIT and University of Pennsylvania. For well over half a century, the conventional wisdom has been that learning must be “relevant” to students, that nothing is more boring than diagramming sentences, that “it doesn’t matter what students read as long as they’re reading.”
What are the consequences of a Parthenon type of education? Lewis foretold, “[it] fails most disastrously when it most succeeds…It teaches [a man] to be intellectual without intellect. It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error.”
We saw the emptiness of the Parthenon model of education on campuses and in last week’s Congressional hearing. The three leaders of our formerly most-honored private institutions of higher learning were called to answer to a legislature because they failed in their mission to form the mores of their students, to point them towards the pursuit of “veritas” (Harvard’s motto) to call them to unite reason with action (“mens et manus,” MIT’s motto).
The three institutions used to know who they were. Now, their leaders are facing the wrath of the public because they failed to remember their noble missions and make a case for their continued veneration and deference in our culture. Their arrogant and legalistic testimony fell on the ears of a nation that had already lost trust in them, and has recently seen the fruits of encouraging their students to perform, as Lewis put it, “spiritual gymnastics under their examiners’ eyes.”
University of Pennsylvania’s motto—“laws without character are in vain” —is a warning. Harvard’s “truth” is a spiritual exhortation. MIT’s calls for action in concert with reason. In these most privileged sanctums, we saw how futile laws, policies, and codes of conduct are in the face of individuals and institutions who simply aren’t in the habit of inquiring after truth with humility, reason, and comity. Since their leaders have shamefully betrayed their missions—as well-preserved and observed as their mottos—let new or at least more worthy institutions inherit them.