Nisi dominus frustra: why ditch a motto?
Melbourn Village College -- not far from Cambridge -- has decided to ditch its Latin motto: "Nisi dominus frustra". And I guess you can see why. It's a contraction of the first line of Psalm 127, "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain"... so you might translate the three Latin words of the motto something like "Without the Lord, frustration", I guess. A touch pious you might think, and a bit Judaeo-Christian. But I can't see that any world faith could seriously disagree and, anyway, it's served the city of Edinburgh well enough for the last few hundred years.
They have replaced it (after a student vote, it seems) with what sounds to me more like an advertising jingle: "Inspiring Minds" (which is bound to look "so 2011" in a few years time that it too will soon be ditched). According to the Acting Principal, they wanted a motto that was more relevant to the students. In the current economic climate, Latin was "largely irrelevant" in helping the students find work.
Never mind the dodgy logic and/or facts here (every study I have seen suggests that Latin has a rather good track record in employment... but even if it didn't, we surely don't think that school is all about jobs; what about EDUCATION?). More to the point is the question of what we think mottoes are for.
I've never been much of a fan of obscuring stupid ideas under a veil of Latin (as if translating stupidity into a "dead" language suddenly made it clever). But I do think mottoes are best when they are a bit mystical, a tiny bit puzzling (which is presumably why Latin mottoes are a favourite of football clubs). I would have thought that enterprising teaching could easily use "Nisi dominus frustra" to make something that was fascinating and life-enhancing for the kids. It would take you, for a start, into the Psalms (which, Judaeo-Christian or not, are an important part of world culture), and it would take you to the history of Edinburgh (which, as a city, wouldn't be too bad a role model for a school).
But the real problem is that -- to judge from its website -- Melbourn Village College doesn't actually teach Latin, which must be one reason why the students found the phrase irrelevant. (To be fair they have a good range of Modern Languages and most students study two....at least for a bit; which must make the school a bit of a beacon in that department.)
I wonder if any of the teachers explained the motto and its history to the kids before they voted to ditch it. And I wonder if the Acting Principal considered the possibility of dealing with the apparent irrelevance by (re)introducing Latin into the curriculum.
That might have opened up even more exciting educational horizons to their students.