Some universities have adopted mottoes that celebrate a suitably lofty ideal, like Veritas (Truth) or Lux (Light); some have combined the two, Lux et Veritas, for good measure. The University of Oklahoma’s motto expresses a much more practical goal: Civi et Reipublicae, “For the benefit of the Citizen and the State.” Along with the accompanying image of a farmer sowing fields in a recently plowed field on the university’s great seal, the motto speaks volumes about the purpose of higher education in Oklahoma: the seeds of knowledge should grow and yield a better future for the citizens and their state.
So why is the motto in Latin, a language hardly ever associated with anything practical?
A Latin motto connects the university to a grand tradition of education that stretches back through the ages to a time when Latin was the only practical language for the study of science, medicine, mathematics, history, literature, philosophy, and theology. The international language –– or lingua franca –– for centuries, Latin was the foundation of education, so it is appropriate for the University of Oklahoma to pay tribute to tradition with a motto in Latin.
Having a Latin motto on the great seal also delivers the message that higher education is hard work. It takes hard work to plow a field, sow it with seeds, tend the plants, and harvest the crops. The farmer on the great seal knows that. It also takes hard work to learn new things, like a new language, or a new way of looking at the world, but the work yields tremendous, life-sustaining benefits.
Because Latin is no longer a requirement in high school, the majority of people who look at the university’s seal for the first time will not know what the motto says. That does not mean that the university wishes to reserve knowledge for the elite few who know Latin. Rather, it means that even the university’s seal presents people with the opportunity to learn something, to sow a new seed of knowledge. Imagine what they will learn from our classes!
Even those who know a little bit of Latin might find our motto confusing. Unlike the mottoes of Harvard or Yale, the University of Oklahoma’s motto is not just an abstract noun, but an inflected form with complex syntax — not something that can be translated easily with just a dictionary. Scholars of Latin know the grammatical construction as the dative of advantage, which is why the motto means “for the benefit of the citizen and the state.” Here again the motto places emphasis on practicality; if we are going to have Latin on our seal, then the words should be doing something, not just standing for an abstract ideal.
Not everyone who comes to the University of Oklahoma will study Latin (even though we believe that they should, along with ancient Greek!), but those who do will become part of an unbroken tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of the university. Their Latin vocabulary will inform them that liberal education has nothing to do with politics, but with liberating (from Latin liberare) people from the shackles of ignorance.
Those who go on to careers in law will understand the meaning of stare decisis and habeas corpus. Those who go on to careers in medicine will know when to yell “Stat,” and when to administer a placebo. And those who simply take Latin for its intrinsic value will come away from the experience not only with a greater command of grammar, style, and vocabulary in English, but also an appreciation for what people have known for centuries: that the study of Latin (and Greek!) benefits citizens and their states by cultivating an atmosphere of erudition.