February 8, 2013: From the desk of the Headmaster…
Knowledge (Understanding) is Strength
I have a saw, an “old saw” for that matter. It’s on the verge of getting rusty and a little bit duller each time it’s put to use. I know this because when I pull it out, people who have seen me wield it begin to groan sometimes quietly and at other times audibly. My “old saw” is of the semantic variety, and it is localized in Kensington, specifically at Mooreland Hill School.
Growing up in the Mooreland community, I was used to hearing the school’s Latin motto frequently. I must admit, I never thought much about it as I studied the language. I could translate it. I could explain it. I’m not sure I ever thought about it the way that I finally did years later when by chance I considered the words from a fresh point of view.
Mooreland Hill’s motto: Scire Valere. Students of Latin would know that this motto is constructed using two infinitives in the present tense, active voice. In between, as was customary in Roman times, was the implied use of the verb to be. Literally translated for the English speaker, “To know is to be strong.”
The infinitives, in this case, are substitutes for the nominative (subjective) case of the gerund form derived from verbs. The Latin language, for whatever reason, does not have a nominative form for the gerund. Perhaps, Roman linguists believed that the infinitive form was plenty to memorize for young American Latin students centuries in the future. In English (as in Latin), the gerund is a verbal noun expressed with the suffix “–ing”. Thus, a better translation of the motto might be “Knowing is being strong,” leading then to the final translation into good English: “Knowledge is Strength.”
Scire Valere: Knowledge is Strength. This translation seems reasonable if we leave it as is, but this is where I begin to lose sleep. My problem with the translation is not with the linguistic version of the phrase, but the implication of the word to know. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb to know this way:
1. To perceive directly; grasp in the mind with clarity or certainty.
2. To regard as true beyond doubt: I know she won’t fail.
3. To have a practical understanding of, as through experience; be skilled in: knows how to cook.
4. To have fixed in the mind: knows her Latin verbs.1
It appears then that knowing means having all human discoveries at your fingertips, at the tip of your tongue, available for instant recall when it is needed, like an encyclopedic brain. Does “knowledge” or “to know” mean “to be familiar with” then? This is a decidedly utilitarian view, but can it imply anything more profound, more noble? Over the course of many sleepless nights, I have come to the conclusion that it can and should. I would add to the possible meanings of the word to understand, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines in several ways. For our purposes, the first definition ought to serve: To become aware of the nature and significance of; know or comprehend: She understands the difficulty involved.2
I believe that the key to living in harmony with the motto and hence the school’s mission rests in the dual implication of the word to know. I grant that knowledge of important information and useful skills is highly valuable for the success of our students. I would add that knowledge as understanding of our natural world and the human condition is equally, if not more, important. The two notions together make for an unbeatable combination. Imagine a person who is not only skilled at the use of tools, but also has the knowledge to employ them in a useful way with an understanding of the grand design of his or her work.
Since I am a Classicist at heart, I have to circle back to our motto. I realized that one of the reasons I embarked upon this semantic exercise was the limitation of the English language in its lack of exactitude. How many arguments and misunderstandings could be averted if the English vocabulary had definitive meanings? The Romans, with very few exceptions, did not suffer in the same way. Each word had one, possibly two, at most three, implications. In Latin, the verb Scire means to know, to realize, understand, have skill in, to know how to. Our original founders must have understood this. They chose their Latin word deliberately and wisely.
Knowledge (Understanding) is Strength