What’s in a school motto? Virtue and service among many manly deeds

At a family gathering recently, we had a bit of a laugh about the different aspirational values embedded in the language of high-school mottos.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

Photo: Fairfax Media

“Let Your Light Shine”, my year 7 son proclaimed with some pride. That’s a good one, we agreed about his co-ed school’s motto. My daughter, a year 8 student at an all-girls school, winced as she revealed, “That I May Serve”. It turns out that her older cousin, who went to a different girls-only school, had the same motto. The boys attending the “brother” school of my daughter’s must feel invincible by comparison, given they had “Hand on the Torch of Life”.

As her aunt directed the girls to practise their service-centric motto and make us all a cup of tea, we continued the impromptu survey. My sisters and I had attended a country Catholic boarding school and could instantly summon the Latin version of “Virtue is the Way of Life”. My brother-in-law, meanwhile, was encouraged to “Fight the Good Fight” at a boys’ school in Wollongong. (I should have gone to that school.)

My brothers, who attended a boys-only boarding school, were told to “Strive for Better Things” (particularly in sport). My American-Jewish husband, who went to a Christian school in Atlanta, Georgia, couldn’t remember his school motto. But he was certain it wasn’t in Latin, like ours. A tipping point came with a timely call from a childhood friend: “Oh, f…ed if I can remember, but I’m sure it had something to do with being a virgin,” she quipped.

I was intrigued, and increasingly uncomfortable, by an emerging pattern. If mottos are a form of school branding and about shared ideals for life beyond education, it seemed to me that many girls were being attuned to values and aspirations of service, virtue and struggle. Boys, meanwhile, were being encouraged to fight good fights and conquer – themselves and the world.

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