On “meriting admission” and Latin’s merit

By Adam de Pencier

If everybody’s somebody then nobody’s anybody.” – The Gondoliers

When I applied as a boy to UCC justice was served and I was rightly turned away, twice in fact: first in grade 7 where I sat in a room full of hundreds of boys my age who were sitting the exam for the last entry year at the Prep. Several of these lads were well known to me, playing local hockey, skiing up north, and a few from summer camp. Cast in its widest context, few people in the gymnasium merited attending UCC, but we’ll get to that later. One of my fond recollections was a kindly master who came over to ask me what I was writing about on the compulsory essay/story. This was my (relatively) strong suit, and given that I was woefully inadequate in math, I knew that I’d have to “punch above my weight”, as the expression goes, in this part of the test, to have any kind of shot of making it. I explained my composition in more or less adequate 11 year-old terms and to this day have wondered whether the gentleman in question was doing so out of kindness, pity, or just plain making the rounds.

“Meriting” admission, like “punching above your weight”, has an archaic ring to it, somewhat like the Irish expression, “Has he taken leave of his senses”? Words that have fallen into disuse—Cathay, ameliorate, deracinated, clarion, trident (to borrow from Orwell’s still splendid 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language) require some advance planning if they’re to forward our thinking.

Merit, from the Latin meritum, to deserve, ultimately derives its meaning from the Greek meros, which means “part” or “lot”. Looked at in that way, most of the boys in that 1970 Prep gym were meritorious indeed: rolled out of Fortune’s shaker, they had landed double sixes. Born, mostly in Canada (mostly) rich and (almost exclusively) white, they were 99.9 percent of the way there. Just a few equations, a few properly strung together sentences and they would enter the gates to Upper Canada College, the Ne Plus Ultra of Canadian schools (am indebted to Toronto writer Douglas Bell for the turn of phrase).

My second occasion of trying for Upper Canada College truly embodies leave-taking of one’s senses, for by then it was Grade 11 and I was far gone in scholarly ineptitude. Yet there I was sitting in the Principal’s Office of the day, Mr. Richard Sadleir, a giant of a man with bushy eyebrows, dressed in an immaculate three piece suit, with a keen eye for detail. As with my go round at grade 7, I got exactly what I deserved. A former English teacher (armed as all UCC Principals to that time were with an Oxbridge degree) Sadleir naturally gravitated to asking me what we were reading at school.

“Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”

“Are you enjoying the play?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Not really. It’s hard to explain.”

Pause.

I knew this is was not really cutting it, not even close, but having tracked down this unpromising trail I just didn’t know how to get myself turned around.

The Principal came to my rescue.

“Well, I suppose the fact that Caesar is killed relatively quickly in the play, and that we seem to know it’s only a matter of time before Brutus and his cabal (not really sure he chose that word but it sort of seems that way) would take over make the subsequent plot a foregone conclusion.”

I meekly demurred.

Then there was the matter of my report card. I had it in a manila envelope at my side, tilted up at the foot of the chair; it didn’t quite carry the gravity of a confidential document but there was something unseemly about it. I somehow almost consciously left it there hoping the matter would somehow never come up, which would be a bit like holding your passport unopened before a frontier official and just somehow hoping you wouldn’t have to surrender it.

“Did you bring your report card?”

“Yes.”

Another pause: can’t we just leave it at that, I somehow thought? Such is the incredulity we are subject to when confronted with, as George Orwell so perfectly put it, “the discomfiture of facing unpleasant facts”.

“May I see it?”

The fact that he had explicitly asked for it just shows how badly I messed the job up. I can’t remember what I said, but there was actually a kind of apologia launched whereby I attempted to justify my poor performance. I wince to think of the sort of chicanery I put forward and no doubt Mr. Sadleir was incredulous.

I politely concluded the interview and thanked the Principal. I unconsciously wanted to apologize for wasting his time, and as with the master in the Prep, I remember his kindness and patience with me. It took me just about a year to put it together that what I should have done is go into his office with a sort of calculated chutzpah. I should have said something like, “Mr. Sadleir, I really do not have the sort of record that would merit (yes, I think the word would have been fine) acceptance at your school. But I’ve wanted to come here ever since I was a wee lad, incorrigible then as I am now, but given the chance will really give it my best shot…”

Would that have carried the day? Probably not, but it would have been at least a respectable showing. I thought it was all over and little did I know that several years later I’d get another shot at UCC. When it did arrive, I was ready.

Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat was adopted as the motto of Upper Canada College circa 1833. Howard writes:

In 1790 an English clergyman named John Jortin wrote a Latin poem called “Ad Ventos-ante A.D. MDCXXVII” (To the Winds-Before 1727). The poem evidently referred to a British fleet dispatched to keep an eye on Britain’s enemies who favoured the Old Pretender, the heir of James II. The last line, “Palmam qui meruit, ferat” (Whoever Hath deserved it let him bear off the palm SIC) probably means “May the best man (Stuart or Hanoverian win”. Later the motto was attached to the arms of Lord Nelson. (p. 338, Howard, Upper Canada College, 1829-1979: Colborne’s Legacy)

Members of the College may not know that Shawnigan Lake School in B.C. shares the motto. The motto itself is nuanced, because there is a stress on “Let he who merits it”; the verb Meruit is thus in the jussive subjunctive which always carries conditions, always carries doubt, with it. Grammarians sometimes call the jussive the hortatory (from the Lat. Verb hortor which is to urge). The most famous of these grammatical constructions is “Fiat Lux” from the Latin Vulgate. Like much of the Bible there is a kind of circularity or absurdity. I mean, why would God have to ask anybody for anything? Who would have the temerity to say no? And it doesn’t have a rhetorical ring to it either, like asking Adam where in the hell (pardon the pun) he was in the garden, or whether he had tasted of the forbidden fruit.

