09 July 2017

The true meaning of ‘Disce Aut Discede’

[A tribute to Lanil Kalubowila]

The first time I heard the words ‘Disce aut Discede’ not only did I not know what they meant, the fact of my ignorance did not bother me one bit.  The truth is, I didn’t understand most of the words among which these three Latin words were couched. I heard people sing the college song at the Royal-Thomian, I read the lyrics in the Royal College souvenir published to commemorate the occasion, but I didn’t understand.  

I assumed it was English partly because there were many English words that I recognized and partly because I didn’t know that there was a language called Latin or that languages could be mixed.  I knew more about cricket than about the intricacies of language use.  I had heard the word ‘out’ associated with cricket and when faithfully recording the ‘results’ of book cricket played with my brother, I remember writing ‘all aut’ at the end of the innings before adding up the scores of the batsmen and the extras.  

I don’t know when knowledge came to me, but I believe that it took all of us a while to figure out what was what about that which was Latin in the language called English which was quite Greek for many of us.  Most of us learned the college song at the Royal-Thomian.  In later years, the school’s public address system would play it every morning and I suppose that’s how young Royalists learn their school song these days.  

I don’t know when exactly or under what circumstances I learned that ‘Disce aut Discede’ was the motto of the school and that it meant ‘learn or depart’.  I am pretty sure that had I read it before hearing it, I would have butchered the pronunciation.   I did recognize the motto had been embedded in translation in a Sinhala school song (which was not really a translation of ‘School of our Fathers’).  It said උගනිව් නැත පිටවෙනු (‘uganiu netha pitavenu’), a fair enough translation of ‘learn or depart’.  And that’s what it always meant.  You are required to learn and if not it is recommended that you leave.  

Now ‘Disce Aut Discede’ does not belong to Royal College.  It is a common enough motto that many institutions of learned have adopted.   King’s School, Rochester, founded in 604 AD, has it, for example, although we really don’t know when this motto came to be associated with this school.  In Royal’s case, it is said that the motto was first mentioned “during the regime of Principal Todd (1871-1878) who constantly reminded the students that they must learn or get out.”  However, the stone engravings at the entrance to the main building, said to have been obtained from the original building of the school founded in 1835 and then called Colombo Academy, does carry the ‘Disce aut Discede’ legend.  

Knowledge comes slowly in these things. To begin with we didn’t know what a motto was and didn’t know we had one.  Then we found out that we had a motto but didn’t now what it meant.  Then we figured out what it meant or were made to learn the meaning by teachers or prefects.  And by and by we learned that Latin and English were two languages and that there were no native speakers of the former.  There were some Latin lines inscribed in the wall behind the stage in the college hall and some of us noticed them.  Some knew the words, some knew the pronunciation and a few knew the meaning of ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat’ (‘let whoever earns the palm bear it’ or ‘may the person who deserves the crown, wear it’ implying the probably more importantly 'if you don't deserve the crown, don't wear it!') and ‘Labor omnia vincit’ (‘work conquers all’).  ‘Disce aut Discede’ of course was positioned above all else in the matter of maxims picked by the early educationists.   

The motto is in the news these days and a lot is being made of a mispronunciation.  But if we really picked up something from that motto, I believe there’s very little to laugh about.  Let me explain.

Traditionally the Head of State was usually the Chief Guest at the school’s prize giving.  One year (I believe it was either in 1979 or in 1983), President J.R. Jayewardene made a reference to the motto during his speech.  Observing that one has to depart whether or not one learns, he expressed the hope that the relevant authorities would change the motto to ‘Disce et Discede’ (‘learn and depart’).  A batchmate of mine, Lanil Kalubowila, convinced me many years later that we had all got it wrong.  

Lanil was handling Human Resources at the Customs at the time and said that he had seen hundreds of mottos over the course of many years. 

“There were results sheets, leaving certificates and character certificates,” he explained.  

“I am not saying this because I went to Royal, but our motto is the best,” he continued.  

He had by that time gone beyond school and all other identifiers including ethnicity, religion and nation.  My friend Kanishka Goonewardena and I who had known Lanil for more than three decades knew he was being honest about lack of bias.

“There is only one thing that is of true worth in life and that is the acquisition of comprehension.  If you don’t want to ‘learn’ you might as well be dead; in fact you ARE dead.”

That’s what Lanil Kalubowila told us the last time we saw him, about three years ago.  ‘Disce Aut Discede’ is of course open to simple interpretation.  JRJ wasn’t wrong, if one were to take it literally.  But then again, words have multiple meanings and phrases can be read in many ways.  

I prefer Lanil’s interpretation which resonates well with some of the values we picked up during our schooldays and certain lessons, simple lessons, such as this: there’s no glory in ridiculing someone on account of ignorance or an error.  

Lanil Kalubowila departed not long thereafter, but not on account of a refusal to learn.  I like to think that he had gathered all that he could in this lifetime given circumstances that are tragic as well as heroic but which do not require elaboration.  He learned, he taught and he departed.  We learned and are still learning.  And among the things we are learning is that ‘Disce Aut Discede’ is no laughing matter (whether or not those who picked it among many possible mottos, were aware of all this) 



Enslaved by YoungSLmistress said...

Definitely it is a great motto for building up successful achievable personal ... I sincerely hope Mr. Ranil wickramasinghe and his Royalist clan now running Or ruining the country live up to the motto s meaning....

Dee Jay said...

ammata diskade

Unknown said...

Agree ours is a simple and clear motto.
One should not have any other choice but to learn in school,both of books and men.
Sad to hear about Lanil.
May he RIP.

Anonymous said...

Disce Au Ammata Discaadi - the infamous words of a certain politician cum nincompoop, who was sadly an alumni of Royal College?!

Malinda Words said...

He was not an alumni