But back to Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat

The ambiguity of the motto is part of its appeal: it raises questions rather than answers. Fundamentally, the best person may be awarded the palm, but then again he might not.

So the motto depends implicitly on justice: who should take the prize, and on what grounds? The laurel wreath in the school crest is entirely Greco-Roman. As recently as the 2000 Olympic Games in Athens, laurel wreaths were awarded to winners of athletic events. In sports, the criteria for merit are prescribed by the rules of the contest. If you run faster than the other guy, jump higher, or lift more, (Pierre de Coubertin’s “citius, altius, fortius) you win. In those terms, not to award the prize to the meritorous is downright heinous. Hence the sports world howled when the Irish were denied a place in the World Cup because of an official’s flagrant disregard for a hand foul. In cricket the sense of fair play was brought into doubt in 1989 when in the last over of a match in a Test between Australia and New Zealand an Australian bowler feebly rolled the ball down the pitch rather than give the New Zealand batsman a real crack at hitting it. Not cricket indeed.

But it is really not about sports that the motto attaches itself, despite the deliberate messaging of the wreath. Rather the motto is implicitly about power: who controls it and who in turn is controlled by it. As such, Palmam qui meruit, ferat is downright troubling. Every contemporary democratic urge wants to dole out dessert equally, or at least on some grounds that ignore the accidents of circumstance that those of us in the Prep gym were facing many years ago.

But this is impossible; you can’t escape valuations of taste, of preference, or truth if you deal in merit.

I arrived at UCC in 1990 as the teacher of Classics and spent nine happy years. In the first instance I was standing in for the inimitable T.P. O’D Bredin, who would almost certainly have something to say about this subject. My grade 12 Latin class (this was just pre IB) was meritorious indeed. In fact they were downright beyond peer. I was opening up door to room 106, a place chock full of character due to my predecessor when the first student I ever met was sitting on the floor reading a book.

The text in question was the Critique of Pure Reason.

“What are you reading?” I asked ingenuously to help me seize up the situation.

“Kant.”

“Wow. That’s a difficult book. Do you understand it?”

“Kant? Nobody does.”

That was the prelude to a year reading the classics with the senior Latinists of Upper Canada College. And read them we did: Virgil, Horace, Catullus and Cicero. It was hard work for them, and for me. That class and my subsequent experiences in the classroom at UCC were the archetype of a great classroom environment, as far as I was concerned. I never quite managed the Olympian heights of that grade 12 class again, but I had plenty of other good ones: Ancient History, English, and then when the IB came in Greek, no walk on the beach as the students and me worked our way through an entire book of Thucydides.

My point in all this is that UCC has always had more than its fair share of merit where teaching and learning is concerned. And there were extra-curricular ventures that were downright professional in their execution and approach (anyone who has seen a production of current Little Theatre magus Dale Churchward knows what I mean). Some of them like hockey, and WAC (World Affairs Conference) high profile and others like digital media and community service, largely behind the scenes.

When I saw merit in the school, it was an exercise in induction: a great actor here, a math phenom there, an act of magnanimity there. The motto sat somewhat removed in the background largely lurking in obscurity and when discussed, mostly misunderstood.

So the meriTALKracy project is about starting a conversation. There is no escaping argument here, and it will take the courage of one’s convictions to honestly put forward propositions about what we mean by merit. Could it be, to borrow a variation of an American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously said in 1964, “I cannot clearly define pornography but I know what it is when I see it”. Sitting as a faculty member in Laidlaw Hall over hundreds if not more assemblies, the boys were remarkably focused when one of their peers was presenting something, well, meritorious. The common denominator was integrity: the student whose speech was painfully honest, the musical performance that exposed someone to failure, the story from an outsider who beat incredible odds.

These and other moments celebrated merit.

What do you think? What is merit to you? How and when does it happen?

Let us know, as they say in the Jussive subjunctive.

EPILOGUE…

Dear reader, I am happy to say that there is a “happily ever after” for my family where UCC is concerned. My two sons both managed to get in! Yesterday I asked the younger of the two, in grade 6, the question posed to me by Principal Sadleir so many years ago.

“What are you reading in English?”

“Shakespeare. Julius Caesar. Dad, did you like the play?”

“No, but you will, and here’s why…”

Adam de Pencier was former head of classics (1991-99) and also taught English, history, and ToK. He is currently Head of School at Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, ON. Adam has two sons at Upper Canada College, Hannibal in Y1, and Finbar in Y2, who is enjoying the study of Latin.

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